The Island of Doubt

(Pseudo)-Skeptical Environmental Bjorn Lomborg advises in the Wall Street Journal that spending money on anti-malarial campaigns makes more sense than, and by implication is morally superior to, spending money on cutting carbon emissions. But to make his case, he has to abandon all hope of ever being invited to join the Vulcan Science Academy.

It may be true that every dollar we spend combating the vectors of malaria and the treatments for it will save more lives than those who would be spared the disease if we spend it instead on avoiding catastrophic global warming. But Lomborg is abandons all logic when he writes:

Most estimates suggest that global warming will put 3% more of the Earth’s population at risk of catching malaria by 2100. If we invest in the most efficient, global carbon cuts–designed to keep temperature rises under two degrees Celsius–we would spend a massive $40 trillion a year by 2100. In the best case scenario, we would reduce the at-risk population by only 3%.

In comparison, research commissioned by the Copenhagen Consensus Center shows that spending $3 billion annually on mosquito nets, environmentally safe indoor DDT sprays, and subsidies for effective new combination therapies could halve the number of those infected with malaria within one decade. For the money it takes to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives.

Where to start…? OK. How about: This argument assumes the money spent on carbon cuts does nothing else but avoid malarial deaths. It won’t prevent sea-level rise (and the resulting mass migration of refugees), or prevent the loss of millions of hectares of arable land (and the countless millions who might suffer malnutrition and/or die as the result of the consequent food shortages) or any of the other myriad consequences of climate change, but reduce malarial deaths.

Second, there’s the complete lack of supporting evidence that by 2100 the “costs” of mitigating climate change will actually turn out to be positive. Sure, in the short term, it’s probably going to cost a bit more, although nothing like the $40 trillion Lomborg cites without attribution. But the fact is Lomborg has no idea what the long-term net economic effects of reducing emissions will be. None. Nada. Zippo. It could very well be that whatever technologies we deploy to reduce carbon emissions will not only save lives, but generate enough money to pay for the $3 billion annually he wants to spend on conventional anti-malarial strategies.

Third, given the enormous disparity between the options Lomborg chooses to discuss, there is no reason to assume that we can’t afford to cut emissions and prevent malarial deaths.

All of which leaves us with the question: Why do editors of the WSJ publish such stuff?

Comments

  1. #1 crf
    November 4, 2009

    Why wasn’t the choice between buying giant lcd tvs and fighting malaria?

    Or more generally, between x and malaria, where x is anything the world spends economic effort on?

    To me, it is quite clear that the degree to which we are willing to fight malaria has next to nothing to do with the degree we are willing to spend to mitigate climate change.

  2. #2 Brian D
    November 4, 2009

    H/T to Things Break on this, but guess what Malaria Eradication Champion Lomborg has nothing to say about.

    Now would be an excellent time to re-link John Mashey’s excellent analysis of Lomborg’s tactics. As usual, he advocates for action on something that sounds good, without actually doing anything to progress that goal, and while framing the argument such that climate change comes out on the bottom.

  3. #3 ChrisZ
    November 4, 2009

    How about, because the WSJ editorial pages are just a soap box for right-wing politics; and politics, if you haven’t noticed, despises things like logic or facts.

  4. #4 Lucas
    November 4, 2009

    Lomborg is committed to false dilemmas. That’s what his Copenhagen Consensus does and what he did in the Skeptical Environmentalist.

  5. #5 JK
    November 5, 2009

    “Why wasn’t the choice between buying giant lcd tvs and fighting malaria?”

    Maybe it’s because a link has been made between climate change and malaria. The question here is really about “how big a problem is climate change?” One reason that climate change is a problem is disease (nb I don’t think anyone is arguing that lcd tvs are a problem because they spread malaria). Lomborg is saying yes, climate change would put more people at risk of malaria, but it would only increase the at risk population by 3%.

    This is why the subheading is “limiting carbon emissions won’t do much to stop disease in Zambia” and why he writes “Malaria is only weakly related to temperature; it is strongly related to poverty.”

    Socio-economic projections ahead to 2100 are of course even more fraught with uncertainty than natural scientific projections. But it seems to me that what will determine the scope of malaria by 2100 will be (i) vaccines or other treatment and (ii) economic development.

    I would sincerely hope that malaria will have been eliminated by 2100. I don’t believe this to be inevitable but nor do I think it particularly unrealistic or addicted to technofixes.

    If we can eliminate malaria altogether then surely it will not matter if a changed climate would have put 3% more of the population at risk? It could be argued that elimination of malaria would be a kind of “adaptation” to climate change, but one with the added benefit of helping the other 97% at risk of malaria.

    James is right that climate change addresses many different problems, and Lomborg should have made mention of that. Climate is about more than malaria.

    But malaria is also about more than climate.

  6. #6 Oran Kelley
    November 5, 2009

    What would be the likelihood of malaria being eliminated at a time when world governments will be starting to deal with some of the more drastic effects of climate change . . . displacement of peoples, agricultural disruption and so on?

    Not bloody likely would be my short answer.

  7. #7 Alec
    November 7, 2009

    I think this Lombarg fellow raises a fair point, that in order to combat the challenges that lie ahead of us during the next 90 years we have to imaginative and think outside the box.

    I would take issue with your point about arable land, its a meaningless argument because there is enough arable land on this planet to easily feed the entire population several times over. Its all about distribution of wealth and resources.

    Also what would you spend this money fighting climate change on? Malaria is relatively simple to fix, Vaccines, medical training for the third world etc, climate change prevention on the other hand… Well its a bit tougher and wont necessarily achieve any results.

    However I agree with the broad premise of your argument.

  8. #8 G J Lau
    November 11, 2009

    To me the fundamental flaw in the logic is the implication that this is an either/or situation. Either we fight malaria or we fight climate change. Or to put it another way, if we fight climate change we can’t fight malaria. He uses similar reasoning in a second article on sanitation systems in Bangladesh.

    Where is it written that to do one means not to do the other? And he overlooks the fact that one of the main effects of warming is an increase in certain diseases, including malaria.

    Quite honestly, I was somewhat shocked that an editor would let such an obviously specious argument into print.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    November 21, 2009

    Why do editors of the WSJ publish such stuff?

    … I was somewhat shocked that an editor would let such an obviously specious argument into print.

    Y’all are aware that the Wall Street Journal is now a Rupert Murdoch property, right?

    You might as well ask why ducks quack, or why Dick Cheney leaves a trail of bloody slime everywhere he goes.