We should concentrate on preventing the spread of AIDS, malaria and remedying dietary deficiencies, rather than waste money on climate change, says Bjørn Lomborg

The World Economic Forum’s mission is improving the state of the world. Ideally, dealing with the world’s woes would be simple: we ought to deal with them all. We should win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, improve education and halt climate change. Yet we manifestly don’t do all good things. Therefore, I think the Forum should be at the forefront making us ask the hard question: “If we don’t do it all, what should we do first?” We live in a world of limited resources. That means we have a moral obligation to spend every dollar doing the most good that we can. We need to start talking about priorities.

Tough choices

Such a task is ideally suited to the open and inquisitive spirit of the Forum. And it is all the more necessary because priorities are rarely clearly espoused by political leaders, for reasons that are entirely understandable.

Politicians want to seem to give everything to everybody. And they have to work with bureaucracies, which are naturally disinclined to have their efforts prioritized – while they would love to be number one, they would hate to be anything less. Prioritization is also unappealing because we not only have to say where we should do more of something, but also where we should do the same or less. That could be seen as cynical or uncaring.

Yet, not talking about prioritization does not make it go away. The implicit priorities simply become less clear, less democratic and less efficient. Refusing to prioritize and dealing mainly with the problems that create the most hype is wrong. Imagine doctors at a perpetually-overrun hospital refusing to perform triage on casualties, merely attending to patients as they arrived, fast-tracking those whose families made the most fuss. Not prioritizing is unjust, wastes resources and costs lives.

So what should be our top global priorities? The Forum actually made its first stab at answering this question in January 2005, when a town hall meeting asked all the Davos participants to rank the top problems in the world. They answered that the top three were poverty, equity and climate change.

But for all the good intentions, the question was fundamentally wrong. It does not make sense to ask what the biggest problems are without considering the cost of providing the solutions – assuming that they exist. In some sense, the biggest problem in the world is that we all die, but we don’t have a good solution to this problem. And we should not give top priority to problems we do not know how to solve.

This is the central flaw with the Davos 2005 priorities. It is not clear that first-world countries have any good solutions to third-world inequity, so should this really be top of our to-do list? Likewise, although we know how to solve climate change problems (stop carbon emissions), we need to consider the costs of doing good versus spending this money elsewhere. And we can address poverty in many different ways, some efficient, some inefficient. This is the hard part about prioritizing. It is not enough to say we want to do good, we should make sure we do the best we can with our limited resources.

The best solutions

The correct question is not: “What are the biggest problems?” but rather: “What are the best solutions?” This forces us to look at specific proposals, and to compare costs and benefits. A first answer to this question was given in a ground-breaking project involving several of the world’s top economists at the Copenhagen Consensus in 2004. A dream team of eight economists, including four Nobel Laureates, answered the basic question: “If the world had, say, $50 billion extra to spend doing good in the world, on which projects could that money be best spent?”

The top priority turned out to be to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus. A comprehensive prevention programme would cost $27 billion. Yet, the social benefits would be immense. Such a programme would avoid more than 28 million new cases of HIV/AIDS by 2010, with huge knock-on benefits. This is the best investment the world could possibly make, reaping social benefits that outweigh the costs by 40 to one. Similarly, providing the micro-nutrients missing from more than half the world’s diet would reduce diseases caused by iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A deficiency with an exceptionally high ratio of benefits to cost. If we could only find the political will, establishing free trade could be achieved – at a very low cost – with benefits of up to $2,400 billion a year. Dealing with malaria would create benefits at least five times the costs. Mosquito nets and effective medication could halve the incidence of malaria and would cost $13 billion.

The list goes on to focus on agricultural technologies to tackle hunger, and water technologies to handle food production and the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.
If the Copenhagen Consensus showed us what we should be doing, it also showed what shouldn’t be done right now. The experts rated responses to climate change extremely low on the “to-do” list. In fact, the panel called these ventures – including the Kyoto Protocol – “bad projects”, simply because they cost more than the good they do.

The cost of Kyoto

This does not mean we should ignore climate change. Global warming is real. But even if America participated, Kyoto will make an almost imperceptible difference to the process of climate change (postpone temperature increases from 2100 to 2106) at a substantial cost (about $150 billion per year). So, when we have scarce resources, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to do a lot of good now or a little good much later. We need to ask if we can do more for the world by investing differently.

Far from suggesting laissez-faire, this question addresses the pressing problem of
prioritization head on. Why did thousands die in Haiti during the recent hurricanes and not in Florida? Because Haitians are poor. They cannot take preventive measures. Breaking the cycle of poverty by addressing the most pressing issues of disease, hunger and polluted water will not only do obvious good, it will make people less vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The Forum has courageously put the prioritization of global problems high on the Davos agenda. Now is the time to get the priorities right. The urgent problem of the poor majority of this world is not climate change. Their challenges are very basic: not dying from easily-preventable diseases; not being malnourished from lack of simple micro-nutrients; and not being prevented from exploiting opportunities in the global economy by lack of free trade.

We can prevent people contracting the AIDS virus by handing out condoms and improving health education. We can prevent millions dying from malnutrition by simple vitamin supplements. These are not space-age technologies, but simple necessities that the world needs.

This is the message the Forum should promote. We can solve a lot of the world’s most serious challenges. It would be a great investment in the planet’s future. Doing the best things first is simply the right thing to do.

CV Bjørn Lomborg

Bjørn Lomborg is the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, editor of the book Global Crises, Global Solutions, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and a Young Global Leader (WEF).