How Nobel Laureates Are Working to Solve Climate Change, Hunger, and Disease

The 10 most effective ideas for improving the world.
April 26 2012 7:22 AM

Big Problems, Big Solutions

Bjørn Lomborg has a group of Nobel laureates working to solve climate change, war, hunger, and more. And he wants to know what you think.

Fighting in Syria.
Global conflict, like the ongoing struggle in Syria, will be one of 10 topics covered in the Copenhagen Consensus.

Photograph by John Cantlie/Getty Images.

COPENHAGEN—This decade has seen remarkable progress against humanity’s greatest challenges. Consider the declaration of victory over polio in India, which seemed impossible 10 years ago. January marked one year since the country’s last reported case. Or look at the strides made against malaria: Over the past decade, the number of cases has been reduced by 17 percent, and the number of deaths has dropped by 26 percent.

Despite global population growth and economic crisis, absolute poverty—the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day—is falling in every region of the world. In fact, the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty in half has been achieved five years ahead of time.

Just a few years ago, the use of male circumcision as a tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS was largely unknown. Today, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization recommend it as a means to combat HIV/AIDS, and more than 10 African countries are implementing strategies to increase its availability. Similarly, the concept of using geoengineering to respond to climate change has moved from science fiction to an area of serious research.

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This decade has also witnessed a 60 percent increase in global development aid. Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge challenge has graduated from concept to campaign, with at least $125 billion promised to good causes.

But, while the last decade has given much reason for cheer, there are areas in which we cannot claim such success. Climate change has emerged as one of the most talked-about problems, yet global negotiations have fallen apart, and we are barely any closer to cutting carbon emissions than we were 10years ago.

Similarly, violent conflicts continue to take a toll that is far too high. And, while the world met the Millennium Development Goal for providing clean drinking water five years early, the provision of sanitation has fallen behind: An astonishing one-third of the world’s population, 2.5 billion people, lack access to basic sanitation, and more than 1 billion people defecate in the open.

Other problems have emerged and grown over the decade. If current patterns continue, tobacco use may account for some 10 million deaths per year by 2030, with most occurring in low- and middle-income countries: We might see roughly 1 billion tobacco-related deaths in this century, compared to 100 million in the 20th century. Cardiovascular diseases account for 13 million deaths in low- and middle-income countries each year, more than a quarter of the entire death toll, and risk factors are growing.

The state of challenges facing humanity changes rapidly. So does our knowledge of how best to respond. Policymakers and philanthropists need access to regularly updated information on how to use limited funds effectively.

The Copenhagen Consensus project, which I direct, provides a link between academic research and concrete economic analysis that can be used by decision-makers in the real world. Every four years, researchers and Nobel laureates work to identify the smartest responses to the biggest problems facing humanity.

In 2004, the Copenhagen Consensus highlighted the need to prioritize measures to control and treat HIV/AIDS. More money and attention was soon devoted to HIV prevention and treatment. In 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus focused the attention of policymakers and philanthropists on investments in micronutrient provision. Public acceptance of this idea led to an increase in efforts to reduce “hidden hunger”— that is, people suffering from not getting the nutrients that they need.