The idea behind Copenhagen Consensus 2012 is to prioritize some of the world’s most important spending, with the latest economic analysis providing us with an input. In a series of articles, I am drawing on new research papers that present the costs and benefits of the smartest ways to respond to global challenges. Each article has a poll, and Slate readers can vote on the investments that they believe should be the highest priorities—along with those that should not. You can read more about the rationale behind the project here.
Over the course of the series, we will see how readers rank responses to a range of challenges, and at the end we will identify the investments that Slate readers think should be the highest priority. We will be able to contrast these with the findings of a panel of Nobel laureate economists.
On Friday, I took a look at natural disaster preparedness. One reader picked up on my comment that it’s “harder for poor countries to respond to natural disasters”, and responded: “As a New Orleanian, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, after reading that.” I went to New Orleans as part of the filming for my documentary Cool It and was staggered by the series of terrible decisions that cost lives. It is a lasting reminder of the paramount importance of preparation (and investment in adaptation, like levees and evacuation plans) in the face of natural disaster; we can only hope that it is a reminder that policymakers heed. Of course, FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others need to do a better job. But this is a job that the U.S. can afford to tackle mostly by itself. However, when disaster strikes in many of the poor parts of the world, there is no preparation and no resources to tackle it.
One reader picked up on the investment option to retrofit schools to make them better withstand earthquakes, and pointed out that “after a disaster, the buildings that you want to still be standing are your hospitals.” This is certainly true and that is an argument for saying that retrofitting schools might not be our best bet. Yet, it perhaps bears repeating that the idea behind the proposal was that many schools are currently poorly built and we can potentially save many of the young generation by investing in their retrofitting.
Now we turn to the latest results from the Slate reader prioritization:
Remember: You can still go back and vote in all of the various polls today, and you can vote today on options to respond to natural disasters; we’ll be finalizing the Slate readers’ list at the end of the series.
We can see that, among the interventions from Friday, implementing effective early warning systems has been ranked as a good investment priority by Slate readers. This has a good benefit-cost ratio. The other priorities—preparing specifically for earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, were given a lower ranking, but still rate above the lowest.