The Global Priorities of the Copenhagen Consensus

post by aarongertler · 2019-01-07T19:53:01.080Z · score: 43 (26 votes) · EA · GW · 15 comments

The Copenhagen Consensus is one of the few organizations outside the EA community which conducts cause prioritization research on a global scale.

Nearly everything on their "Post-2015 Consensus" list, which covers every cause they've looked at, fits into "global development"; they don't examine animal causes or global catastrophic risks aside from climate change (though they do discuss population ethics in the case of demographic interventions).

Still, given the depth of the research, and the sheer number of experts who worked on this project, it seems like their list ought to be worth reading. On the page I linked, you can find links to all of the different cause areas they examined; here's a PDF with just cost-effectiveness estimates for every goal across all of their causes.

I didn't have the time to examine a full report for any of the cause areas, but I wanted to open a thread by noting numbers and priorities which I found interesting or surprising:

Reading the full position papers for some interventions could be a really valuable exercise for anyone who cares a lot about global development (particularly if you think EA may be neglecting certain opportunities in that space). If you spot anything interesting (and/or anything that seems wrong), leave a comment!

15 comments

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comment by smithee · 2019-01-08T06:54:40.681Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · EA · GW

More generally, it seems really strange that EA and the Copenhagen Consensus haven't been in closer contact. Their mission is very EA: "to address a fundamental, but overlooked topic in international development: In a world with limited budgets and attention spans, we need to find effective ways to do the most good for the most people." And importantly, they're very legitimate, established, and influential.

Bjorn Lomborg, head of Copenhagen, has a relatively high public profile and has been named in several rankings of top public intellectuals. Even better, the Copenhagen Consensus (CC) has quite a bit of political influence: they claim some responsibility for or influence over Denmark's $2.9 billion anti-HIV program, George Bush's $1.2B Malaria Initiative, and their research was cited by David Cameron in a $4B global nutrition pledge.

A quick brainstorm of ways EA could connect with CC:

  • 80,000 Hours could direct readers to work with CC.
  • GiveWell shares an interest in cost-benefit analysis of development interventions, and each organization likely has insights that the other has missed. They could also network for employees through each other.
  • The Global Priorities Institute, being (a) located in academia and (b) interested in cause prioritization, seems like a great match for CC. GPI wants economists to work on prioritization, CC has relationships with hundreds of academic economists who have written its papers.
  • CC has political influence that EA seems not to; EA (maybe) receives more public attention and can more easily publicize ideas.

To be clear, there has been EA contact with CC before. Will MacAskill is featured on CC's Testimonials page, and 80k has spoken to CC several times in years past. But it seems like there should be more awareness of CC as a massively influential EA-aligned organization with strong inroads in politics (aka, where EA seems to be the weakest).

Does anyone know of further collaboration with CC? Any good ideas on what collaborations could work?

comment by Jan_Kulveit · 2019-01-08T15:45:57.060Z · score: 14 (9 votes) · EA · GW

Sure. Czech EAs were in contact with Bjorn, and the former chairman of the Czech EA Association is now managing a CC project to try prioritization in a developed country [EA · GW] with ~$2M budget.

That said I don't think it is actually useful to include CC directly under the EA umbrella/brand. There are important disagreements - CC discounts future heavily and will typically not include interventions with small probabilities and high payoffs, hence their prioritization is much more short-term. Also, due to the nature of what they are trying, CC is much more political - and highly controversial in some circles. It does not seem to be good for EA movement to become political in similar way now, and we probably also do not want to become highly controversial.

comment by anonymous_ea · 2019-01-08T17:24:20.739Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Interesting! Could you expand on how CC is controversial and political?

comment by anonymous_ea · 2019-01-08T17:27:42.902Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

(Replying to my own comment) I'm copy-pasting the Criticism section on Wikipedia:

Criticism

Members of the panel including Thomas Schelling and one of the two perspective paper writers Robert O. Mendelsohn (both opponents of the Kyoto protocol) criticised Cline, mainly on the issue of discount rates. (See "The opponent notes to the paper on Climate Change" [27]) Mendelsohn, in particular, characterizing Cline's position, said that "[i]f we use a large discount rate, they will be judged to be small effects" and called it "circular reasoning, not a justification". Cline responded to this by arguing that there is no obvious reason to use a large discount rate just because this is what is usually done in economic analysis. In other words, climate change ought to be treated differently from other, more imminent problems. The Economist quoted Mendelsohn as worrying that "climate change was set up to fail".[28]

Moreover, Mendelsohn argued that Cline's damage estimates were excessive. Citing various recent articles, including some of his own, he stated that "[a] series of studies on the impacts of climate change have systematically shown that the older literature overestimated climate damages by failing to allow for adaptation and for climate benefits."

Members of the panel, including Schelling, criticised the way this issue was handled in the Consensus project.[citation needed]

The 2004 Copenhagen Consensus attracted various criticisms:

Approach and alleged bias

The 2004 report, especially its conclusion regarding climate change was subsequently criticised from a variety of perspectives. The general approach adopted to set priorities was criticised by Jeffrey Sachs, an American economist and advocate of both the Kyoto protocol [29] and increased development aid, who argued that the analytical framework was inappropriate and biased and that the project "failed to mobilize an expert group that could credibly identify and communicate a true consensus of expert knowledge on the range of issues under consideration.".[30]

Tom Burke, a former director of Friends of the Earth, repudiated the entire approach of the project, arguing that applying cost–benefit analysis in the way the Copenhagen panel did was "junk economics".[31]

John Quiggin, an Australian economics professor, commented that the project is a mix of "a substantial contribution to our understanding of important issues facing the world" and an "exercises in political propaganda" and argued that the selection of the panel members was slanted towards the conclusions previously supported by Lomborg.[32] Quiggin observed that Lomborg had argued in his controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist that resources allocated to mitigating global warming would be better spent on improving water quality and sanitation, and was therefore seen as having prejudged the issues.

Under the heading "Wrong Question", Sachs further argued that: "The panel that drew up the Copenhagen Consensus was asked to allocate an additional US$50 billion in spending by wealthy countries, distributed over five years, to address the world’s biggest problems. This was a poor basis for decision-making and for informing the public. By choosing such a low sum — a tiny fraction of global income — the project inherently favoured specific low-cost schemes over bolder, larger projects. It is therefore no surprise that the huge and complex challenge of long-term climate change was ranked last, and that scaling up health services in poor countries was ranked lower than interventions against specific diseases, despite warnings in the background papers that such interventions require broader improvements in health services."

In response Lomborg argued that $50 billion was "an optimistic but realistic example of actual spending." "Experience shows that pledges and actual spending are two different things. In 1970 the UN set itself the task of doubling development assistance. Since then the percentage has actually been dropping". "But even if Sachs or others could gather much more than $50 billion over the next 4 years, the Copenhagen Consensus priority list would still show us where it should be invested first." [33]

One of the Copenhagen Consensus panel experts later distanced himself from the way in which the Consensus results have been interpreted in the wider debate. Thomas Schelling now thinks that it was misleading to put climate change at the bottom of the priority list. The Consensus panel members were presented with a dramatic proposal for handling climate change. If given the opportunity, Schelling would have put a more modest proposal higher on the list. The Yale economist Robert O. Mendelsohn was the official critic of the proposal for climate change during the Consensus. He thought the proposal was way out of the mainstream and could only be rejected. Mendelsohn worries that climate change was set up to fail. [34]

Michael Grubb, an economist and lead author for several IPCC reports, commented on the Copenhagen Consensus, writing:[35]

To try and define climate policy as a trade-off against foreign aid is thus a forced choice that bears no relationship to reality. No government is proposing that the marginal costs associated with, for example, an emissions trading system, should be deducted from its foreign aid budget. This way of posing the question is both morally inappropriate and irrelevant to the determination of real climate mitigation policy.

Panel membership

Quiggin argued that the members of the 2004 panel, selected by Lomborg, were, "generally towards the right and, to the extent that they had stated views, to be opponents of Kyoto.".[32] Sachs also noted that the panel members had not previously been much involved in issues of development economics, and were unlikely to reach useful conclusions in the time available to them.[30] Commenting on the 2004 Copenhagen Consensus, climatologist and IPCC author Stephen Schneider criticised Lomborg for only inviting economists to participate:[36]

In order to achieve a true consensus, I think Lomborg would've had to invite ecologists, social scientists concerned with justice and how climate change impacts and policies are often inequitably distributed, philosophers who could challenge the economic paradigm of "one dollar, one vote" implicit in cost–benefit analyses promoted by economists, and climate scientists who could easily show that Lomborg's claim that climate change will have only minimal effects is not sound science.

Lomborg countered criticism of the panel membership by stating that "Sachs disparaged the Consensus ‘dream team’ because it only consisted of economists. But that was the very point of the project. Economists have expertise in economic prioritization. It is they and not climatologists or malaria experts who can prioritize between battling global warming or communicable disease," [33]

comment by smithee · 2019-01-08T19:36:48.979Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks! My understanding of CC being controversial: Lomborg once was a member of Greenpeace, then became disillusioned with popular environmentalism and wrote the extremely controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist arguing against most popular environmental causes. The Economist and Wall Street Journal celebrated it as a fresh new look, while the Scientific American lambasted Lomborg as wrong and even scientifically dishonest. One Danish government commission accused Lomborg of fabricating data and plagiarism, while another criticized the previous commission's investigations.

I've read the book and tried to form my own view, but the rabbit hole is too deep. If anyone's interested in the object level question, try Slate Star Codex.

In any case, Lomborg is highly controversial in some circles and has had extremely high reputational stakes in the environmentalism debate for over a decade. So on second thought, I significantly agree with Jan: EA should be wary of close association with controversial figures (not to mention possibly unethical).

Separately, I think this gets to a more central question of EA's nature: Will we always demand truth at all costs, or is good enough really good enough? Will we work with pragmatic allies that don't share all of our underlying motivations? EA evolved in very high fidelity, academic-style circles, where truth-seeking and intelligence are paramount. But if doing good is the single objective, while truth is clearly extremely important, so is influence. GiveWell claims to have moved ~$500m or so at this point; CC is working in an arena with tens of billions at stake. Should we accept lower intellectual rigor if it means we can increase our scale 100x over?

I default to a commitment to truth, if only because lowering your standards is always possible at a later date, while regaining intellectual rigor is likely not. But it's certainly a question worth discussing.

comment by Jan_Kulveit · 2019-01-08T17:37:09.071Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I guess Wikipedia articles on Bjørn Lomborg and CC provide some context. With a lot of simplification... public advocacy for quite reasonable policy positions on climate change is likely to get you in the middle of a heated political controversy.

comment by Risto_Uuk · 2019-01-08T21:09:26.893Z · score: 13 (10 votes) · EA · GW

I subscribe to CCC's newsletter and these are the latest stories in the newsletters:

  • The climate debate needs less hyperbole and more rationality
  • The media got it wrong on the new US climate report
  • Don't panic over U.N. climate change report
  • Don't blame global warming for hurricane damages
  • The Paris climate treaty fails to fight global warming

I just wanted to provide more context on what they are focusing on.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-01-08T20:57:23.686Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I don't hold an especially high opinion of Lomborg's epistemics, since I've seen some pretty sharp critiques of The Skeptical Environmentalist (not sure about his newer work). But since the CC reports were mostly produced by non-Lomborg people, that doesn't influence my view of them very much.

However, I agree with other responses that collaborating with CC comes with a degree of risk given Lomborg's status as a controversial figure. I think it's worth trying to learn from their work, but I don't have any particular view on working with them directly.

comment by Ben Pace · 2019-01-08T08:00:26.045Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

+1 on being confused, I've heard good things about CC. Just now checking the wikipedia page, their actual priorities list is surprisingly close to GiveWell priorities lists (macronutrients, malaria, deworming, and then further down cash transfers) - and I see Thomas Schelling was on the panel! In particular he seems to have criticised the use of discount rates on evaluating the impact of climate change (which sounds close to an x-risk perspective).

I would be interested in a write-up from anyone who looked into it and made a conscious choice to not associate with / to not try to coordinate with them, about why they made that choice.

comment by Halstead · 2019-01-08T19:53:28.768Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

One downside of extensive engagement is that Lomborg and CC are highly controversial due to their stance on climate change. So, there are dangers of EA being tainted by association

comment by MichaelPlant · 2019-01-07T23:42:55.186Z · score: 11 (9 votes) · EA · GW

I couldn't find a single mention of mental health. If someone finds something from them on this, please let me know!

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-01-12T07:46:04.841Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think EAs should look more into reducing trade barriers, both because of the global poverty benefits, but also because I think countries are less likely to go to (nuclear) war if they are economically dependent on each other.

comment by Bluefalcon · 2019-01-13T04:46:12.452Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

agreed

comment by agdfoster · 2019-01-07T20:51:40.481Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW
Social protection system coverage (helping more people access government benefits); CC estimates that this is less than one-fifth as valuable as cash transfers

That is surprising, they've done a lot of work in and around India where welfare budget utilisation has been infamously poor until only quite recently and where the huge rural population seems to make it particularly hard to get welfare to the poorest who need it most.

I wonder how their economists account for the counterfactual of unused government funds, I've seen quite a few calcs where unused welfare funds that go back into the central pot are only discounted by 1/4 - 1/2, which I still find very unintuitive even given only that the average wealth of a government spending recipient is far higher than that of a recipient of welfare.

I've been keeping an eye out for a charity / org in India that is particularly good at increasing access to government welfare so this is relevant for that.

comment by Bluefalcon · 2019-01-11T06:55:26.705Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'd be interested in seeing why they rate malaria so much lower, at least in relative terms, than most of the EA community does. That's probably a good clue to the differences in methodology, and a shortcut to figuring out whose methods yield more accurate priorities.

P.S. I'm not surprised that measuring the UN development goals is unproductive; a lot of them are obviously distractions. Priorities research only adds value when it's non-obvious whether something should be a priority. Once it's clear that the goal is garbage, move on.