In this first of two articles arguing for and against radical spending on climate change, Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist argues that we should be addressing other problems instead. A response by Green MEP Caroline Lucas was published on Thursday 21 September.
Sometimes, simple ideas are the best ones. And what could be simpler than prioritisation? Nobody can do everything at once. We prioritise in our private lives every day. When we budget. When we plan our day. Businesspeople have to juggle competing demands; so do politicians.
Is it worth spending money to halt the melting?
Yet, when it comes to global issues - the biggest challenges facing the planet - we don't prioritise very well. The media's shifting spotlight often dictates what is most deserving of our attention.
We hear experts warn us about global warming, others tell us about HIV/Aids or about the tragedy of children missing out on education.
In an ideal world, we'd have the resources and ability to fix all the world's biggest challenges at once. Unfortunately, we don't live in that world.
Thus, we need to ask ourselves the difficult question: what should we do first?
Bang for the buck
That's the simple idea that underpins Copenhagen Consensus - a project created in Denmark that aims to put prioritisation on the agenda for the world's decision-makers.
We asked some of the world's top experts to provide us with information about the scale and threats posed by climate change, communicable diseases, conflicts, education, and other major challenges. We then asked: what are the best things to do to address each issue?
Each of the experts came up with the best solutions within their area, identified the cost, and told us the benefit of each solution. As an example, experts told us of the cost of providing malaria nets to ward off malaria, and the exceptional benefits it would have. Experts showed us the best way to ensure drinking water reaches the people who need it.
But talking to individual experts isn't enough. If you ask a climatologist, you're likely to be told that climate change is the biggest issue facing the planet. If you ask a malaria expert she will probably say malaria is the biggest issue.
So, at Copenhagen Consensus we also asked some of the world's top economists to listen to all these arguments, compare all these different "solutions" - each of which would do some good in the world - weigh the costs and benefits, and then come up with their own priority list for where we get the most bang for the buck.
Breaking the circle
Our group included four Nobel laureates. And the top of their "to do" list - what they thought should be the world's top priority - was combating HIV/Aids. A comprehensive program would cost £14 billion, but the potential social benefits would be immense: we'd avoid more than 28 million new cases of HIV/AIDS by 2010. This makes it the single best investment the world could make, reaping social benefits that outweigh the costs by 40 to 1. For every £1 spent, we'd achieve £40 worth of social good.
At the bottom of their list: the experts said current methods to combat climate change, like the Kyoto Protocol, were bad because they would cost more than the good they do. Kyoto would cost £80bn a year for the rest of the century, but only postpone warming six years in 2100. Investing the £14bn that would halve HIV-deaths in Kyoto instead would postpone global warming four days in 2100. For every pound spent on Kyoto, we'd do 2 pennies worth of good.
Arguably, the single most important environmental problem affecting the world right now is indoor air pollution. The UN estimates that indoor air pollution causes 2.8 million deaths annually - almost the same death toll as HIV/Aids. It is caused by poor people cooking and heating their homes with dung and cardboard. But the solution is not environmental - to regulate dung - but rather economic, by ensuring everybody can get rich enough to afford kerosene.
Likewise, hurricanes caused thousands of deaths in Haiti and Honduras but virtually none in Florida, because Haitians are poor and could not take preventive measures.
Breaking the circle of poverty by addressing the most pressing issues of disease, hunger and polluted water, will not only do obvious good, but also make people less vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Not talking about priorities does not make the need to prioritise go away. Instead, the choices only become less clear, less democratic, and less efficient.
A far better option is embracing this simple idea. Rather than questioning prioritisation itself, we should be asking: what should we do first?
Bjorn Lomborg will be arguing his case on Radio 4's Iconoclasts at 2000BST on Wednesday 20 September 2006. His views will be challenged by a panel including Green Party principal speaker Caroline Lucas who will also respond to his arguments here on Thursday 21 September. The programme and transcript are available at the Iconoclasts website