Copenhagen: conned again

by John Quiggin on December 13, 2004

In previous posts on Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus exercise, both before and after the event, I expressed the suspicion that the whole thing was a setup, designed to push Lomborg’s favorite line that money spent on implementing the Kyoto protocol would be better allocated to foreign aid projects of various kinds. (I’ve pointed out some contradictions in Lomborg’s general argument, here).

However, I thought some good could come of the exercise, if the conclusions were taken seriously. In my last post, I observed

As attentive readers will recall, the conference concluded that fighting AIDS should be the top global priority in helping developing countries and also that climate change mitigation was a waste of money. I agree with the first of these conclusions, and more generally with the need for more spending on health poor countries, and I hope that Lomborg will put some effort into supporting it. I’ll try to keep readers posted on this.
Now Lomborg has revealed his priorities. Chris points to an article by Lomborg in the Telegraph. The supposed top priority item, initiatives to combat AIDS, gets two passing mentions. The entire article, except for a couple of paras, is devoted to the pressing need to do nothing about global warming.

It’s obvious from reading this piece that the entire lavishly funded Copenhagen exercise was a put-up job, designed to secure impressive-sounding endorsements for Lomborg’s anti-Kyoto agenda, and that the supposed concern for making good use of aid funding was a hypocritical scam. A lot of work went into relative rankings for different health policies, but I don’t expect to hear anything from Lomborg on this score. Similarly, I doubt we will ever see him campaigning for more funding for AIDS programs, as opposed to using them as a cheap anti-Kyoto debating point.

If I was one of the eminent economists who participated in the ranking exercise, or who submitted papers supporting various initiatives, I would be feeling really angry with Bjorn Lomborg right now.

{ 33 comments }

1

Anthony 12.13.04 at 5:55 am

To be fair, if you were convinced that global warming would be a wast of money, which could be better spent on other foreign aid projects, arguing against funding for global warming would at least help the long-term goal of increasing funding for other projects.

But you’re right. It does suggest that the focus on AIDS and world health was primarily for rhetorical effect. Out of curiosity (being that I’m generally unfamiliar with Lomborg’s views), what do you think he would prefer governments to spend money on? I suppose he could think that fighting AIDS is the top priority despite having his own agenda, or could think that it is important but unlikely to recieve widespread support from the developed world.

2

doctor k 12.13.04 at 6:03 am

I don’t follow your logic. If Lomborg is writing about global warming, it seems OK that he uses most of the text to refer to that and the whole Copenhagen thing had only little mention. Now, if he was writing about Copenhagen and if he did little mention of the priorities and dedicated most of the space to warming then you may have evidence of your suggestion.

3

vik 12.13.04 at 6:35 am

Yes, i agree with the above posters about the logical gap here…in other words, it does make sense that Lomborg would spend most of his time campaigning against the global warming focus if he thinks it is diverting money from more important causes like AIDS, etc. The economic logic his crew use seems compelling and while I agree, its doubtful their motives are pure, their argument really needs to be addressed. The Economist seems pretty convinced too that this is a strong case and as they arent advocating something dumb like using the money to build high ways in the Amazon, maybe liberals should consider refocusing…

4

John Quiggin 12.13.04 at 7:14 am

A great many things are diverting funding from AIDS: in fact, everything else we spend money on falls into this category. So, if you were someone who thought that AIDS was the #1 priority, it seems pretty unlikely that you would continually focus on a single alternative item of expenditure.

If, on the other hand, you are concerned to attack any item of expenditure whatever, it’s usually plausible to argue that the money could be better spent on AIDS.

5

frankis 12.13.04 at 7:18 am

The fact that Lomborg misrepresents the conclusions of his own panel of economists only adds to the suspicion that his original aim was not so much to explore the possibilities as to produce a conclusion in favour of his own political prejudices.

Given that he is writing this kind of thing in the Telegraph today and worrying out loud about what US$150b would buy the world, it’s perhaps a little surprising that he hasn’t also wondered out loud just what the expenditure of a similar sum by the US has bought Iraqis over the past 18 months. At any rate the US’ misadventure in the Middle East shows us that it’s not as though the world doesn’t have $150b to spend as it sees fit, right now. At the moment the economic argument against the invasion of Iraq is looking pretty compelling to me, wonder what Lomborg has to say about that allocation of scant resources? Perhaps economic analysis of human activity’s interaction with the climate is a simpler exercise than cost/benefit on war in Iraq?

6

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.13.04 at 7:42 am

Chris points to an article by Lomborg in the Telegraph. The supposed top priority item, initiatives to combat AIDS, gets two passing mentions. The entire article, except for a couple of paras, is devoted to the pressing need to do nothing about global warming.

Glad to see you come around to this kind of logic. When AI did that with its press releases during the Iraq war (focusing most of the press release on the bombing of the Baathist TV station while relegating Iraqi soldiers who were using civilians as human shields to a mere sentence) I thought pretty much the same thing.

7

Factory 12.13.04 at 8:51 am

SH:
The difference is that AI would prolly quite openly say that the bombing is more important than what the soldiers were doing, wereas Lombard is claiming that he considers AIDS funding more important. It’s this rhetorical inconsistancy which is at issue, not his ability to judge the merits of alternate courses of action.

8

john s 12.13.04 at 9:18 am

But doesn’t Lomborg’s view fit in perfectly with dsquared’s view that very few decisions in business or elsewhere are “now or never”? It is massively more common for a decision to be “now or later”. Furthermore, that corporate finance theory teaches us that the option to wait is usually really quite valuable.

Or is that not the case in this case?

9

bad Jim 12.13.04 at 9:35 am

If we were to assume that global warming were to proceed monotonically, that low-lying places get progressively more warm and marsh-like, we’ll find our habitat increasingly hospitable to the sort of mosquitos that spread malaria.

Perhaps in like fashion, American polities, roiling in fear of untrammeled sexuality, lie to their children and guide them away from practices which reliably protect them from infections and unwanted pregnancies.

The trend looks good for malaria and AIDS.

Look. The reasons for reducing carbon dioxide emissions are obvious at ground level, if you’re an oxygen-breather, like me. In terms of oil we’re getting close to running out of the sweet light crude. Hello, China! Hundreds of millions of Hondas.

Sure, we’ve got close to a millenium’s worth of coal in the bank, but do we want to go back to that? There may be as much in methane hydrates sitting in the ocean, but will we still be recognizably human once our descendents have burned it all?

We think we’re all so smart. Isn’t it time to demonstrate it? Or at least find out whether we are or not?

10

Barry 12.13.04 at 1:20 pm

“If I was one of the eminent economists who participated in the ranking exercise, or who submitted papers supporting various initiatives, I would be feeling really angry with Bjorn Lomborg right now.”

Are there many eminent economists who’d be mad that their names were used to promot right-wing hackwork?

If so, please send them to the US; we need them desperately.

11

Dan Hardie 12.13.04 at 2:46 pm

Shorter Sebastian Holsclaw: You cannot criticise a rightwing writer on climate change in December 2004 without having condemned an Amnesty International press release in Spring 2003 concerning US bombing of an Iraqi TV station. Gotcha, dumb liberal hypocrite!

12

Giles 12.13.04 at 2:46 pm

I expressed the suspicion that the whole thing was a setup, designed to push Lomborg’s favorite line

I would like to now express my suspision that your post is a set up designed to push the line that Lomborg is wrong!

13

Antoni Jaume 12.13.04 at 3:15 pm

Giles, I think that what Lomborg says is wrong. What John Quiggin denotes is rather that this wrongness is not an error but a deliberate act. So it is not so much that Lomborg is wrong than he is a lier.

DSW

14

jet 12.13.04 at 3:32 pm

Funny one Giles.

Lomborg couldn’t get a break from the Left if he set his ass on fire to prove global warming was here and now.

15

jet 12.13.04 at 3:50 pm

-The Copenhagen Consensus gives us great hope because it shows us that there are so many good things we can do. For $27 billion we could prevent 28 million people from getting HIV. For $12 billion we could cut malaria cases by more than a billion a year. Instead of helping richer people inefficiently far into the future, we can do immense good right now.

Yeah, damn him and his fight against Kyoto. Has anyone who attacks him even read his damned book?

16

Barry 12.13.04 at 4:28 pm

Jet, did you even read the post?

17

eudoxis 12.13.04 at 5:08 pm

I think Lomborg’s view is being misrepresented. His position is that the framework of the Kyoto protocol will provide very little, if any, relief from global warming and while demanding great expenditures, while the inevitable effects from global warming (even with implementation of the KP) will present the greatest harm to the poorest nations. Lomborg is campaigning for a focus on dealing with such inevitable effects of global warming. There is a legitimate place for rational argument over the feasability and usefulness of the Kyoto protocol and while money diverted from such a protocol may not necessarily be spent on AIDS, most certainly money spent on KP implementation will never be spent on AIDS. It’s an unrealistic expectation that we all drop our hammers to become AIDS activists.

Unlike the concensus in the scientific community on the anthropogenic contribution to global warming, there is no such consensus that the KP will have the beneficial effects so hoped for.

18

John Emerson 12.13.04 at 5:09 pm

Jet, many of us know enough about Lomborg to mistrust him. You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s bad, and in politics you can never take anyone’s claims at face value. And Lomborg is in politics.

A sort of mental experiment to test whether one issue is being used as a screen to sneak another more important issue in is the “failure question.”

If, 10 years from now, Kyoto has been squelched, but nothing has been done about AIDS in Africa, will Lomborg be crushed and devastated? Or will he be oblivious? I suggest the second: I imagine him saying something like “Oh, gee, really?”

Similarly, if ten years from now the Middle East is controlled entirely by dictatorships friendly to the US and Israel, will today’s fanatical democracy-promoters be crushed (Hi, Sebastian! Great red herring today!), or or will they be quietly satisfied?

Yes, there’s no way to be sure what someone will be feeling in some hypothetical future. But when trying to guess someone’s real goals and motives, as a way of deciding whether you personally trust them or not, this is the kind of question you have to ask.

19

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.13.04 at 5:18 pm

No dan you absolutely can criticize whomever you want. But last time I raised the problem of AI on this site it was pointed out that counting the number, emphasis and order of paragraphs in such public pronouncements was childish. Nice to see that not everyone agrees.

As for Lomborg himself I’m not sure what the criticism is. If you believe that AIDS is one of the more pressing problems in the world and that attention to it is being sucked away by attention to global warming, you can do two logical things. You can attempt to raise the profile of AIDS problems or you can try to decrease the attention paid to global warming. The concepts are not contradictory.

20

Antoni Jaume 12.13.04 at 5:47 pm

mr SH (funny that’s the same for the other SH), Lomborg never cared about AIDS, simply he has found a way to live off right wing money.

DSW

21

dsquared 12.13.04 at 6:12 pm

John S: the option valuation models tend to have a term representing the “dividend yield” of the underlying asset. If something is actually getting worse at a predictable rate while you wait, then the option value is substantially attenuated. So yes, I would certainly have advocated waiting to do something about global warming until we were sure that there was a problem, but it is my personal view that this moment has long since passed.

22

Dan Hardie 12.13.04 at 6:13 pm

Shorter Seb: In discussing possible carbon reductions in December 2004, what really matters is that I’m sulking because someone disagreed with me on an entirely unrelated topic 18 months ago; this proves that *I was right all along* about everything.

23

Dan Hardie 12.13.04 at 6:14 pm

Shorter Seb: In discussing possible carbon reductions in December 2004, what really matters is that I’m sulking because someone disagreed with me on an entirely unrelated topic 18 months ago; this proves that *I was right all along* about everything.

24

jet 12.13.04 at 7:25 pm

John Emerson,

Using the failure equation on Lomborg’s book would leave me thinking that Lomborg would be crushed if nothing was done about the situation in the third world. The only people who are capable of being annoying enough to actually make changes in the world contrary to what is best for profits are the same people pushing Kyoto. It is my belief that Lomborg is trying to get Kyoto off the radar so that group of annoying people can put their annoyingness to much better use, like helping the third world. Imagine if third world aid got as much attention as Kyoto gets. How many votes did foreign aid effect in the last election? How many votes did Kyoto/the environment effect?

Lomborg, in simplest terms, is trying to change the focus of the world activist from the environment to human suffering.

The Left,

Always attacking motives and only scratching at the actions. You can’t possibly know what motivates Lomborg unless you can read minds, so you’ll have to take him at face value. And at face value he’s making a very rational argument that has gathered a lot of irrational attacks. Only mockery for Bush’s 15 billion to Africa, and only mockery for Lomborg’s plea for a realignment of world priorities.

25

nic 12.13.04 at 7:33 pm

Amongst other things, that Amnesty report was the one devoted to the US. Righteous indignation over a report on the US because… it condemned US action. My gosh, that’s so exactly like criticism of Lomborg (and why, oh why should he criticised at all? it really is a mystery!) for dodging the very main issue at the center of his “work”. Why didn’t we see it before.

You can attempt to raise the profile of AIDS problems or you can try to decrease the attention paid to global warming. The concepts are not contradictory.

No, they aren’t. They also aren’t mutually dependent. By what bizarre logic does the former require the latter?

Should more attention to the issue of nuclear waste disposal come at the expense of attention to the issue of obesity? I mean, the two things are not even in the same category of issues. What is it, the theory of communicating vases applied to social policies and public attention??

26

Antoni Jaume 12.13.04 at 7:35 pm

bad, jet, bad. There is no reason to touch “Kyoto” before we touch the war on Iraq, that must already have mispent a tad more than the vaporware 15 billion dollars of aid to Africa.

DSW

27

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.13.04 at 8:18 pm

“Amongst other things, that Amnesty report was the one devoted to the US. Righteous indignation over a report on the US because… it condemned US action.”

Wrong. It was allegedly a condemnation fo ‘war crimes’. Also the discussion was about a month ago.

And hey dan, I’ve been sick lately. If I can’t sulk when I’m sick….

But you are right I shouldn’t have whined. Back to Lomborg. What about it. If you think less serious problem A is detracting significantly from more serious problem B why is it illegitimate as a tactic to show why A isn’t that serious?

Isn’t the real problem that you don’t think AIDS really is more serious? You think that global climate change is more serious. Which is precisely why he has to argue the way he does. First he needs to convince people that climate change is less serious than they think.

28

Mark Upcher 12.14.04 at 12:46 pm

John

I am still an agnostic on Kyoto.

Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus are not just arguing that there are other more worthwhile policies than Kyoto. They are also arguing that Kyoto is a croc – the costs exceed the benefits. In other words not implementing Kyoto will be a net improvement regardless of whether money is spent on projects where benefits exceed the costs. Opposing Kyoto while not crusading for other policies that yield a net benefit is therefore a reasonable position and I see no dishonesty or con-job underlying this.

Doing cost-benefit analysis on global warming requires sweeping assumptions, is fraught with uncertainties, and will reflect the value placed on certain environmental effects. For example, some people are far more concerned about species extinction than others. (I, for one, would be quite happy to see cockroaches extinguished.) Lomborg et. al. are at least making some attempt to quantify their assessment of costs and benefits. Because the pro-Kyoto lobby seem to studiously avoid doing so, and spend most of their time personally attacking Lomborg, it leads me to believe that it is they that are trying to con me.

29

John Quiggin 12.14.04 at 8:04 pm

“Lomborg et. al. are at least making some attempt to quantify their assessment of costs and benefits. Because the pro-Kyoto lobby seem to studiously avoid doing so, and spend most of their time personally attacking Lomborg, it leads me to believe that it is they that are trying to con me.”

Mark, I’ve spent more time attacking Lomborg than most, but I’ve spent more time on costs and benefits of Kyoto and similar environmental initiatives, as you can check from my CV. There’s a ton of literature on the costs of implementing Kyoto and alternatives, and a smaller (but still substantial) volume on costs of climate change (equivalently, benefits of mitigation).

30

jet 12.14.04 at 9:23 pm

Maybe Lomborg should stop fighting Kyoto with third world aid. Perhaps he should start saying why handicap the world to the tune of $150B/year when we could just spend $150B/year on alternative fuel research. That was certainly seem more palatable to everyone since Kytoto’s benefits won’t be seen by us, but alternative fuels certainly would.

31

frankis 12.15.04 at 12:39 am

Lateral thinking Jet! Spending that much on alternative fuels research would be serious overkill though, I think, because even one hundredth that sum (on top of what is already going into such research) would revolutionize our energy economy within a few years.

It could be funded by a carbon tax set at such a minuscule rate – a US$1.5b per annum carbon tax for the world representing about $0.00006 per kg CO2 emitted or about $0.0003 per litre oil consumed (by a quick and dirty calculation on i) world CO2 emissions and ii) world oil consumption, this year) that I don’t think an economic case can be made against it. I mean, if you believe a carbon tax ought to be funding other things as well as fuels research then fine – we can clearly afford to do them as well for this kind money.

That $0.0003 per litre was only for oil, btw. Were the carbon tax spread right across the fossil fuel sector – coal, oil, natural gas, LPG etc – as it ought to be, the already minuscule rate would become “unmeasurably cheap” or somesuch :)

32

Mark Upcher 12.15.04 at 9:36 pm

John, you say ”……I’ve spent more time attacking Lomborg than most, but I’ve spent more time on costs and benefits of Kyoto and similar environmental initiatives, as you can check from my CV. There’s a ton of literature on the costs of implementing Kyoto and alternatives, and a smaller (but still substantial) volume on costs of climate change (equivalently, benefits of mitigation).”

Yes, but many readers of your blogspot or Crooked Timber do not have the time to work their way through the massive amounts of literature on the costs of Kyoto or the benefits of mitigation of global warming.

However, we often hear of a figure of $150 billion pa as the cost of implementing Kyoto (quoted in Lomborg’s article). And we can deduce that Lomborg/Copenhagen Consensus have assessed the benefits as being less than $150 billion pa. In the same way it should be possible for the pro-Kyoto lobby to provide similar estimates that and answer some simple questions:
(1) What do they think the cost of Kyoto compliance is? Is the $150 billion pa in the right ball park?
(2) Based on the smaller but substantial literature on the costs of climate change, what is the range of estimates for the benefits of the mitigation that will occur through the Kyoto initiatives?
(3) If the consensus view of climate modellers is that impact of Kyoto on global warming is a reduction of only 0.15 degrees C out of an expected 1.4-5.8 degrees C over the next 100 years, how can we say that there are any significant benefits from implementation of Kyoto in its current form?

Grateful for any guidance you can provide on these questions.

33

John Quiggin 12.16.04 at 11:05 am

Mark, we’re running off the page, so I’ll try to do a substantive post a bit later.

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