In Denmark, Solving the World's Biggest Problems

The Copenhagen Consensus Center's annual conference brings together some of the world's top economists and thinkers. Offering highlights is Bjorn Lomborg, CCC founder and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Some of the world's top economists and thinkers are gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark, at this moment, trying to wrap their big brains around a pressing question. What is the most efficient way to solve the world's biggest problems, earn the most bang for the buck, get the most done for the croon? The organizer of this event is Bjorn Lomborg, who came to prominence with the publication of a book called "The Skeptical Environmentalist."

Other - I guess you would say - credulous environmentalists thought that that book and a follow-up book seriously downplayed the effects of global warming and offered up an overly optimistic picture of the state of the world. But Lomborg wasn't like many American pundits, happy to throw his bomb and then retreat to the comfort of book royalties and speaking tours.

No, he wanted to use his celebrity to get people thinking, people who are good at thinking, thinking, as a matter of fact. Lomborg took a position with the government and he founded the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Bjorn Lomborg joins now on the phone from Copenhagen. Hello, sir.

Dr. BJORN LOMBORG (Professor and Director, Copenhagen Consensus Center, Copenhagen Business School; Author, "The Skeptical Environmentalist"): Hi, Mike. How are you doing?

PESCA: The conference has a pretty specific way of finding solutions to problems the world faces. Can you explain the approach a little bit?

Dr. LOMBORG: Yes. Basically, Mike, and Rachel also, what we try to do is to say not just, hey, is this a big problem? Because there are lots of big problems, but also say, are there good solutions? But not even just saying are they good solutions, but also, how much would it cost to fix part of the problem and how much good would it do? So essentially, what we asked them to say is, as you also pointed out, is how much good will you do for every dollar you spend?

And the benefit of making that sort of comparison, of course, is that you can start comparing very different initiatives. You can start talking about, should we do something about malaria or tuberculosis? But also, should we do something about schooling in the third world? Or should we perhaps more focus on technologies to combat CO2, or maybe peacekeeping forces?

PESCA: And for this - OK.

Dr. LOMBORG: All of these, of course, are very, very different, but we all have to prioritize.

PESCA: And for this particular thought experiment, there is, you say, a hypothetical 75 billion dollars will be assigned. Is that how it works?

Dr. LOMBORG: Yes. Well, of course, in reality, what we do is we prioritize all the great solutions that come up from all the different experts. We've asked five or six of the greatest minds in each of these areas. So we've asked five or six of the best education economists to say, what could you do that would do an amazing amount of good in education for money? And likewise, we've asked people in the disease area, we've asked people in conflicts or in terrorism or in global warming or in a number of issues, and then said, what are the smartest things that you can do in all of those areas?

PESCA: And in assembling your experts, do you specifically seek out people that you disagree with?

Dr. LOMBORG: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LOMBORG: I honestly don't think I disagree with all that many economists, because obviously all economists think it's important to be rational and to be cost-effective. But yes, we both - we asked, for instance, Jeffrey Sachs. We asked Joe Stiglitz. Sachs, unfortunately, declined to participate. Stiglitz was actually on schedule, and at the end of the day, it turned out to be a scheduling problem, but we also have, you know, both Republicans and Democrats.

I've been very careful to say this is not about political standpoints. It's about making sure we have the best people in the world. And you can also see from the panel we have eight of the world's top economists, five of which have a Nobel award, and we have the former chief economist of the World Bank as well. We actually also had the - Justin Lin from China, who just turned out to be the new chief economist of the World Bank, and thus had to decline.

PESCA: It's an all-star staff...

Dr. LOMBORG: Really is.

PESCA: And here are the topics they're discussing, air pollution, subsidies and trade barriers, malnutrition and hunger, conflicts' terrorism, global warming, disease, water and sanitation, education, women and development. Now as I read that list, it does seem a little bit like a hodgepodge of, some are problems and some are solutions. Like, if you improve development, maybe the argument goes, you'd better fund education. So how did trade barriers get on the same list as some of those other things, which are the four horsemen of the apocalypse?

Dr. LOMBORG: Well, obviously, one of the things that we forget when we talk about trade barriers is it sounds a little arcane, and it sounds like, ah, yeah, maybe we should also think about that. But actually, if you look at the dynamic models that the World Bank and many others do, they indicate that if we could have a successful Doha round, essentially cut subsidies and especially cut trade barriers to both agriculture and manufacturing, it would generate revenues equivalent of about 3,000 billion dollars a year over the next half century.

It's about three times the GDP of India, and we could mostly get that to the developing world. About five-sixths, about 2,500 billion dollars would accrue to the developing world. So it's not a trivial amount. Actually, by any estimate, it's probably more on the positive side that even the damage of global warming will be. So, you know, we are very focused about the problems, and I think rightly so about global warming, but we are very little focused about the tremendous opportunities that we possibly are missing because we're not looking at, for instance, dealing with the Doha round.

PESCA: I was reading some blog posts about one of the topics, terrorism, and most of the experts, even the ones who disagree with each other, basically said the cost/benefit analysis of how much it takes to fight terrorism, it just is extremely inefficient, when you just do a cost per life saved, and the only real good argument against that is, yes, but what of the possibilities that terrorists get a nuclear bomb? And then the costs - there's no way to calculate the costs.

Dr. LOMBORG: No. That's true, but of course, the main point that they try to make is it's not actually about the number of lives killed, you know, if you look at it, even with 9/11, the number of people dead on average over the last 25 years is about 420 people from transnational terrorism. What really causes the problem with terrorism is the decline in confidence, both in consumer confidence, but especially in investment climates, and the downturn in the economies, which have all kinds of other impacts on health and other issues.

And the point is, you can do something about those, and of course, this is not just about the short opportunities of avoiding a suicide bomber, but also the long-term issues of, for instance, nuclear weapons. Now, what we've done right now is very much promote sort of more security, especially around airports, which do work, but only a little. And so that's why they find that, for every dollar you spend, you could probably only do about ten cents' worth of good.

But had you focused on other areas where you could have greater cooperation between national security agencies, and especially in INTERPOL, but also tracking terrorist-funding better, those are the things that would have much greater benefit/cost ratios and probably also much better alleviate the risk, for instance, of a nuclear bomb. There's nobody who knows how we fix terrorism, like we don't fix most of the other problems...

PESCA: Right.

Dr. LOMBORG: But we could alleviate them, and if we did so smartly, every dollar we spent could probably do about ten dollars of avoided damage from terrorism.

PESCA: One last quick question, just about the tone of the debate. Your countryman, Soren Kierkegaard, once compared dealing with Danes as being trampled to death by geese.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Are things a little better than that? I know not everyone there is Danish, but how is the debate going? Everyone enjoying each other's point of view?

Dr. LOMBORG: I think actually only I am Danish in there, yeah, and so, even if we were horrible, they would still be doing OK. But I think much more importantly, you know, these are all some of the smartest people. I think partly they enjoy meeting up with each other, but partly, I think, they also just enjoy sitting down, listening to all these great minds thinking about air pollution, about women's rights, about all these different issues, and also being able to tell us, well, of all these great things, where should we spend, for instance, 75 billion dollars first, to do the most good for the world.

PESCA: Bjorn Lomborg, the author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," and "Cool It," and he's also the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Really interesting thing you got going on there, Bjorn. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. LOMBORG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Stay with us. Coming up on the show, women's wrestling, the real deal. It's on the rise at college campuses. We even have a conversation with one of the coaches leading up that program. That's coming up next on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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