Global warming has become the pre-eminent concern of our time. Many governments and most campaigners meeting in Montreal now through next Friday tell us that dealing with global warming should be our first priority. Negotiating a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, they argue, requires that we seek even deeper cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.
But they are wrong about our priorities, and they are advocating an inefficient remedy. As a result, we risk losing sight of tackling the world's most important problems first, as well as missing the best long-term approach to global warming.
To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by carbon dioxide. The trouble is that today's best climate models show that immediate action will do little good. The Kyoto Protocol will cut carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries by 30 percent below what it would have been in 2010 and by 50 percent in 2050. Yet, even if everyone (including the US) lived up to the protocol's rules, and stuck to it throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable, postponing warming for just six years in 2100.
Likewise, the economic models tell us that the cost would be substantial -- at least US$150 billion a year. In comparison, the UN estimates that half that amount could permanently solve all of the world's major problems: It could ensure clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education for every single person in the world, now.
Global warming will mainly harm developing countries, because they are poorer and therefore more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, even the most pessimistic forecasts from the UN project that by 2100 the average person in developing countries will be richer than the average person in developed countries is now.
So early action on global warming is basically a costly way of doing very little for much richer people far in the future. We need to ask ourselves if this should, in fact, be our first priority.
Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to prioritize. We could do all good things. We would have enough resources to win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, broaden educational access, and halt climate change. But we don't. So we have to ask the hard question: If we can't do it all, what should we do first?
Some of the world's top economists -- including four Nobel laureates -- answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus last year, listing all major policies for improving the world according to priority. They found that dealing with HIV/AIDS, hunger, free trade and malaria were the world's top priorities. This was where we could do the most good for our money.
On the other hand, the experts rated immediate responses to climate change at the bottom of the world's priorities. Indeed, the panel called these ventures -- including the Kyoto Protocol -- "bad projects," simply because they cost more than the good that they do.
The Copenhagen Consensus gives us great hope because it shows us that there are so many good things that we can do. For US$27 billion, we could prevent 28 million people from getting HIV. For US$12 billion we could cut malaria cases by more than 1 billion a year. Instead of helping richer people inefficiently far into the future, we can do immense good right now.