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.