Copenhagen Consensus

Confused’s post on motives behind charity giving, reminded me about one of the most analytical ways to think about charitable giving that I�ve ever heard of.

Bjorn Lomborg, a Scandinavian economist, became famous for his controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, that challenged the notion that our ecology was at risk. He proposed that our environment was actually improving and that if there was real risk, people would adapt how they did things in order to continue to live on earth. He also proposed that giving money to climate change was like burning it.

As someone who believes that our climate has changed and that people need to sit up, take notice and do something about it, this was hard to hear.

But in 2005, I attended the TED conference. And I heard Bjorn speak. He was extraordinarily compelling. He has started a project called the Copenhagen Consensus. What the Copenhagen Consensus does is get top thinkers to figure out the charitable causes that can be best addressed with funding. That is, if you gave one dollar to climate control or one dollar to fighting communicable diseases, where would your money be more efficiently used and actually help solve the problem. The first year, he had economists participate and rank the problems. You can see the results here. In 2005, he had 24 UN ambassadors do the ranking. It is quite interesting.

If you are someone who cares about your money actually helping to solve a problem, check out the website to learn about where it would be most compellingly used. It is not the only way to think about charitable contributions, but it is the most analytical way to do so.

  • Hey, nice one. Thanks for the links!

    I guess my blog is not completely useless.

  • I agree about the top items being communicable diseases.

    I am kind of surprised to find that my two biggest and favorite causes – wildlife and forest conservation are not even on the list.

  • Shripriya

    @Confused — actions confirm louder than words 🙂

    @Reality Check — Well, the thing to remember is that they are trying to answer a specific question. ” If the world would come together and be willing to spend, say, $50 billion over the next five years on improving the state of the world, which projects would yield the greatest net benefits?”

    There are many qualifiers to the statement –

    — the fundamental assumption is that there is limited money, which is true

    — the time period of the next five years

    — defining the state of the world (I think they place humans above everything)

    — greatest net benefit and how that is defined

    I remember when Lomborg was speaking he said something like “In a hundred years when a man in Africa looks at you and asks you why you were more focused on saving a tree than his grandfather’s life, what will you say?” That gives you a sense of where he is coming from.

    In terms of forests, here’s the overview (from Wikipedia) — He finds no indication of widespread deforestation, and notes that even the Amazon forest still retains more than 80% of its cover in 1978. Lomborg points out that deforestation is linked to poverty and poor economic conditions in the concerned countries, and proposes higher economic growth to tackle the problem of deforestation.

  • Fascinating. No silver bullets here I don’t think, but even if it’s highly debatable that any of this can be quantified, it’s great to have an analytical approach to the problem. One more data point on which to base my choices.

    P.S. I guess this blog is how I’ll keep track of you guys!

  • Thanks for the link. I used to lap up environment related stories years back, now I cant see past fundamental issues related to the “ground rules” of society.

    Yes, I get his point of view.

    Given the qualifiers, the list makes sense.

    Personally from an Indian perspective, I need to square these qualifiers with ground realities. As we speak, prehistoric rivers in Tamilnadu and AP are being mined for their sand. These pits are upto 15 feet deep. India will eventually overcome all her internal squabbles and rise economically. This will happen with or without external help. Along the way, there may be tragedies, diseases, class wars, even a moment of truth. We will eventually get there. These rivers are gone forever. If I were a donor I would subsidise alternate building materials such as flyash bricks or steel, or fund awareness campaigns. The west can play a role here because environmental awareness is strictly off the radar of Indias policies today. We are still figuring out and testing the limits of “ground rules”.

  • Shripriya

    @Rohan – very small world!

    @RealityCheck – I agree it has to be adapted to the situation. I think in developing nations where there are so many pressing issues like the need to save human life and improve human subsistence, the environment can be forgotten. And then it is too late.

  • Krishna

    Excellent blog.

    Bjorn Lomborg is a true visionary . His book is passionate, well written, and scrupulously uses (and end-notes) data from the UN, WHO, etc.

    Just a clarification- unlike many refuseniks,

    Lomborg fully accepts anthropogenic (human caused) global warming . He only suggests that money being spent on Kyoto could be much better spent saving lives today. His optimization function, as it were, is preventing loss of human life (in many parts of Africa, and Asia)

    One should use one’s heart to determine “how much” to give but one’s head to determine “where” best to give it