The Still Skeptical Environmentalist Questions Our Priorities

Commentary, Environment, Rolf Penner

If the world spent its money on clean drinking water instead of Kyoto, we could save a million lives a year. That was only one of the cautionary messages delivered in September by Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, to a receptive audience at the annual CropLife Canada conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Wearing his now trademark t-shirt and jeans, the energetic young Danish professor told delegates, “We worry about the wrong things.” As a result, we make bad environmental investments and tend to forget about making the good ones. “There are a lot of different problems in the world to solve, but we can’t do it all. Some things are better investments than others. Let’s do them first.”

“Why would we spend $19,000 to save one human life when we could use the same amount of money to save 200 lives?” Lomborg asked. “This is the cost of us not doing the right thing. . . . For the cost of Kyoto for one year we could permanently solve one of the worst problems in the world today. We could give the entire Third World clean drinking water, which would save two million lives a year and avert about a half a billion people from getting seriously ill every year. And that’s just from one year. With the next year’s savings, we could solve another problem.”

The rarity of this kind of rational cost/benefit analysis among environmentalists motivated Lomborg last year to organize a conference of some of the world’s foremost economic minds, including three Nobel laureates, to prioritize the worst problems in the world. Called the “Copenhagen Consensus,” its findings (see should be required reading for politicians and organizations involved with issues of developmental assistance and foreign aid.

At the CropLife meeting, Lomborg summarized those conclusions. According to the consensus, HIV\AIDS should have the highest priority. Some 30 million new infections could be prevented by 2010, with benefits outweighing costs by as much as 40 times. Malnutrition is second on the list. An emphasis on micronutrient deficiencies could yield a benefit of 30 times its costs. Third is global trade reform, namely the reduction of tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers and the elimination of agricultural subsidies, of particular significance since WTO talks trying to accomplish this are currently bogged down in Geneva.

Conversely, the expert panel also listed solutions to problems that it considered bad ideas, in which costs would exceed benefits. Most of these revolved around climate change, such as the proposed optimal carbon tax, the Kyoto Protocol and the climate-value-at-risk carbon tax. One analysis showed that, for every dollar spent on Kyoto, you got back a whopping two cents.

Lomborg also reviewed the environmental state of our planet. In instance after instance, he pointed out, things are far better now than they ever have been before. Air in the developed world is less polluted than ever, fewer people in developing countries are starving, and we are not going to run out of resources like oil anytime soon. Backed up with a mountain of easily verifiable statistics and facts from common sources, Lomborg makes a compelling case for common-sense environmentalism.

Similarly he debunked our society’s prevalent fear of pesticides. Most people are concerned about pesticides in our water, yet only .4% of the pesticides we consume come from this source. What of the other 99.6% consumed from the food we eat? Lomborg pointed out that our average intake of them is about 100 times less risky than drinking three cups of coffee a day. The average lifetime intake of the most dangerous pesticide known to man, ETU, Lomborg pointed out, is equivalent in risk to drinking a total of 13 bottles of beer over one’s entire life.

Worrying about one thing and not another has consequences, Lomborg says: “Yes, things have gotten better. They are likely to continue to get better, we are not undermining our future progress. But to say that doesn’t mean that we can’t think about making them even better. But we can’t do them all. That is a priority question. Let’s do the things where we can do the most good first. Some things are not our best investments, others are. Let’s do those first.”