This is neither scepticism nor science – just nonsense

Published in The Guardian, on 23rd October 2004.

The self-proclaimed sceptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has been visible on London’s seminar circuit this week promoting his argument that spending money on climate change is wasteful and that the world would be much better off spending it on halting Aids and providing water and sanitation instead.

Despite his consistent attacks on enviromentalists for exaggerating the planet’s problems, Lomborg is actually no more a sceptic than he is an environmentalist. The latter claim rests solely on his having contributed to Greenpeace in his youth. The former claim is belied by his deep faith in a wholly benign future for the planet. This gives him the same kind of sunny and often appealing optimism that we see in President Bush.

By one of those amazing coincidences that can suddenly snap things into focus, Lomborg was putting his case this week in the building next door to the one in which an unprecedented coalition of environment and development bodies was spelling out, in some detail, exactly how climate change is already intensifying poverty.

He is in London in advance of the publication of a new book on the conclusions of the Copenhagen Consensus. Sponsored by the Economist, Lomborg invited eight Nobel prize winning economists to meet in Copenhagen. Their task was to decide how best to spend a (notional) additional $50bn dollars in order to advance global welfare, particularly in developing countries.

No one can fault Lomborg’s ambition. Getting two economists to agree about something is difficult enough. Getting eight to agree about everything must have been daunting.

To help them on their way the laureates were offered a top 10 list of global challenges, such as disease, hunger, water, migration and climate change, and invited to use cost-benefit analysis to rank them in terms of value for money. To no one’s surprise, they came to the same conclusion as Lomborg on the value of climate change.

The reality is that applying cost-benefit analysis to questions such as these is junk economics. Junk economics done by Nobel laureates is simply distinguished junk economics. Applying the logic of the Copenhagen Consensus to the Iraq war illustrates this nicely.

We, the world that is, have spent at least $200bn in the past year on this war, four times the amount the laureates were asked to allocate. It is not easy to imagine Bush and Blair asking for a cost-benefit analysis on the removal of Saddam to ensure this really was the best way to advance global welfare, but just suppose they had done so.

A legion of economists would have devilled away at a vast array of fascinating questions. What was the cost of the life of one American soldier? How did that compare to the cost of an Iraqi soldier? Were Iraqi civilian casualties to be counted as a cost or a benefit? What is the avoided cost, therefore a benefit, of preventing the launch of one nuclear weapon by Saddam? Should you discount the benefit of preventing subsequent launches to allow for the diminished value of whatever target had first been attacked?

If this sounds like the 21st century equivalent of counting angels on the heads of pins, that is because it is. There is no useful information to be discovered in such an exercise. Whatever else Bush and Blair were wrong about, they were right not to ask for a cost-benefit analysis before going to war.

Cost-benefit analysis is a perfectly sensible tool for helping us make narrow choices – between two different routes for a railway line, for example. Even then, it is fraught with practical difficulties in quantifying all the variables that must be considered. It is no use at all in helping us make wide choices, between going to war and, say, having a healthier population.

Cost-benefit analysis can help you choose different routes to a goal you have agreed, but it cannot help you choose goals. For that we have politics. People disagree about priorities and they do so on a huge variety of legitimate grounds. When they do so, they are not arguing about value for money, but about the kind of world they want to live in.

It is a vanity of economists to believe that all choices can be boiled down to calculations of monetary value. In the real world, outcomes are not so easily managed. A stable climate is something we might now call a system condition for civilisation. That is, it is something without which civilisation is impossible – though it is not, of course, itself a guarantee that there will be civilisation.

The messy world we live in is one in which an unstable climate will guarantee poverty for untold millions. But it is equally one in which, if we fail to solve the problem of poverty much more quickly and cleverly than we are doing at present, we will continue to destabilise the climate. The Lomborg argument that we can delay one until we have solved the other is a cruelly false prospect.

The truth is that the Copenhagen Consensus is not economics at all. It is politics masquerading as economics. The sources for much of Lomborg’s anti-environmentalism can be found on rightwing websites, predominantly American.

The faith-based politics of the new right consistently claims the authority of science or economics whilst ignoring any evidence that does not conform to its pre-judgments. Hence the determined corruption of science by the Bush administration. This has led to a call from over 5,000 scientists, including 62 Nobel laureates, to restore scientific integrity to public policy.

What we are seeing here is the emergence of a new axis of politics. As the 21st century progresses we will increasingly find ourselves debating whether authority or evidence should be the basis for political choice. For the new right the authority of faith is much to be preferred.

Lomborg is entitled to his political opinions, and he is entitled to promote them as vigorously and imaginatively as he can. I disagree with his analysis but I do not doubt his sincerity. The dishonour belongs to those for whom he is a useful pawn.

We would not be debating his views at all were it not for the Economist magazine. Until it chose to give a Danish lecturer in politics of no academic distinction whatsoever the rare accolade of a named essay, the world had remained in peaceful ignorance of Lomborg’s opinions. Without the Economist, there is little likelihood that eight Nobel laureates would have participated in as intellectually corrupt a process as the Copenhagen Consensus.

The Economist’s masthead carries a proud promise by its founder to promote “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy and timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. For much of its life it has lived up to that promise. But its heavy promotion of Lomborg’s faith-based approach to the future suggests that its current editors have changed sides. They should be ashamed.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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