Björn Lomborg and the List That Could Save the World

Björn Lomborg and the List That Could Save the World

Why you should care

The U.N. has a big wallet, and we’re all bound to be affected by who gets its 10-spots.

If you hear the number 169 out of context, it could mean anything. A street address. The number of pennies and nickels and dimes in the couch you never clean. Your paltry Twitter following. Take a ride on New York City’s FDR Drive to midtown, where the iconic U.N. headquarters overlooks the East River, and the number 169 has its own meaning: It’s a list of global problems the U.N. is considering tackling over the next 15 years. Think of it as a really big Band-Aid for the planet.

Wow, 169, you say? To Björn Lomborg, that sure seems like a lot to bite off. “No one can remember 169 goals,” he says, “never mind actually implement them.”

Those steeped in international affairs may recognize Lomborg as the dashing 50-year-old blond (of course) Dane who has leaped into the global spotlight with the humble goal of trying to solve the world’s problems. Seriously. His method? Try to bend the U.N. — and its ginormous wallet — to his will. After all, they’re the ones with the budget to take on everything from HIV to malaria.

Do we save one person for $10,000 or 10 for $100? Economists should not make this decision, and … should not rule the world.

 

A political scientist from Copenhagen, Lomborg is also the founder of do-gooder think tank the Copenhagen Consensus and the author of the controversial 2001 best-seller The Skeptical Environmentalist. When he speaks English, he sounds half Australian and half American, which could in part be due to his undergrad degree from the University of Georgia. He’s been named on a slew of high-profile lists — people who could save the planet, top intellectuals, the Time 100 — but the openly gay vegetarian could just as easily be your barbecue bro next door (if you’re grilling tempeh, that is).

As for his upcoming date with the U.N., there is, of course, a backstory. Fifteen years ago, in 2000, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his colleagues drew up a to-do list with a fancy name: the Millennium Development Goals. Sounds heady, and it was. But they were slim in number: eight development goals. They’re widely considered a success: Most have been achieved, and some have been blown right out of the water. Especially the most important one: halving the percentage of people living in absolute poverty by 2015 — a goal already achieved five years ago. Also checked off the list: making clean drinking water accessible to more people and curbing the spread of malaria and tuberculosis.

Fast-forward to the present day. In September, the U.N. will vote on which joint development goals the global community should pursue in the coming years. The decisions will affect hundreds of millions of people. And there’s unlikely to be any funds left over for any projects not approved in this session. This time around, a commission led by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs drafted the proposed projects and dubbed them goals for sustainable development. Let’s be clear: Every proposed project would arguably lead to a better world. Experts, however, criticize the scope. There are 169 of them. And those are just the ones that made the short list. “There is a reason why Moses came down Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments,” says Lomborg. A little biblical, but you get the gist.

So what would Björn do? Conjure in your mind a skyscraper-size red pen, or maybe your favorite machete. With his Copenhagen Consensus, a research project based at the Copenhagen Business School, and a bunch of other experts, including several winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, Lomborg attacked the 169-item list asking two questions: How much would the implementation of the goal cost until 2030? And can you calculate the benefit of each achieved goal?

The onus should be on Lomborg to explain which of those areas does not deserve global attention and support.

Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex

In the parlance of economics, this is a cost-benefit calculation. And wielding this cost-benefit calculation as their mighty sword, the crack team of nerds pared down the list. Dramatically. Of the original 169, a scant 19 remained — like they started with Rapunzel and ended up with Kojak. Lomborg and company believe their list makes the best use of the limited funds for development aid. “We won’t be able to solve all of the world’s problems in the next 15 years,” he says, adding that we lack the resources.

Bottom line, Lomborg is eschewing classic development aid in favor of freer global trade. The calculations from Copenhagen claim that more free trade would lift 160 million people worldwide out of extreme poverty and make each of the currently more than 7 billion inhabitants of planet Earth an average of 10 percent richer. The whole thing sounds scientific and sensible and a little bit dry, particularly for work that ultimately is about life and death. But Lomborg says he found many of his results difficult to stomach. Like nixing the fight against HIV/AIDS. It costs $1,000 to save one person from malaria; protecting that same person from HIV would cost an astounding $10,000. “Do we save one person for $10,000 or 10 for $100?” Lomborg asks. “Economists should not make this decision, and economists should not rule the world,” he continues, saying they should illuminate instead what social action costs and what benefits it generates.

To be sure, Lomborg’s approach has vocal critics. Sachs, for one, accuses Lomborg and his posse of Nobel Prize winners of being naive — he thinks winning over as wide a coalition of countries as possible is what’s most important. Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, says, “The onus should be on Lomborg to explain which of those areas does not deserve global attention and support.” Paloma Durán, director of the Sustainable Development Goals Fund, which is part of the U.N. Development Program, points to “the beauty of sustainable development” as something that incorporates the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. “The more I read the document,” she says, “the more I realize there are no targets that shouldn’t be there.”

Lomborg is undeterred. Hundreds of millions of people in China have left extreme poverty behind them in the past 30 years, a process that is unique in the history of mankind, he says. To him, free trade is the ticket.

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