The Copenhagen Consensus

In a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial published July 8, K.A. Strassel reports on a new and recent ‘Copenhagen Consensus‘ (CC) meeting in Georgetown, arranged by Bjørn Lomborg, a controversial Danish public figure. I personally find the name ‘The Copenhagen Consensus’ a misnomer because it does not reflect what it is all about – I think that ‘The Lomborg exercise’ would be a more appropriate name. The WSJ article and the Lomborg meeting do not involve much science in my opinion, but are mere political exercises. However, since the CC, Lomborg, and the WSJ editorial in my opinion employ rhetorical means for downplaying the importance of climate change, the story warrants a comment on the RC forum. I will try to expose the poorly hidden communication concerning the climate change. Thus, the focus of this post is on the communication concerning climate change as well as the logic behind the arguments.

Lomborg gave the CC participants (that included some ambassadors, most notably the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton) an exercise, where he asked them to rank (prioritize) a number of problems according to which to be solved first if they had an extra 50 billion US$ to spend. The ranking was done among a number of worthy causes such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, clean water, poverty, climate change, etc. Before proceeding, I think it is important to ask what we can learn from such an exercise. Topics such as HIV/AIDS (‘Communicable Diseases’) topped the list, but different problems involve different temporal and spatial scales, so framing the problem within a 5-year context already biases the outcome (to be fair, this is acknowledged in the editorial). Does it mean that the longer-term and more global problems such as climate change is less important? Is it valid to think that one can only address one problem at the time, and that there is just one actor? (Ever heard of teamwork, where different people have different tasks?) When there are several pressing problems, sometime all must be addressed, even if some economist manages to place a different price on each of them (how would they know how to put a real price on e.g. climate change?). What if we asked you to choose between breathing, eating, drinking, or providing shelter? (breathing would of course carry a higher price – at least on a short-term scale – than shelter). Thus, the problem with the Lomborg exercises is that it is framed – biased – in such a way to ignore long term strategic decision in favor for short term fixes (so-called ‘fire extinguishing’).

It also seems to be that it is a given in the Lomborg exercise that all efforts aiming at reducing climate change is extremely costly – never mind that alternative and renewable energy sources may reduce the critical dependency of finite energy sources and improve energy security. I also get the impression that people like Lomborg often do not distinguish wasteful use of energy from productive use – surely burning off the fuel more quickly driving big guzzling cars must be less sensible than using a tractor to produce food? Improved energy efficiency can furthermore go hand-in-hand with lower levels of pollution, but is it not typical to neglect part of the equation to the total cost? An aside to this issue is the focus by some contrarians on the exaggerated degree of uncertainty associated with a climate change on the one hand, and then the statement of how expensive mitigation is on the other. The point is that costs cannot be assessed unless one knows the whole equation – i.e. how bad the consequences will be.

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