Copenhagen Con ?

by John Quiggin on May 24, 2004

I’ve written a couple of posts critical of the Copenhagen Consensus exercise being run by Bjorn Lomborg’’s Environmental Assessment Institute and The Economist. The stated objective is to take a range of problems facing developing countries, and get an expert panel to form a consensus on which ones should be given the highest priority. This is a reasonable-sounding idea, and the process has produced some useful contributions in the form of papers by experts arguing the importance of particular problems.

There are however, two big difficulties.

The first is that the underlying idea is much trickier than it sounds at first sight. Suppose, for example, you come to the conclusion that malnutrition is a bigger problem than disease. That presumably doesn’t mean that you should cut health budgets to zero and spend all the money on food. Presumably, the implication is that, at the margin, it would be a good idea to redirect resources from general health to nutrition. But such a conclusion is inevitably going to be specific to particular countries, or even particular regions. How can a general conclusion be drawn?

The problem is even worse when you come to look at things like “conflicts” and “governance and corruption”. In what sense can you prioritise and rank improving governance and corruption or reducing conflict relative to malnutrition and disease. It ought to be obvious that these are not alternative expenditure items in a budget. Rather the effectiveness of anything you might want to do to reduce malnutrition and disease will be drastically undermined by the prevalence of conflict and corruption. Conversely, poverty and deprivation are natural sources of conflict and corruption. I don’t assert that this is an insoluble vicious circle, but I don’t think it’s amenable to being solved in a six-month, part-time exercise by ten people, no matter how brilliant.

The second big problem is the joker in the pack, climate change. Lomborg is well-known for making the argument that money spent on mitigating climate change would be better allocated to improving sanitation and providing clean drinking water, which just happens to be another of the ten challenges. (I’ve criticised Lomborg’s argument here). So there’s a natural suspicion that the whole exercise is designed to provide support for Lomborg’s position and that the idea of ranking development challenges in general is a cynical cover.

There are a couple of ways we could check on this. First, we could wait and see what the panel comes up with. If they reject the whole idea of ranking on the grounds I’ve set out above, I’ll be impressed and surprised. If climate change is ranked highly, or even if it ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack, and is not much discussed in the final analysis, I’ll admit that my concerns were baseless. To see the whole thing as a setup, two conditions would need to be met:

  • climate change would need to be at or near the bottom of the rankings
  • this finding would need to receive a lot of attention in the reporting of the results

It’s the second point that’s crucial in my view. Having seen a lot of top 10 lists in my time, the big interest is usually in the top two or three places and in arguments about whether the right winners were chosen. The also-rans rarely get much attention. So it would be surprising, in a legitimate exercise of this kind, if attention was focused on the bottom places.

For those who are too impatient to apply these checks, you could look at what Lomborg himself has to say. He certainly doesn’t seem to be in much doubt about the outcome.

{ 20 comments }

1

Matthew 05.24.04 at 2:45 pm

It’s also strange how he always reminds us that the forecasts of the cost of global warming are uncertain, but then doesn’t mention the estimates of the costs of stopping it are also uncertain.

2

P O'Neill 05.24.04 at 3:33 pm

Perhaps the whole thing is intended more as a negative exercise — can 10 experts in 6 months come up with anything worse than the entire spectrum of development agencies have managed over the last 40 years? See D^2’s post last week on the World Bank’s latest fad.

3

"Mindles H. Dreck" 05.24.04 at 3:59 pm

Matthew:
From John’s freeper link above: “Estimates indicate that the total cost of global warming will be about $5 trillion (£2.8 trillion). This calculation is unavoidably uncertain.”

He raised you by an ‘unavoidably’.

I read Lomborg’s book and he clearly allows uncertainty in cost as well as benefit and impact estimates.

4

Matthew 05.24.04 at 4:10 pm

Er no, that’s exactly what I said, i.e. Lomberg says the

“cost of global warming are uncertain”

5

Bill Carone 05.24.04 at 5:08 pm

John,

“Having seen a lot of top 10 lists in my time, the big interest is usually in the top two or three places and in arguments about whether the right winners were chosen.”

I may be misunderstanding you here, but it seems newsworthy if a clear favorite ends up near the bottom; you would expect lots of publicity of such an event, right? So I don’t think your second condition proves anything; I suspect it follows from the first.

Without that, it seems, you can’t distinguish between

– getting a correct result that happens to agree with Lomborg, and
– the whole thing is just a set up.

I agree broadly about your ranking issues; however, I don’t think it is bad to do a study saying things like “Even though everyone is worried about A, we should instead focus more on B, C, and D, because, in a broad, ham-handed, approximate way, we can suggest that these are, on average, doing more damage and/or are more easily fixed, and here’s how we did it.” especially if the differences are large or astonishing.

Rankings are one way of communicating such results to people, and so I don’t think they are quite as bad as you think; I certainly don’t think it necessarily proves that the whole thing is a set-up.

“[Lomborg] certainly doesn’t seem to be in much doubt about the outcome.”

Again, this doesn’t distinguish between

– Lomborg knows quite a bit about this already and is placing his bets, and
– the whole thing is just a set up.

As for my last point, I can’t seem to phrase it in a non-snotty-sounding way, so take the following as a real question rather than as a snipe:

In two of your posts, you seem to say “Here is the way I will judge Lomborg: if he agrees with me in the end, I’ll agree with his studies; otherwise, I will say he is stupid, deceptive, and ignorant.” Is this what you are arguing? If not, how is it different from:

“First, we could wait and see what the panel comes up with. If they reject the whole idea of ranking on the grounds I’ve set out above, I’ll be impressed and surprised. If climate change is ranked highly, or even if it ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack, and is not much discussed in the final analysis, I’ll admit that my concerns were baseless.”

and

“If, contrary to my expectation, the panel correctly concludes that a global emissions trading system for greenhouse gases would both contribute to the mitigation of global warming and, by transferring tens of billions of dollars to poor countries, facilitate meeting the other challenges, I’ll happily, if a bit shamefacedly, take back everything I’ve said in criticism of Lomborg.”

If you are arguing this, it seems that you are assuming you are right and that no study could possibly prove you wrong.

6

Birgitte 05.24.04 at 6:34 pm

As a response to Lomborg’s conference, a parallel conference ‘Global Conscience’ is taking place in Copenhagen at the same time (http://www.globalconscience.dk/indeng.htm).

Also, a rather interesting and long discussion between participants in the two conferences was broadcasted yesterday on Danish tv (in English); if anyone’s interested it can be found at http://www.dr.dk/nyheder/tv/deadline_dr2/article.jhtml?articleID=43080 – choose the “22:30 søndag” link, and go fast forward for ca 7 minutes.

7

Birgitte 05.24.04 at 7:02 pm

For some reason the discussion is cut in the middle. The second half is found at http://www.dr.dk/nyheder/tv/2sektion/ – there’s a grey box with the text:
“2. sektion.
Hver søndag kl. 22:50
Se seneste udsendelse” – choose the ‘se seneste udsendelse’ link.

8

MattB 05.24.04 at 8:26 pm

What Bill said. Funny how everyone seems to jump on Lomborg as worse than Bush, with everything he says inherently distrusted, when the most parsimonious [sp] explanation is that he is truly concerned about making a better world with limited resources and attention. IMO.

9

Matt Weiner 05.24.04 at 8:31 pm

Lomborg:

The cost of the Kyoto Protocol will be at least $150 billion a year, and possibly much more. If we were to go even further — as many suggest — and curb global emissions to their 1990 levels, the total net cost to the world would be about $4 trillion extra — comparable to the cost of global warming itself.

I don’t detect uncertainty there, except at the top end. If he allows uncertainty about cost in his book, he doesn’t seem to allow it in his pronouncements to the public–which suggests that those pronouncements are special pleading rather than an attempt to get at the truth.
(And it’s not because Lomborg lacked space to explain the nuance. If he wanted to indicate uncertainty about the cost side, he could’ve changed “would” to “could.” “c” takes up less space than “w.”)

10

Sebastian Holsclaw 05.24.04 at 10:54 pm

“It’s also strange how he always reminds us that the forecasts of the cost of global warming are uncertain, but then doesn’t mention the estimates of the costs of stopping it are also uncertain.”

That is because the uncertainty points in different directions. In order to get to very costly scenarios of global warming you have to go with the less likely ones. The uncertainty tends toward the lest catastrophic outcomes. With the cost of government programs it is highly likely that costs are underestimated (in almost all cases the costs grow dramatically when compared with the forecasts). If both of the uncertainties go toward their more likely outcomes you get far fewer costs for global warming and far greater expenditures from the government.

11

John Quiggin 05.24.04 at 11:15 pm

Bill and others are missing the point. No-one except Lomborg has raised the suggestion that mitigating climate change should be addressed in the context of aid to developing countries. Here’s a standard list of Millennium Goals, in which climate change doesn’t even get a mention. The sustainability heading includes Lomborg’s favorite stalking horse, clean water, but has nothing on climate change.

This isn’t surprising. The most immediate consequences of climate change, such as species extinction, are of more concern to rich countries than to poor ones, and rich countries will bear all the costs of mitigation for decades to come (in fact, in a typically sneaky trick, Lomborg in TSE rules out low-cost options like emissions trading because they would involve transfers of billions of dollars to poor countries, which he says is politically infeasible).

In the light of the above, a report on development priorities that laid great stress on the fact that climate change wasn’t the top one would seem odd to say the least. I think we all know that’s going to be the headline coming out of the Copenhagen consensus.

12

Zak Catem 05.25.04 at 12:56 am

Well, of course we know what the outcome of the Copenhagen Consensus will be. We can also make a fairly solid prediction about the priorities of the Global Conscience symposium. So what?

What I’d like to see is a more coherent response from Lomborg’s detractors this time than we saw when his book was released. Right or wrong, the reactions of prominent environmentalists like E.O. Wilson and Stuart Pimm left me wondering if they actually had any solid criticisms to make. Lomborg may be nothing but a shill for industry, but the green movement lets itself down when it rejects plausible, persuasive counter-arguments in favour of furious name-calling.

13

John Quiggin 05.25.04 at 2:30 am

zak, for a start I’d restate the point I made in the previous post, and at more length here Key extract:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cites a range of model estimates of the costs of implementing Kyoto using market mechanisms. They show that, with a global system of emission rights trading, the cost of implementing Kyoto would range from 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

“Lomborg dismisses global emissions trading as politically infeasible because it would involve the redistribution of billions of dollars to developing countries (page 305). But then he turns around (page 318) and attacks alternative ways of implementing Kyoto by suggesting that the billions required could be better spent – by redistributing them to developing countries.”

Either way you resolve this contradiction, Lomborg’s case against Kyoto collapses.

14

Zak Catem 05.25.04 at 3:33 am

Absolutely. No argument at all on the economics of the situation. Economists have had no trouble dismantling Lomborg’s arguments about climate control, pretty much from the day that the book was released. And I suppose I should be satisfied by that, since Lomborg claims to be basing his case around economic arguments.

Nevertheless, I still feel a little let down by the poor showing I saw from prominent environmentalists. Pimm, at the very least, should have been able to easily refute much of what Lomborg said about deforestation and biodiversity, since he’s spent a considerable portion of his career in studying those problems. In the responses he made, he seemed to spend more time playing the man, and not the ball.

It seemed to me that Lomborg offered the environmental lobby an ideal opportunity to respond authoritatively to their critics, and I’m disappointed that they preferred to undermine their own credibility by hurling invective and trying Lomborg for scientific dishonesty in an academic kangaroo court.

15

Bill Carone 05.25.04 at 4:22 am

“No-one except Lomborg has raised the suggestion that mitigating climate change should be addressed in the context of aid to developing countries. … a report on development priorities that laid great stress on the fact that climate change wasn’t the top one would seem odd to say the least.”

I am very confused (that, at least, is obvious :-)

I look at the Consensus site, and it says: “The world is faced with a countless number of challenges such as diseases, environmental degradation, armed conflicts and financial instability. … Ten challenges representing some of the world’s biggest concerns have been identified.”

Let me make some claims:

1) Global warming has to be on this list, no matter what? If it weren’t, there are scads of pundits who would ask for Lomborg et. al. to be shot, right?

2) I am not an expert, but I suspect that if people were to rank ten of the world’s biggest concerns, global warming would be high on their lists.

3) If the result gives a low rank to global warming, then that would be newsworthy (because of 2), and should be publicized. It might be (again because of 2 and the current popularity of talking about global warming) the most newsworthy thing to come out of the study.

So, here seems to be an explanation of why global warming has been included, and why, if it is ranks low, that a report would emphasize it.

I don’t see why 1,2, or 3 necessarily shows that Lomborg is being tricky.

16

John Quiggin 05.25.04 at 5:21 am

Bill, there’s a switch going on here with the meaning of “the world”. Obviously, global warming is a problem for the world, but it’s a problem caused mainly by the developed world and one that will have to be fixed by the developed world.

It’s pretty clear if you look at the Copenhagen consensus that what is meant by “the world” there is the developing world. Problems like terrorism and the risk of nuclear war don’t appear in their list, for example, except as they impinge on poor countries.

And there’s no suggestion in the Copenhagen setup of a genuinely global approach. It’s taken for granted that we’re talking about the allocation of aid budgets that are trivial in relation to the income of rich countries.

17

derrida derider 05.25.04 at 6:15 am

Oferchrissakes, John – no, the Copenhagen Consensus project is hardly likely to revolutionise the world, yes it may have an ideological cast (though I’d be very reluctant to dismiss in advance the output of some of the people on it), and yes one of the reasons it will not revolutionise the world is because foreign aid is a trivial part of world GDP (but isn’t the project in part an attempt to change that?).

But none of that means that it must be a dishonest setup – given the panel participants I’d lay quids its output is a lot better than the Global Conscience love-in. Why don’t you wait and see what they actually say before you criticise it?

PS: I agree with zak that the enviromentalist response to Lomborg has played the man rather than the ball far too much – that special issue of Scientific American in particular was a disgrace.

18

Sebastian Holsclaw 05.25.04 at 5:31 pm

My memory of the Kyoto is that the market method you discuss was not on the table as the main implementation method. Did that change dramatically at some point? Or am I just wrong?

19

Giles 05.25.04 at 7:41 pm

First you attack Lomborg on the basis of his cositings then you wrote

“Most economists who have looked at the ecological costs of climate change conclude that, while they are almost impossible to evaluate in monetary terms, they are sufficient to justify substantial action. “

So you’re really saying that even if my figures are wrong, I’m still right. And then youlaugh at Nordhaus when he tries to value the ecosystem, but come up with no estimate yourself.

Sure Lomborg’s challenge for a ranking is crude, but to argue against his rankings people are going to have to think about valuing all these intangible issues; that I think is its real purpose. So it’s a challenge to all these communities out three to either put up or shut up. Which cant be bad.

20

John Quiggin 05.25.04 at 9:22 pm

dd, I’ve set out my concerns in advance because an ex post assertion that a process was rigged is bound to be dismissed as sour grapes.

More generally, it’s striking that, in all the comments thus far, no one has questioned the premise that the results of this exercise are utterly predictable and that they will have almost nothing to do with the purported task of ranking development goals.

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