Published in Wall Street Journal (US) 11 October 2005
Gulf Coast Consensus By Bjørn Lomborg The recent damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shows that the United States is very vulnerable to climate catastrophes. Researchers point out that the North Atlantic has entered its active 35-year period; thus after 35 years of relative hurricane lull, we are poised for decades of violent weather. In the aftermath there is a strong political will and inclination to spend money -- President Bush has pledged that "we will do what it takes" to rebuild the area. The cost will likely run into the hundreds of billions. Of course, in a perfect world, we should also implement all policies that would reduce U.S. vulnerability to climate. However, in the real world, most proposed programs are very costly and only some can be done. So we should start with the best ones first. Such prioritization has its intellectual footing in the global prioritization process initiated by the 2004 Copenhagen Consensus. There, some of the world's top economists looked at the major issues facing mankind. They produced a ranking of which projects would do the most good. When looking at the huge challenges for dealing with climate vulnerability, the U.S. would do well to think along the same lines. Get all the best proposals to strengthen American climate resilience, and the estimates of their costs and benefits. The question is not whether New Orleans should be rebuilt -- that is a purely political issue and one that has already been settled by the president and public opinion. Rather, the relevant question is how best to protect the city, and the rest of the Gulf Coast, in the future. Should extra funding first go into higher and better levees? Should we invest in forward defenses, like the ones that could seal off Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico? Should we focus on restoring natural wetlands and the string of barrier islands? What about better and less brittle emergency procedures, improving communications, training, transportation, and coordination? Some -- including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's environmental minister -- have suggested that global warming could be partially blamed for the increased U.S. vulnerability to natural disasters, and thus that embracing carbon reductions like Kyoto would be the best way forward. The question still remains, however: Which proposals should be done first? Which ones would do the most good for the money spent? Here, these proposals would be evaluated and ranked on their costs and benefits by top economists. Such a "Gulf Coast Consensus" would essentially provide an authoritative answer to: What are the best policies to prevent future catastrophes such as Katrina? It would give government, business, academics and community leaders a list of policies to deal with U.S. climate vulnerability from the very best to the very worst.
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Seeking such a consensus would show political leadership and resourcefulness. It would stress the need for prioritization in all aspects of government. It would show which policies would work wonders (probably infrastructure management and coastal protection) and which policies are simply inefficient and mainly marketed to overlap with the tragedy (likely global warming mitigation policies). In short, it would show the determination of the U.S. to deal with the post-Katrina situation in the best possible way -- and make it more likely simply to do the right thing.