The Honor of Being Mugged by Climate Censors

Opponents of free debate are celebrating. Last week, under pressure from some climate-change activists, the University of Western Australia canceled its contract to host a planned research center, Australia Consensus, intended to apply economic cost-benefit analysis to development projects—giving policy makers a tool to ensure their aid budgets are spent wisely.

The new center in Perth was to be a collaboration with a think tank I run, Copenhagen Consensus, which for a decade has conducted similar research. Working with more than 100 economists, including seven Nobel laureates, we have produced research that measures the social and economic benefits of a wide range of policies, such as fighting malaria, reducing malnutrition, cutting air pollution, improving education and tackling climate change.

Therein lay the problem. This kind of comparison can upset those who are committed to advocating less effective investments, particularly poor responses to climate change.

Copenhagen Consensus research shows that policy makers considering climate change have practical solutions. Cutting fossil-fuel subsidies is a great idea. Each year $550 billion is wasted, mostly by developing nations, on subsidies that mainly help the rich. A dramatic increase in spending on green-energy R&D is needed, as innovation will drive down the price of green energy to the point that it can outcompete fossil fuels. A well-crafted carbon tax would help too.

But our analyses also show that Kyoto-style approaches—poorly designed EU climate policies, or the pledge to hold warming to two degrees Celsius—are costly and ineffective. There are much better ways we could spend money to help the planet.

That conclusion draws the ire of some climate-change activists. When the collaboration between Copenhagen Consensus and the University of Western Australia was announced, the Australian Climate Council, led by paleontologist Tim Flannery, called it “an insult to the scientific community.” Making up facts, the Climate Council warned supporters that I think “we shouldn’t take any steps to mitigate climate change.” This set the tone for the ensuing attacks.

A Sydney Morning Herald columnist wrote that I had produced “anti climate change” work: a documentary, called “Cool It,” exploring the smartest solutions to climate change. In this columnist’s topsy-turvy world, one need never even question the science of global warming to be “anti climate change.”

Under pressure, the university canceled its contract with the Australian government to host the new research center. The UWA’s vice chancellor said he believed the center would have delivered “robust, evidence-based knowledge and advice” but that “the scale of the strong and passionate emotional reaction was one that the university did not predict.”

A small but loud group of opponents deliberately ignored the Copenhagen Consensus’s endorsement of smart climate policies. They also ignored that most of our research has nothing to do with climate. The bulk of our papers focus on health, education, nutrition and the many other areas where relatively small investments can help millions.

Philanthropists, donors and policy makers must prioritize development goals. What Copenhagen Consensus does is ensure that such parties understand the price tags and potential outcomes for each option.

This work has shown that some aid projects do phenomenally well: For instance, providing contraception to the 215 million women across the globe who lack access to it would reduce maternal mortality and boost growth, producing $120 in social benefits for each dollar spent.

Other policies have lower multipliers. Getting sanitation to the poorest half of the world, for example, would produce only $3 of benefits for each dollar spent. This is worthy, but for a government with a limited development budget, it probably isn’t the first place to spend money.

We should focus resources where they will do the most good—not where they will make us feel the most good. The United Nations is setting 169 global development targets for the next 15 years. These are laudable aims, but together they’re a laundry list: reduce arms trafficking; finance sustainable forest management; achieve universal access to drinking water; halve deaths and injuries from traffic accidents; increase market access for “small-scale artisanal fishers.”

Studies by Copenhagen Consensus show that if the U.N. focused on only 19 of the most efficient projects, each dollar of development spending would do four times more good.

There is a strong sense among some climate-change activists, however, that global warming should not be subject to such comparison. Thus it is easier for them to use emotional labels like “climate denier” than to acknowledge our entire volume of research on aid, development, environmental and health spending, simply because in one specific area, current climate policy, some findings don’t line up with their unyielding views.

“Australia’s culture of open debate is increasingly sick,” Tim Wilson, Australia’s human rights commissioner, wrote Monday. “Outrage, confected or otherwise, is a popular tool to condemn your opponents because it avoids the need to actually debate ideas.”

An 88-year-old UWA fellow said he had never seen anything like this at the university. “People have been rejected on account of insufficient abilities but not because they do not have the right type of view,” Prof. Hank Greenway told the Australian.

What is the lesson for young academics? Avoid producing research that could produce politically difficult answers. Steer clear of results that others might find contentious. Consider where your study could take you, and don’t go there if it means upsetting the status quo.

The Australian government remains committed to Australia Consensus, and I am still enthusiastic about working with academics to build a research center that will be judged on its actual output, improving global efforts on aid and development.

Our research will continue to go where the economic evidence leads, rather than where idealism might make us want to end up. Facts must never, ever be seen as an unwelcome contribution to policy debate.

14 May 2015