Let’s improve life in the present, and the future

By focusing exclusively on future warming, Live Earth does a disservice to development and disease prevention in the here and now.

Bjørn Lomborg

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The Live Earth concerts will hopefully be a lot of fun for those who get the chance to see them live or watch them on television. But I think the organisers are wrong when they say that climate change is the most pressing issue facing mankind.

If you ask the 15million people who are going to die from easily curable infectious diseases next year, the idea that climate change is our top priority seems to be massively overblown. What’s even more important is that you ask: ‘Where can we actually do some good?’ The answer is overwhelmingly: we can do very little good if we focus on climate change policies, whereas we can do immense amounts of good if we focus on some of the many other problems in the world.

For example: deadly diseases such as HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis; malnutrition, especially lack of micronutrients but also lack of calories; and lack of market access. Those are some of the most obvious places where we can put in place very cheap and advantageous policy measures and help huge swathes of humanity. And we’ll be helping them in such a way that their societies become stronger, so that their descendents will get much better off and thereby become much less vulnerable to whatever the future holds – including climate change.

Climate change is a problem, and it definitely is one that we need to tackle over this century. But to say that this is the first and foremost thing that we need to tackle, as Tim Flannery said in a Financial Times interview a week ago, that this is the one thing we need to focus on in the next 10 years – that is simply ridiculous. We would be doing something that will help people very little – and only in a hundred years from now – at a very high cost. Meanwhile, we would be neglecting the fact that we could do massive amounts of good for less money for a lot of the people living right now – and in the process helping their descendents much more.

We know how to solve many of these problems, just as we know how to deal with climate change. If you want to stop HIV-AIDS, it’s about information, about providing condoms. If you want to stop global warming, it’s about cutting carbon emissions. My point is that cutting carbon emissions costs a lot and it provides only a small benefit 100 years from now; handing out condoms and information, however, is very cheap and it works for people suffering from HIV-AIDS right now.

It’s the same with malaria. We need to get mosquito nets, proper treatment for those infected; we need to be spraying homes and public areas to keep mosquito numbers down, and we need to pursue other public eradication policies. If you look at malnutrition, there are, again, some very cheap treatments that can tackle things like the lack of iron, which causes deficits of up to 12 to 14 IQ points and affects more than two billion people on this planet. This could be very easily avoided by just giving people an iron pot in which they would cook their meals and thereby get iron. Why are we, as a civilisation, focused on trying to solve the most difficult problem – climate change – when there are these other problems which are so much more easily tackled?

The costs of current carbon emission reduction programmes are immense. The annual costs of Kyoto, had everyone participated and stuck to their obligations (which is the only way it could have even a modest effect), are estimated to be around $180billion. Just to give you a sense of proportion, we now spend in overseas development aid somewhere around $80billion – so we’re talking about more than twice the amount of current aid levels being spent on Kyoto, which does very little good. To put it another way: if you invest in Kyoto, you will probably avoid about a thousand malaria deaths per year across the rest of this century; however, for one-sixtieth of the cost of Kyoto we could avoid 850,000 malaria deaths. In other words, for every malaria death avoided through Kyoto, I could, with the same amount of money, avoid 20,000 malaria deaths by tackling the problem directly. I would say that, as a ‘generational mission’, as a moral obligation, it lies with us to save 20,000 people rather than saving one.

I think Al Gore has done a service to the world by putting climate change clearly at the forefront of people’s minds, as one of our major problems. Climate change is not just natural variation, it is a problem. However, I think Gore has done a great disservice by focusing exclusively on the negative side and on often grossly exaggerated policy consequences, thereby making us unable to make good policy choices. The best policy comes from carefully weighing the costs and benefits, the down-sides and up-sides, to all the different policy issues. If someone is just screaming at the top of their lungs that one problem is more important than all the others, it is unlikely that we will get a good democratic and public debate. Unfortunately I think that, in essence, that is what Gore has done. I understand that he is a single-issue campaigner, and I understand how that works – but it’s very unhelpful in making good judgements.

To give one example: Gore points out that with global warming we’re going to see more heat deaths. That is true; we will see 2,000 more heat deaths in Britain by 2080. But at the same time we will also see 20,000 fewer cold deaths from climate change in 2080. It seems to me that only drawing attention to the 2,000 heat deaths and neglecting to tell us about the 20,000 cold deaths is not a good way to inform the democratic debate.

Ultimately, Live Earth will help to make people more concerned about and more focused on climate change, and thereby less concerned about all the other challenges that face us. And that is unfortunate because, at the end of the day, we’ll end up worrying about the thing which we can do little about, and forgetting all the other problems we can solve right now.


O Gore, deliver us from evil: Read Frank Furedi on how Al Gore has styled himself as a prophet superstar offering salvation to mankind.

The planet’s burning. Let’s party!: Read Brendan O’Neill on the super-rich snots in the green movement who want the rest of us to live in small houses and ‘audit our rubbish’.

Bjørn Lomborg was talking to Nathalie Rothschild. Bjørn Lomborg is author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and the forthcoming Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in London in October 2007.

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