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Skeptical of Lomborg’s solutions

Tim Blair links to a critique of the ubiquitous Stern Report, written by Bjørn Lomborg. Perhaps his most damning (and least surprising) criticism of the Report is that it is “unrealistically pessimistic”, and considering its wholesale adoption by the Green lobby, I have no doubt that this is true. The article is well worth a read as an antidote to all the hand-wringing the Stern Report’s tabling has inspired. However, Lomborg’s rejoinder only receives two cheers from me.

Whilst Lomborg’s most famous publication – The Skeptical Environmentalist – was enormously refreshing, I found many of his remedies to the world’s problems uncomfortable. He really seems to believe that solving these crises is as simple as throwing a pre-determined mega-amount of cash at them – x billion dollars here will provide clean drinking water for those who currently have no access to it, x billion dollars there will defeat malaria. In this latest article of Lomborg’s, he ambitiously declares that all of the major problems of the poverty-stricken world can be solved by spending x billion dollars per year, claiming:

Spending just a fraction of this figure [$450 billion p.a. to cut carbon emissions, as recommended by Stern – JW] – $75 billion – the U.N. estimates that we could solve all the world’s major basic problems. We could give everyone clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care and education right now.

Really? Who is going to disperse this cash, and how? Lomborg does not say, but such a project has the State’s fingerprints all over it. Where else could Lomborg expect to get this sort of sustained funding from? Only an entity with the coercive power to extract resources from countless others would be able to volunteer a sum like 75 billion dollars year in, year out. Are we talking about government – or a coalition of governments? Of course we are! Surely only governments (or an intergovernmental body like the U.N.) are trustworthy enough to distribute such a volume of resources fairly and efficiently. Only governments would utilise these resources in the single-minded purpose of lightening the burden of the world’s poor, unadulterated by the agenda of other forces. An organic, non-governmental response is simply not organised; not holistic enough. Consider how well large-scale state planning has served us this past century or so.

Not buying it?

Well, I think we can all agree that the record of government and the U.N. in the field of aid distribution and poverty alleviation is really quite something. So whilst Lomborg is a useful resource if one is hosing down the wilder claims of the Global Climate Change mullahs, his obvious faith in government action should remind all liberals that he is not one of us. His solutions to the world’s problems are ultimately as futile as those proposed by the environmental industry, although Mr Lomborg’s are admittedly rather less demanding on the wallets of long-suffering taxpayers.

15 comments to Skeptical of Lomborg’s solutions

  • Jon

    I think, James, that Lomborg is merely trying to use the UN’s own arguments against it. IOW, focus on a project that the UN says is doable already at a fraction of the cost, rather than on a new more expensive one whose rationale is rather thin. He uses that argument quite a lot in The Skeptical Environmentalist.

    Put another way: if the UN can’t muster a $75B project, with clearly agreeable benefits, why on earth should we agree to spend $450B on one much less sound? It’s almost like your argument, James, unless of course I’ve missed something.

  • $75 billion is an arbitrary figure which would be wasted if it were allocated, because government plans have never solved these sorts of issues – in fact, they’ve usually made them worse. The true cost of fixing the problems Lomborg details cannot be quantified in advance; that’s a very governmental approach. These problems will be solved most effectively by the market, by the free association of concerned individuals, at an unknown and indeterminable cost.

  • Jim

    I wouldn’t worry if I was you, because I don’t think Lomborg is genuinely interested in securing more spending on those areas – he only promotes them in order to make action on climate change appear less attractive. Which is a shame, as the evidence is actually in his favour on aid.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Why would you assume that Lomborg is talking about some sort of charity?

    Clean water in Africa will be paid for by the Africans, just as clean water in America is paid for by Americans. His solution (as I understood it) is to encourage economic development so that poor people will be able to do it for themselves. Nor is it a matter of what interventions we must make to bring this about. The poor are getting richer naturally, as his statistics show. There are more people (because they’ve stopped dying at such a rate) who are better fed, healthier, wealthier, with access to ever better technology and medical care. And it’s not because of the UN.

    We don’t need state interference, when capitalism and free markets will do it all for us. If you’re going to interfere, then curing disease and fixing the infrastructure are better things to do, but you don’t even have to do that. Wu wei. It will just happen.

  • guy herbert

    This was Lomborg’s line in the global warming chapter of The Skeptical Environmentalist, you should recall.

    (Actually on a global scale $75 billion is very little money. The NHS in Britain costs nearly double that annually.)

  • Why would you assume that Lomborg is talking about some sort of charity?

    Didn’t you read his article? What Lomborg’s actually written isn’t very kind to your contention that he’s only trying to encourage poor states to grow and fund their own development. No, he’s talking about solving all the developing world’s basic problems at the cost of $75 billion per year – a feat we could, if we wanted, achieve “right now”. Sounds pretty clear to me. Secondly, I don’t think he’s talking about charity – I think he’s talking about government-provided aid. See below…

    Actually on a global scale $75 billion is very little money. The NHS in Britain costs nearly double that annually.

    I’m well aware that, on a global scale, $75 billion isn’t an enormous amount of money. However what single entity – apart from the state (or a coalition of states) – would have such an amount of money to throw at this one project each year? Even the world’s richest charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, could only fund it for a couple of years.

  • Uain

    $75 Billion is chump change. The UN could consume that much in “administrative and logistic” costs in less than a year. Does he really think this money could be distributed without being skimmed to nothing?

  • Exactly. His simple solution to the world’s problems – throw 75 billion at it – is chimaeric.

  • Tom Harrigan

    I get the fealing that what really worries environmentalists is that solving the world’s major basic problems will lead to so much economic growth. Poverty is the price the thirld world must pay to maintain our way of live.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “Didn’t you read his article?” Yes.

    He simply says that carbon cutting is one of the least attractive options, and that spending $75bn on fixing all the other problems would be better. He doesn’t say, “let’s do that”, he doesn’t say who would supply it. He doesn’t say how it should be organised. Global GDP includes all economic activity, not just government.

    If private investors (possibly local) were to put their own money into it in exchange for a slice of the 2% per year he says this is worth, that would be a sound investment, and not involve statism at all. Because the economists add up the worldwide cost and get a big number, it is easy to assume that only a big organisation could pay such a big number. But why not do it with lots of small organisations? And if you do it a bit at a time, the money gained from the first bits pays for the rest.

    I’m not saying we will or should do it that way, if we do it at all, and I don’t think Bjorn is either. He’s talking about climate change alarmism, and the $75bn is just a handy supporting statistic to him. I don’t see him asking us to organise such an effort, just to stop driving global policy down an expensive dead end based on duff data.

  • Uain

    “.. and that spending $75bn on fixing all the other problems would be better. He doesn’t say, “let’s do that”, …”

    I may not be a semanticist, but I live in New England, and up here, when some one makes a suggestion, it is meant as just that….. hey, what if we try ….

    It is intended as a request to do just that.

  • Pa Annoyed – Uain nailed it. Lomborg’s inference is clear enough. The point is that his figure of $75 billion p.a. to fix all the basic problems of the developing world is as fanciful as Stern’s $450 billion p.a. to reduce carbon emissions. Does anyone truly think, given the track record of governments and the UN in spending this kind of money in the third world, that either investment will be remotely effective?

    Stern says he needs $450 billion for his plan to save the world, Lomborg claims $75 billion for his. I believe that both sums would be wasted if they were ever allocated. One is less than the other. Who cares? They’re both pipe dreams.

    Regarding Lomborg’s plan: raising the cash isn’t the issue. It’s spending it effectively that causes the enormous complications. For a start, most of the African nations would see such a fund as an enormous extortion opportunity. I think you’d find this phenomenon (to a lesser extent) in most other parts of the developing world, too. The fraction of the $75 billion that would trickle down to actually achieve the stated aims is anyone’s guess, but I doubt it’d be high. So we can pretty much disregard the “solution” chunk of Lomborg’s argument. Lomborg is fabulous at debunking of the Green movement, but let’s leave him at that. Which is pretty much what I said in the original post.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “Does anyone truly think, given the track record of governments and the UN in spending this kind of money in the third world, that either investment will be remotely effective?”

    No. But I still don’t see anywhere Lomborg says it will be governments or the UN spending it. He was simply quoting a UN estimate. If you wish to argue that the UN has its figures wrong, fine, but don’t blame it on Lomborg.

    Let’s take the example of road transport in the UK – apparently it costs about £70bn a year to transport all the raw materials and goods around the factories and ports and shops. (Figure based on reverse engineering Clearstone’s estimate of the extra cost of the road transport directive.) Now, if we didn’t already have a network and someone proposed setting one up, would you guys be screaming about the government’s record on infrastructure programmes? Would you be asking what the heck the UN knew about lorries, as if that was the only way it could be done?
    No, it’s perfectly possible to talk about the cost of doing something being in the billions, without implying it could only be done by the state. I’m sorry, but your assumption that we can’t possibly be discussing private industry here is statism.

    Lomborg doesn’t say how these things should be done. He speaks positively and at length in his book of advances in the availability of fossil fuel – done by oil companies – or metals and mineral resources – mining companies – the green revolution and fertilizers – all developed and delivered by agricultural and biotech companies. The poor have been made richer largely without state interference. I don’t think he cares how it’s done – all he’s saying is that doing it is cheaper and more beneficial than stopping the world so the Greens can get off.

  • Graham Asher

    I am probably the naivest person here, but here goes: I think Lomborg is such an intelligent and insightful guy that he will move towards free market libertarianism as he gets older. For now, he’s a little left wing – well, actually, he’s rather statist – but in a curious way I think he *is* one of us. Let’s see what happens.

  • I suspect that Lomborg’s time among the environmentalists has given him a few of their verbal ticks. Even though, to his great credit, he has pierced much of what is foolish in environmentalism, the verbal ticks remain.

    In 1989/1990 when Romania was first freed and the goods came flooding into the country, people went to shops, took out their own money, and bought goods. They then went home and said “they gave us bread” and/or “they put bread in the store” (substitute whatever good you like for bread). One simply did not buy bread. It just wasn’t said. Eventually, the old language reasserted itself and Orwell receded but it took a surprisingly long time.

    The reality is that were Mr. Barnett’s Gap shrinking machine to run full tilt and establish connectivity, bringing even deeply disconnected/dysfunctional countries like N. Korea, Zimbabwe, and Burma into states where one could go in and actually do something without having “connections” and huge bribes, the sums that Mr. Lomborg bandies about would be sufficient capital investment to do all the things he says should be done. And turning these Gap countries into anyplace reasonable for investment is *still* a smaller task than managing global CO2 output.