A Time for Clarity

JOHANNESBURG – Terrorism and global warming loom, in many people’s minds, as the greatest threats to the planet. In the United States, the Bush administration wants to increase funding for border security and immigration enforcement by nearly 20%. More than $150 million is being spent to help transit systems in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

But international terrorism kills about 400 people in total each year. How much should we be willing to pay to reduce that death toll by, say, 25% – a billion dollars, a hundred billion?

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, policymakers gathered to discuss a climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The environmental lobby groups want the next treaty to go much further than Kyoto, which is already setting the world back $180 billion a year. Indeed, efforts to slow global warming through the Kyoto Protocol or a similar treaty will make a miniscule difference, delaying temperature rises by just seven days by 2100.

A tenth of the annual cost of the Kyoto Protocol – or a tenth of the US budget this year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – would prevent nearly 30 million new infections of HIV/AIDS. The same sum could similarly be used to help the four million people who will die from malnutrition this year, the 2.5 million killed by indoor and outdoor air pollution, the two million who will die because they lack micronutrients (iron, zinc, and vitamin A), or the two million whose deaths will be caused by a lack of clean drinking water.

We know how to stop people from dying from malnutrition, pollution, HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Effective strategies are cheap and simple: it’s mostly a question of getting what’s needed (micronutrients, cleaner forms of fuel, free condoms, mosquito nets) to those in need. Death tolls remain high because we have limited resources to solve all the world’s problems, and these problems are not our biggest concerns.

Governments and NGOs spend billions of dollars each year trying to help the world without explicitly considering whether they are achieving the most they can.

They set priorities among the well-intentioned projects they finance, merely by deciding to do some things and not others – often based on political realities and media attention rather than rigorous scrutiny.

Panic about terrorism and climate change doesn’t blind us entirely to other problems facing the planet, but our fear does distort the lens through which we see the big picture. 

I hope that a clearer picture will emerge when a roundtable of international economists convenes in May to assess more than 50 solutions to different global challenges as part of the “Copenhagen Consensus” project.

The participants will use cost-benefit analysis to weigh up different strategies. The result will be a prioritized list of solutions, showing which projects promise the greatest benefits compared to their costs. Should the world steam head-on into another Kyoto Protocol-style agreement? Should we make air pollution our top priority?

Some object strongly to the idea of using economic tools to weigh the world’s biggest problems. But this is a way to get honest about what works and what doesn’t. It’s too easy for politicians to throw more money at problems like terrorism, when some nations may already spend too much on security measures that merely shift attacks around. We need to know.

When we acknowledge that some policies achieve little, we can debate other options. Maybe there are smarter ways to combat terrorism than expensive wars and ever more homeland security. Maybe we can tackle climate change better through less costly, more effective technology pushes. Maybe we will end up helping the world more by focusing on air pollution, education, or the condition of women.

We know how politicians make their spending decisions today. In May, we’ll see how some of the world’s best economists – including five Nobel laureates – would invest the same money to get the biggest benefits possible.

We will discover what could happen if politicians would rise above the distortion of the media’s intense concentration on terrorism and climate change. The result should be a clearer focus on the world’s biggest issues and their best solutions.