Monday, November 02, 2009

The At-Risk Population

Yet another cartoon lightbulb has appeared over Bjorn Lomborg's head:

Limiting carbon emissions won't do much to stop disease in Zambia.
See, 'cause malaria is killing people now, whereas climate change may kill or otherwise inconvenience them at some point in the future. Let this be a lesson to all those warmists who insist that we must stop trying to prevent malaria!

Lomborg's not a denialist, so he naturally acknowledges that warming is expected to increase the prevalence of malaria:
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%.
The at-risk population for malaria, that is. Which is a comparatively minor issue, as AGW-related catastrophes go, given that we currently have far more reliable remedies for malaria than for sustained regional drought and famine, or the loss of a keystone species.

Regardless, Lomborg contrasts the eleventy-gazillion dollars it'll cost to reduce emissions with the relatively modest cost of investing in mosquito netting, and comes to the daring conclusion that mosquito netting is cheaper. Which is pretty fucking stupid, since controlling malaria is not the sole aim - nor even a major aim - of reducing emissions.

The sleight of hand on malaria obscures Lomborg's far more bizarre claim that "if we invest in the most efficient, global carbon cuts...we would spend a massive $40 trillion a year by 2100." Climate forecasting, as everyone knows, is dangerously unreliable. But there's apparently no problem with making an economic forecast in which ninety years of investment in efficiency (which presumably includes alternative energy and cleantech) result in steadily climbing costs, and deliver no meaningful benefit beyond maintaining the malaria caseload at its current level.

That, believe it or not, is the sunny outlook that's supposed to serve as an antidote to Algore's hollow-eyed thanatophilia.

Like all of Lomborg's best theories, this one is endorsed by the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which is kind of like saying that L. Ron Hubbard's views are endorsed by the Church of Scientology.
[S]pending $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.
Again, Lomborg's treating malaria prevention as the goal of carbon cuts, which makes this calculation misleading at best. It's also interesting that a decade of investment in new pesticides and therapies will bring good results and a prompt ROI, while nine decades of investment in energy efficiency will bankrupt the entire planet and bring our deaths halfway to meet us.

In the real world, there are lots of benefits to improving efficiency and cutting emissions. Which is why I think Lomborg would be much better off attacking the Near-Earth Object Program and related alarmist busywork. The world spends huge sums of money to identify asteroids that may never come nearer than a million miles to the earth, and to develop equally expensive deflection strategies that -- let's face it -- probably wouldn't work if they ever became necessary. Shouldn't we be using these resources to eradicate one of the world's most devastating diseases, instead of fussing over some fanciful Doomsday scenario that we couldn't prevent even if it actually were a serious threat?

Alternatively, I suppose we could cut our military budget by one percent, and use the extra six billion dollars per year to address both problems, along with a few others.

It's even possible that a similar approach would allow us to reduce emissions and fight malaria at the very same time. But for some reason, fearless, irreverent, paradigm-shattering heretics like Lomborg never seem to argue along these lines; it's almost as though they understand that they'd vanish overnight from the American media's Rolodexes. As Cocteau said, one must always know how far to go too far.


Paul Lamb said...

When I was in Nairobi, the history of the city spoke of how it was chosen for a trading site because it was high enough in altitude that the mosquitoes were not a problem. The history went on to say that this is no longer the case because it is now warmer in Nairobi than it had been a century before and mosquitoes are common.

grouchomarxist said...

"[C]artoon lightbulb" is exactly right.

Whatever doubts I may have had whether Lomborg possessed a single shred of intellectual integrity have just been put to rest.

I wouldn't even call this "sleight of hand" so much as a raised middle finger. He's really not even trying, anymore, is he?

Phila said...

He's really not even trying, anymore, is he?

Hard to say. Maybe he's trying harder.

Either way, his act is definitely getting a bit threadbare.

charley said...

deathlove, you're a master.

a man has got to know his limitations.

The Commenter Without Qualities said...

"Algore's hollow-eyed thanatophilia"

Yet another day-brightener. Watch out: One more deathless phrase like this and I'm going to kidnap you, lock you into my broadband dungeon, and force you to blog every day for the rest of your life.

Phila said...

force you to blog every day for the rest of your life.

After cringing under my own lash for the last five years, it might be a nice change of pace.