Global Warming Takes Undeserving Place on Group’s ‘Top 10 Challenges’ List

Published July 1, 2004

The Copenhagen Consensus project, recently organized by Denmark’s Environmental Assessment Institute and spearheaded by Björn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, has issued a top 10 list of what it describes as some of the world’s biggest concerns. The list includes climate change, although many economists and scientists would disagree.

Prioritizing Countless Challenges
The Copenhagen Consensus aims to consider and establish priorities among a series of proposals for advancing global welfare. Notes the group’s manifesto, “The world is faced with a countless number of challenges such as diseases, environmental degradation, armed conflicts, and financial instability. Copenhagen Consensus takes a new and critical-analytical approach to assessing the effects of international opportunities for solving the challenges.”

In Copenhagen, nine outstanding acknowledged economic experts will gather to discuss, analyze, and rank opportunities corresponding to each of the 10 challenges identified by the group:

  • climate change
  • communicable diseases
  • conflicts
  • governance and corruption
  • education
  • financial instability
  • malnutrition and hunger
  • population and migration
  • sanitation and water
  • subsidies and trade barriers

Ten specialists have each prepared a background paper on a challenge within their field of research in order to provide the experts with the best and most recent information.

It is not a simple matter to address, or even identify, the 10 greatest challenges facing humanity. Allocating resources to remedial projects so as to maximize total net benefits to humanity is a grand academic exercise.

Global Warming in Dispute
Everyone sees great challenges differently. Certainly, malnutrition and hunger, sanitation and water, and even communicable diseases could all be subsumed under the heading of poverty. And most would agree that tackling any problems of climate change require adaptation–again best handled by overcoming poverty.

There is lively ongoing scientific debate on whether the climate is really warming, whether human influence is significant, and whether a future warming is good or bad. On that last question, a group of prestigious economists already has concluded that a modest greenhouse warming is on the whole beneficial and will raise standards of living.

Lomborg seems to have reached a different conclusion about the science, although he is absolutely correct about the high cost and complete ineffectiveness of mitigation schemes like the Kyoto Protocol and similar efforts to restrict the use of energy fuels.

“The panel looked at three proposals, including the Kyoto Protocol, for dealing with climate change by reducing emissions of carbon,” notes Myron Ebell, who oversees global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The expert panel regarded all three proposals as having costs that were likely to exceed the benefits. The panel recognized that global warming must be addressed, but agreed that approaches based on too abrupt a shift toward lower emissions of carbon are needlessly expensive.”

And on the science, Lomborg is correct on at least one point. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) are increasing as the result of fossil-fuel burning to drive cars, heat homes, and generate electric power. Levels of atmospheric CO2 will continue to increase, especially as China and India become more prosperous. At best, we might be able to slow somewhat the rate of increase–at great cost. Is that worth doing?

A Fight Worth Fighting?
The issues here are scientific, economic, and political. Will the temperature increase be insignificant, important, or (as science fiction addicts imagine) catastrophic? We can study the result of the 50 percent rise in greenhouse gases that currently affects our climate.

The data are still in dispute but I believe, as do many other scientists, that the effect has been minor. We can expect a warming of perhaps 0.5º C by 2100, at most one degree–detectable but not unusual. The climate warmed by 0.6º C between 1900 and 1940.

Is a warmer climate good or bad? Many credible economists calculate that a modest warming, coupled with higher levels of atmospheric CO2, will raise GDP and standards of living worldwide. Lomborg’s Copenhagen group of economists may be able to achieve consensus on that issue.

Will nations be willing to suffer the economic burden of energy rationing and higher prices necessary to curtail CO2 emissions? The United States, Australia, and Russia say no, and so do developing countries that want to overcome poverty.

I continue to be puzzled by those who consider greenhouse warming a major problem requiring heroic measures–beyond the traditional adaptation to climate change that has worked well for humanity though the ages.

It is worth noting that concern over many of these great challenges tends to be short-lived. A decade ago, ozone depletion and acid rain were all the rage; two decades ago it was nuclear winter; three decades ago, as global temperatures were dropping, there was great fear about a coming ice age. Throughout the past decades there have been concerns about over-population, imminent resource depletion and famines, poisoning of the oceans, cancer epidemics from industrial chemicals, etc. It is safe to predict most such fears will continue even when all the evidence points the other way.

“The Consensus ranked four projects as representing good value for money,” Ebell has pointed out. “They were: new programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS; reducing the prevalence of iron-deficiency anemia by means of food supplements; reducing multilateral and unilateral tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, together with the elimination of agricultural subsidies; and the control and treatment of malaria.”

Curiously, the Copenhagen list omits terrorism. There are indeed some observers, like Sir David King, chief science advisor for the United Kingdom’s Office of Science and Technology, who consider terrorism a lesser threat than global warming. Hans Blix, former United Nations’ weapons inspector in Iraq, reportedly fears global warming more than weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps the Copenhagen meeting, a laudable exercise in rational decision-making, will put global warming fears to rest. And one can always hope the release of the climate-horror film, “The Day after Tomorrow,” will convince the public that global warming is mostly science fiction.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project( He is the author of Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming’s Unfinished Debate (Independent Institute, Oakland, California). His email address is [email protected].

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on the Copenhagen Consensus, visit its Web site at