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Splitting The Baby In Copenhagen

Since 2002, the Copenhagen Consensus--sponsored by the Danish government and the vaguely-Ikean Tuborg Foundation--has considered itself an unprecedented arbiter of global priorities. Each weeklong pow-wow "takes stock of the world’s biggest problems and their solutions," asking as a point of departure: "Imagine you had $75bn to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do, and where should we start?"

CC 2008 convened at the end of May to answer anew that question. As usual, a few dozen leading economists and area experts met to tackle "ten challenges" that face the planet, and small groups produced position papers on their analyses of said challenges. These broad categories include "conflicts," "sanitation and water," "education," "terrorism" and "women and development."  Reason has a good rundown of the 2008 program. The conclusions seem fairly obvious but at times, surprise in their simplicity.

For example, the number three Copenhagen Consensus priority is fortifying foods with iron and iodized salt. Two billion people do not have enough iron in their diets which results in energy sapping anemia and cognitive deficits in children and adults. Lack of iodine stunts both physical and intellectual growth. More than 30 percent of developing country households do not consume iodized salt.

It's nice to see someone try to tally up the challenges facing our species and propose flexible, multipurpose solutions. But, Reason goes on:

So what proposed solutions are at the bottom of the list? At number 30, the lowest priority is a proposal to mitigate man-made global warming by cutting the emissions of greenhouse gases. This ranking caused some consternation among the European journalists at the press conference. Nobelist and University of Maryland economist Thomas Schelling noted that part of the reason for the low ranking is that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits.

Yowch. More pearls from the "we can't afford to act" chorus. Two thoughts in response: Cost-benefit analyses have their place in discussions of how to save the world. Resources are finite, after all. But the CC's cold calculus can be dangerous and impractical (combating terrorism, eg, is ranked poorly, because "we get just nine cents of value for every dollar spent trying to stop terrorists").

And--as I've flogged consistently--environmentalists in particular have embraced a more interdisciplinary approach to their desired end of curbing global warming. Many understand the need to examine poverty, refugees, water wars and the built environment across the globe as part of any logical response to climate change. Even the now-mainstream refrain of "reducing our dependence on foreign oil" contains a whiff of the geopolitical in its essentially environmental frame. So the CC attempt to re-silo the argument on climate action seems out of step with proliferating green activism and policymaking.

Relatedly, more than a few suspect the now-biennial conferences are an elaborate smoke screen for the stubborn views of one anti-Kyoto crusader, Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg, a founding partner of the Copenhagen program, thinks we could be allocating capital much more effectively than to throw it down the rathole of greenhouse gas caps. Here he is in 2004, writing, ironically, through an either/or lens that pits poverty and disease against climate action, or--dare I say--consensus.

I'm not sure this delegitimizes any of the other duly-diligent analyses and recommendations from the experts flown out for Lomborg's project. But the agenda-driven "consensus" makes the gathering seem a little more Dharma Initiative than Manhattan Project.

--Dayo Olopade