Priorities for helping the world’s poor

There was an interesting article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal called “A New Dawn” which featured too very different perspectives on climate change. One article by Ian McEwan focuses on how developed countries should focus our budgets on climate change and the second article by Bjorn Lomborg focuses on how we need to focus our budgets on doing things which will have the broadest impact for humanity and the world.

I think both articles are a good read and both articulate very strong perspectives and arguments. I am most intrigued though by the arguments made by Bjorn Lomborg as they are more global in nature, so I’m going to focus more on his ideas in this article. Lomborg is a professor at Copenhagen Business School and the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, an interesting gathering of some of the world’s smartest scientists and economists which attempts to gain a “consensus” on the priorities for doing the most good with our investments. I wrote about this process earlier.

Here are a few of Lomborg’s facts/observation of climate change forecasts:

  • The UN science consensus expects temperature increases of 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, leading to sea-level increases of 0.5 to 2 feet. This is similar to the 1.5 feet of sea-level rise experienced in the past 150 years.
  • Warming in this time-frame will mean about 400,000 more heat-related deaths globally and 1.8M fewer cold-related deaths according to Ecological Economics publication.
  • Economic models estimate a decrease in global GDP of about 3% by 2100. The UN expects that in this same timeframe the average person will be 1400% richer.
  • Kyoto compliance requires spending of ~$180B per year through 2100 with an eventual reduction of global temperature of an eventual estimated 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

He points out that these climate change-related investments might make sense as the top priority in a world of infinite resources and no other major issues. The reality is that we face many other moral decisions … life and death decisions affecting 10’s of millions of people … which must be considered. Here are some of the other potential priorities:

  • Agriculture output. Climate change is expected to reduce agriculture productivity by 1.4% by 2100. By 2080, global agriculture output is expected to more than double. If we did nothing to reduce the impact of global climate change, this doubling would be delayed until … 2081.
  • Malnutrition. Global warming is forecasted to increase the number of malnourished by 28M by the 2100. Today there are 900M malnourished people. We expect to add about 3B more people to the planet by 2100. By that time, the number of people malnourished is expected to drop to 100M. This is more of a political will issue than a financial issue.
  • Kyoto vs. Hunger. Spending $180B per year through 2100 on Kyoto will avoid 2M hungry by 2100. Spending $10B per year, the UN estimates could save 229M people from hunger today. Spending directly on hunger (vs. indirectly through carbon reductions) is 5,000x more effective. Climate change (if fully realized) would only address 3% of the hunger problem.
  • Foreign aid effectiveness. Focusing foreign aid on areas such as direct malnutrition policies, immunization and agricultural R&D would return value of 15-20x the good than the cost.
  • Innovation vs. reductions. Incentives for creating new technologies (a cornerstone of Obama’s proposed plan) which offer low-carbon alternatives will deliver 11x more good than the cost. Whereas simple CO2 cuts produce $0.90 return on the dollar. He encourages countries to spend 0.5% of their GDP on low-carbon innovation incentives.

I am not an expert on the numbers quoted, so that requires further review and validation. I do admire intellectual honesty and a genuine debate with all of the facts on the table as we have some very important priority decisions to make now with a new President and Congress. I’m hoping we’ll put aside philosophical arguments and let the best ideas win out … especially for the sake of the world’s poor who have no voice.

4 thoughts on “Priorities for helping the world’s poor

  1. yeah, there seem to be so many issues and clarity on a macro level is what is most difficult to achieve.I share your hopes for the next US administration, but the revolution we need is unlikely to take place volountarily. as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and as long as the poor have no voice on the global stage, radical change will not appear ‘necessary’.


  2. i’m completely agree that we all have to do something about climate change. one simple thing i believe can be done is to make more people realize about the danger of climate change and also make them believe that they can take part to slow it down or even stopping it from happening. any one of us who’s already understand about the danger of climate change should be an agent to make others understand about it too.


  3. what scares me is thinking what catastrophic event will take place before change is deemed necessary. the climate change we’ve already seen in our short lifetimes, genocide from governments all over the place…and still the plight of those in poverty is not a priority. really, what will it take?


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