The Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC) is a US think-tank. It conducts research on cost-effective solutions to pressing global problems, and advises philanthropists and policymakers on the basis of this research.
CCC was founded in 2006 with funding from the Danish government. It grew out of a conference held two years earlier dedicated to answering the question: “Where should the world invest an additional $50 billion over the next four years to do the most good?” An expert panel of nine economists compiled a preliminary list of “major challenges facing humanity”. The list was then narrowed down to include the ten problems judged to be the most pressing. For each problem, an essay was commissioned to an external economist with expertise in the relevant field. This essay described the scope of the problem, considered possible solutions to it, and provided an extensive overview of the existing cost-benefit analyses in the literature. Finally, the expert panel reviewed these essays and ranked the problems. Both the essays by the specialist economists and the justification of the rankings by the expert panel were subsequently published in a book (Lomborg 2004). Further Copenhagen Consensus conferences, following the same process and methodology, were held in 2008 and 2012 (Lomborg 2009; Lomborg 2013).
CCC and effective altruism
It is instructive to consider the ways in which CCC and effective altruism compare in their approach to cause evaluation. CCC’s motto is: “In a world with limited budgets and attention spans, we need to find effective ways to do the most good for the most people.” (Copenhagen Consensus 2020) In a similar vein, Lomborg describes the “core idea” behind CCC as follows: “with scarce resources to tackle the problems of the world, prioritization is necessary.” (Lomborg 2004: 1) Back when GiveWell started investigating standout programs, it found CCC to be “the only case we have seen of an independent panel of experts attempting to identify the most promising philanthropic investments.” (GiveWell 2020) One of the commissioned papers for the 2012 conference was co-written by Toby Ord (Jamison et al 2013). Some effective altruists have in the past collaborated with CCC (Kleňha 2018).
On the other hand, there are also a number of important differences between CCC and effective altruism. CCC appears to be short-termist, restricting the space of interventions it is willing to consider to those affecting the present generation. It is also human-centric, entirely neglecting interventions that could benefit non-human animals. These differences may be traceable to CCC’s exclusive reliance on cost-benefit analysis (CBA). As Lomborg acknowledges, “The ranking in the Copenhagen Consensus is based on a CBA, measuring the costs and benefits to a global community at the relevant prices.” (Lomborg 2004: 3) Short-termism and human-centeredness are built into that framework, insofar as the prices are determined exclusively by the preferences of existing humans: non-human animals and unborn people are weighted only to the degree that the present human generation cares about them. By contrast, effective altruism tends to do cause prioritization by relying on a broader evidence base.
Copenhagen Consensus Center (2020) Our story, Copenhagen Consensus Center.
Gertler, Aaron (2019) The global priorities of the Copenhagen Consensus, Effective Altruism Forum, January 7.
GiveWell (2010) Criteria for evaluating programs − 2009-2011, GiveWell, November.
GiveWell (2020) Intervention reports, GiveWell, May.
Kleňha, Jan (2018) Policy prioritization in a developed country, Effective Altruism Forum, March 8.
Hurford, Peter & Andreas Mogensen (2013) Smart Development Goals: a promising opportunity to influence aid spending via post-MDGs? An evaluation of “Copenhagen Consensus Centre”, Oxford: Giving What We Can.
Jamison, Dean T. et al. (2013) Infectious disease, injury, and reproductive health, in Bjørn Lomborg (ed.) Global Problems, Smart Solutions: Costs and Benefits, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 390–438.
Lomborg, Bjørn (1998) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lomborg, Bjørn (ed.) (2004) Global Crises, Global Solutions, Cambridge: Cambride University Press.
Lomborg, Bjørn (ed.) (2007) Solutions for the World’s Biggest Problems: Costs and Benefits, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lomborg, Bjørn (ed.) (2009) Global Crises, Global Solutions, 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lomborg, Bjørn (ed.) (2013) Global Problems, Smart Solutions: Costs and Benefits, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lomborg, Bjørn (ed.) (2014) How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, Lowell, Massachusetts: Copenhagen Consensus Center.
Tuna, Cari (2013) A conversation with the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Good Ventures, December 16.
Wiblin, Robert & Kristian Rönn (2013) The Copenhagen Consensus: making a bet on catching a big fish, The Giving What We Can Blog, June 14.