The organizers of tomorrow's Live Earth concerts hope that the entire world will hear a crystal clear message: Climate change is the most critical threat facing the planet. Planned by former US vice president Al Gore, Live Earth will be the biggest, most mass-marketed show of celebrity activism in history.
But making global warming the world's top priority means that we shuffle other major challenges down our "to do" list. Some climate change activists actually acknowledge this: Australian author Tim Flannery recently told an interviewer that climate change is "the only issue we should worry about for the next decade."
Tell that to the 4 million people starving to death, to the 3 million victims of HIV/AIDS, or to the billions of people who lack access to clean drinking water.
Human-caused climate change deserves attention -- and it has gotten it, thanks to Gore, Flannery and others. Even before a single note has been played in the "awareness-raising" concerts, much of the developed world believes that global warming is the planet's biggest problem.
Yet, the world faces many other vast challenges. Whether we like it or not, we have limited money and a limited attention span for global causes. We should focus first on achieving the most good for the most people.
The Copenhagen Consensus project brought together top-class thinkers, including four Nobel Laureate economists, to examine what we could achieve with a US$50 billion investment designed to "do good" for the planet.
They examined the best research available and concluded that projects requiring a relatively small investment -- getting micro-nutrients to those suffering from malnutrition, providing more resources for HIV/AIDS prevention, making a proper effort to get drinking water to those who lack it -- would do far more good than the billions of dollars we could spend reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change.
Carbon reduction activists argue that focusing exclusively on climate change will bring many benefits. They point out, for example, that malaria deaths will climb along with temperatures, because potentially killer mosquitoes thrive in warmer areas. And they would be right.
But it's not as simple as the bumper sticker slogan "Fight climate change and ward off malaria." If US and Australia are somehow inspired by the Live Earth concerts to sign the Kyoto Protocol, temperatures would rise by slightly less. The number of people at risk of malaria would be reduced by about 0.2 percent by 2085. Yet the cost of the Kyoto Protocol would be a staggering US$180 billion a year. In other words, climate change campaigners believe we should spend US$180 billion to save just 1,000 lives a year.
For much less money, we could save 850,000 lives each and every year. We know that dissemination of mosquito nets and malaria prevention programs could cut malaria incidence in half by 2015 for about US$3 billion annually -- less than 2 percent of the cost of Kyoto. The choice is stark.
Some will argue that the real problem is that the Kyoto Protocol isn't strong enough. But, as I point out in my forthcoming book Cool It, even if we could stop global warming right now -- which is impossible -- we could reduce malaria infections by only 3.2 percent by 2085. Should we not worry more about the 100 percent infected now, whom we can help much better, more cheaply, and with much greater effect?