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See Inside April 2005

Shaping the Future

Scientific uncertainty often becomes an excuse to ignore long-term problems, such as climate change. It doesn't have to be so

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Last year a high-profile panel of expertsknown as the Copenhagen Consensus ranked the world's most pressing environmental, health and social problems in a prioritized list. Assembled by the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute under its then director, Bj¿rn Lomborg, the panel used cost-benefit analysis to evaluate where a limited amount of money would do the most good. It concluded that the highest priority should go to immediate concerns with relatively well understood cures, such as control of malaria. Long-term challenges such as climate change, where the path forward and even the scope of the threat remain unclear, ranked lower.

Usually each of these problems is treated in isolation, as though humanity had the luxury of dealing with its problems one by one. The Copenhagen Consensus used state-of-the-art techniques to try to bring a broader perspective. In so doing, however, it revealed how the state of the art fails to grapple with a simple fact: the future is uncertain. Attempts to predict it have a checkered history--from declarations that humans would never fly, to the doom-and-gloom economic and environmental forecasts of the 1970s, to claims that the "New Economy" would do away with economic ups and downs. Not surprisingly, those who make decisions tend to stay focused on the next fiscal quarter, the next year, the next election. Feeling unsure of their compass, they hug the familiar shore.

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