Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What gets traded off by global warming activists

Since money still doesn't seem to grow on trees, it stands to reason that money spent by wealthier countries to fight global warming is money that won't be spent on other causes. The question is what is worth more to people? Would more lives would be saved if money were spent on fighting malaria or malnutrition or HIV/AIDS than on trying to reduce carbon emissions. Bjorn Lomborg has been arguing this point for a long time. He produces some of these sobering statistics today.
ake malaria. Most estimates suggest that if nothing is done, 3% more of the Earth's population will be at risk of infection by 2100. The most efficient global carbon cuts designed to keep average global temperatures from rising any higher than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (a plan proposed by the industrialized G-8 nations) would cost the world $40 trillion a year in lost economic growth by 2100—and have only a marginal impact on reducing the at-risk malaria population. By contrast, we could spend $3 billion a year on mosquito nets, environmentally safe indoor DDT sprays, and subsidies for new therapies—and within 10 years cut the number of malaria infections by half. In other words, for the money it would take to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives.

Many well-meaning people argue that we do not need to choose between tackling climate change and addressing these more immediate problems directly. We can, they say, do both. If only that were true. Just last week, activists from the international aid agency Oxfam reported evidence that European countries were planning to "cannibalize" existing development aid budgets and repackage them as climate-change assistance. According to Oxfam, if rich nations diverted $50 billion to climate change, at least 4.5 million children could die and 8.6 million fewer people could have access to HIV/AIDS treatment. And what would we get for that $50 billion? Well, spending that much on Kyoto-style carbon-emissions cuts would reduce temperatures by all of one-thousandth of one degree Fahrenheit over the next hundred years.

Money spent on carbon cuts is money we can't use for effective investments in food aid, micronutrients, HIV/Aids prevention, health and education infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation. This does not mean that we should ignore global warming. But it does raise serious questions about our dogmatic pursuit of a strategy that can only be described as breathtakingly expensive and woefully ineffective.
If I were prone to ascribe motives of evil to those with whom I disagree, I would argue that perhaps the reason why those who advocate these draconian carbon cuts don't worry about the lives that could be saved if that money were spent elsewhere is due to what Anne Applebaum writes about today - the anti-human thread that runs through much of the extreme environmentalist movement.
It's true that I'm not crazy about the Kyoto climate negotiation process, of which the Copenhagen summit is the latest stage. But I'm even more disturbed by the apocalyptic and the anti-human prejudices of the climate change movement, some of which do indeed filter down to children as young as 9.

Over the years there have been many radical statements of this latter creed. In the infamous words of a National Park Service ecologist, "We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. . . . Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." A former leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once declared that "humans have grown like a cancer; we're the biggest blight on the face of the earth." But it is a mistake to think that this is the language of only a crazy fringe.

Look, for example, at the Optimum Population Trust, a mainstream organization whose patrons include the naturalist David Attenborough, the scientist Jane Goodall and professors at Cambridge and Stanford -- and that campaigns against, well, human beings. Calling for "fewer emitters, lower emissions," the group offers members the chance to offset the pollution that they generate, merely by existing, through the purchase of family-planning devices in poor countries. Click on its PopOffsets calculator to see what I mean: It reckons that every $7 spent on family planning generates one ton fewer carbon emissions. Since the average American generates 20.6 tons of carbon annually, it will cost $144.20 -- $576.80 for a family of four -- to buy enough condoms to prevent the births of, say, 0.4 Kenyans.

The assumption behind this calculation is profoundly negative: that human beings are nothing more than machines for the production of carbon dioxide. And if we take that assumption seriously, a whole lot of other things look different, too. Weapons of mass destruction should perhaps be reconsidered, along with the flu virus: By reducing the population, they might also reduce emissions. Perhaps they should be encouraged?
I don't think that the environmentalists advocating massive carbon-emissions cuts back to 19th century levels actually wish for people to die of malaria or malnutrition. But they seem not to understand the concept of tradeoffs. They think perhaps that we can afford everything desirable if only the rich countries would cough up the money. But back in the real world tradeoffs matter. And we do have limited money. And Lomborg is exactly right. We could improve more people's lives by fighting malaria and malnutrition than by crippling our economies in order to lower temperatures by mere fractions of degrees.