Thinking about the Copenhagen Consensus


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

The Copenhagen Consensus was a project organized by Denmark’s Environmental Assesment Institute, meant to identify areas where relatively modest sums could lead to large improvements in human welfare. Unsurprisingly, most of the initiatives most strongly endorsed involved things like improving basic health and nutrition, as well as the control of infectious diseases. Almost without a doubt, these are the things that can produce the biggest gains in human welfare for the lowest cost. They should all be funded, using any available mechanisms for doing so.

At the bottom of their cost-benefit ranking come schemes to tackle climate change. This is a methodology that I feel inclined to challenge on a couple of grounds. Firstly, it’s fallacious to say that we have a simple choice between providing clean water in impoverished areas and developing less carbon intensive forms of electrical generation. There isn’t a set lump of spending to be allocated to one activity or another. When a government spends money to deploy aid supplies and sandbags to a flooded area, it should do so by dipping into funds for long-term environmental management.

Secondly, it may well be that things exist that are both exceptionally expensive and still necessary. When it comes to climate change, we are talking about the long-term habitability and character of the planet. This isn’t something that can be reasonably thought about in standard cost terms, because the value of it does not discount as we look farther into the future.

What is necessary to complete the Copenhagen Consensus project is an awareness of politics. It’s wonderful to know which areas can profit most handsomely from modest investment, but we must be mindful of the decision making processes that go into the allocation of such funding. We must take the sensible and identify the plausible within it. On the issue of climate change, that probably means continued efforts to learn just what the changes will entail, in terms of human beings and the planet’s biological and climatological systems. It also means developing means for mitigating the problems that are already certain to arise: especially for those who lack extensive means of their own to either deal with the problem of climate change or its consequences.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 8, 2006 at 11:54 pm

There’s also the matter of asymmetry. Spending a billion dollars on providing micro-nutrients to children will do about the same amount of good now as it will in twenty years. By contrast, spending now to stop a problem from getting really severe could be much more valuable than spending the same amount to mitigate it later.

This clearly holds both for things like AIDS and things like climate change.

Kerrie March 9, 2006 at 7:35 am

I just realized that the Oxford building you have used in your title banner looks like a giant duck, if you look at it long enough.

Also, yes let’s all stop AIDS and prevent climate change.

Anonymous March 9, 2006 at 11:22 am

That building is called the Radcliffe Camera, built by James Gibbs between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library.

. March 14, 2012 at 9:24 pm

More than 160m children in developing countries suffer from a lack of vitamin A; 1m die because they have weak immune systems and 500,000 go blind each year. Iron deficiency causes anaemia, which affects almost half of poor-country children and over 500m women, killing more than 60,000 of them each year in pregnancy. Iodine deficiency—easily cured by adding the stuff to salt—causes 18m babies each year to be born with mental impairments.

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