Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Lomborg Fallacy

Actually, there are quite few Lomborg Fallacies all working together to produce this Guardian column. The gist of which is contained in the following paragraphs:

Yet, the world faces many other vast challenges. Whether we like it or not, we have limited money and a limited attention span for global causes. We should focus first on achieving the most good for the most people.

The Copenhagen Consensus project brought together top-class thinkers, including four Nobel Laureate economists, to examine what we could achieve with a $50 billion investment designed to "do good" for the planet.

They examined the best research available and concluded that projects requiring a relatively small investment - getting micro-nutrients to those suffering from malnutrition, providing more resources for HIV/AIDS prevention, making a proper effort to get drinking water to those who lack it - would do far more good than the billions of dollars we could spend reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change.

The first fallacy is that the Copenhagen consensus, in all probability, understates the costs of not acting on climate change.

The second fallacy is one of composition - quite literally. Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus gang of economists seemed ever so slightly preselected to produce a particular outcomes (several already had stated anti-climate change mitigation positions; while lots of other development orientated economists - Stiglitz, Sachs, Sen etc - who one would have expected to be invited weren't, quite possibly because they may have taken different positions).

But it's the third fallacy which is the biggie. And which I want to write about tonight. This is the assumption - key to the whole shebang - that money spent on mitigating climate change must come from aid budgets. Without this assumption we wouldn't be comparing budgets for tackling malaria with budgets for tacking climate change.

So the key question is, is climate change spending really analogous to aid spending? And there's a simple answer to it: No.

This is because, when it is genuine, aid is given for a large part because we want to help others. True, as I've argued elsewhere, some aid giving stems from enlightened self-interest but a considerable proportion of the reason for giving is something akin to altruism.

Tackling climate change, on the other hand, is simple self-interest on our behalf. If we don't, odds are, things are going to get much worse for us. For this reason, the money for tackling climate change should, if Lomborg wants to be honest, be weighed up against military budgets and the like. And once you start doing this there is more than enough money floating round. Not only for tackling climate change but also for increasing aid.

As John Quiggin* puts it:

Adverse impacts species extinction and loss of biodiversity are mostly of concern to people developed countries, and other impacts such as loss of coastal land affect rich and poor countries alike. Similarly the costs of mitigation will be spread across the economy, not funded from a specific government budget item that could be reallocated to foreign aid. Treating climate change as a foreign aid project fits Lomborg’s own framing of the issues, but it is not an accurate representation of the actual problem.

*And I owe Quiggin the Wise a big ol' hat tip for many of the arguments here.

No comments: