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Personal view: Forget global warming. Let's make a real difference

By Bjørn Lomborg (Filed: 13/06/2005)

Last Tuesday, 11 of the world's leading academies of science, including the Royal Society, told us that we must take global warming seriously.

Their argument is that global warming is due to mankind's use of fossil fuels, that the consequences 100 years from now will be serious, and that we therefore should do something dramatic. We should make substantial and long-term reductions of greenhouse gases along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol.

This is perhaps the strongest indication that well-meaning scientists have gone beyond their area of expertise and are conducting unsubstantiated politicking ahead of next month's meeting of the G8.

Of course, as scientists, they should point out that fossil fuels will warm the world. This is indeed the majority opinion and likely to be true. Moreover, they should also tell us the likely impact of global warming over the coming century, which is likely to have fairly serious consequences, mainly for developing nations.

But to inform us accurately they have to go further than that. They should tell us what will happen even if we implement the fairly draconian measures of Kyoto - which they curiously do not.

They do not tell us that even if all the industrial nations agreed to the cuts (about 30pc from what would otherwise have been by 2010), and stuck to them all through the century, the impact would simply be to postpone warming by about six years beyond 2100. The unfortunate peasant in Bangladesh will find that his house floods in 2106 instead.

Moreover, they should also tell what they expect the cost of the Kyoto Protocol to be. That may not come easy to natural scientists, but there is plenty of literature on the subject, and the best guess is that the cost of doing a very little good for the third world 100 years from now would be $150billion per year for the rest of this century.

Even after the Brown/Blair exertions to extract more aid for Africa, the West spends about $60billion helping the third world. One has to consider whether the proportions are right here.

This brings us to the strongest evidence that the national academies are acting in a political rather than scientific and informational manner. Why do they only talk about climate politics? Surely this is not the only important issue with a considerable science component? What about the challenge of HIV/Aids? What about malaria, malnutrition, agricultural research, water, sanitation, education, civil conflicts, financial instability, trade and subsidies? The list goes on.

What is more than curious is that the national academies have not found it necessary to tell the politicians that solutions to these many problems should be top priorities too. Even the host of the G8, Tony Blair, has recognised that the problems of Africa should also be a top priority.

Of course, this is because one cannot talk about top priorities from a natural science perspective. What we should do first depends on the economics of where we can do the most good for the resources we spend. Some of the world's most distinguished economists - including three Nobel laureates - answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus last year, prioritising all major policies for improving the world.

They found dealing with communicable diseases like Aids and malaria, malnutrition, free trade and clean drinking water were the world's top priorities. The experts rated urgent responses to climate change at the bottom. In fact, the panel called these ventures, including Kyoto, "bad projects", because they actually cost more than the good they do.

Surely we can all agree that the G8 meeting should do the most good possible, but we already know that this does not mean dealing with just climate change. The national academies must stop playing politics and start providing their part of the necessary input to tackle the most urgent issues first.

The urgent problem of the poor majority of this world is not climate change. Their problems are truly very basic: not dying from easily preventable diseases; not being malnourished from lack of simple nutrients; not being prevented from exploiting opportunities in the global economy by lack of free trade.

So please, let us do the right things first.

• Bjørn Lomborg is the organiser of Copenhagen Consensus, adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist