Prioritizing ‘inconvenient truths’

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Hunger and disease vs. climate change – the UN asks which of these is more important to saving the world?

Given a notional $50 billion, how would the ambassadors spend it to make the world a better place? Their conclusions were strikingly similar to the Copenhagen Consensus. After hearing presentations from experts on each problem, they drew up a list of priorities. The top four were basic health care, better water and sanitation, more schools and better nutrition for children. Averting climate change came last.

The ambassadors thought it wiser to spend money on things they knew would work. Promoting breast-feeding, for example, costs very little and is proven to save lives. It also helps infants grow up stronger and more intelligent, which means they will earn more as adults. Vitamin A supplements cost as little as $1, save lives and stop people from going blind. And so on.

Why does climate change score so low?

For climate change, the trouble is that though few dispute that it is occurring, no one knows how severe it will be or what damage it will cause. And the proposed solutions are staggeringly expensive.

See also this comprehensive post by Owen that takes stock of the world’s progress towards ‘making poverty history’ one year after Gleneagles.

Update: Bjorn Lomberg, organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, has more:

Here’s one fact to consider: the entire death toll from the Southeast Asian tsunami is matched each month by the number of worldwide casualties of HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive prevention program providing free or cheap condoms and information about safe sex to the regions worst affected by HIV/AIDS would cost $27 billion and save more than 28 million lives. This, say the economists who took part in the Copenhagen Consensus, makes it the single best investment that the world could possibly make. The social benefits would outweigh the costs by 40 to one...

Regardless of whether we agree with the economists, everybody must admit that we cannot do everything at once. Discussing our priorities is crucial. Often, politicians avoid prioritization. Why? The glib answer is because it is hard. There are many interested parties. No group wants their solution to come last, and no government wants its country’s national challenges to be overlooked.

Lomberg is also the editor of a new book coming out: How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place.

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