Getting Bang for Your Buck in Disasters

Will David Letterman's "Top Ten" list ever feature "The Sexiest Global Crises?"

Not likely, but as individuals we do tend to rank worthy causes according to how compelling they are to our psyche. We have an emotional bond to certain causes.

So what is your favorite global crisis? What type of human misery, environmental threat, disaster, medical menace, or political extremism gets your attention, your morale outrage, and financial firepower?

Do you rank climate change over terrorism? Are you more upset about HIV, malaria and other health problems than you are over world food price hikes?

Danish statistician and political scientist Bjorn Lomborg says, in essence, that we are often stupid about how we give to charities and good causes, and how we urge our leaders to spend our tax money to help solve the world's problems.

"We have a natural tendency to focus on things (causes) that we see on TV, that we read a lot about, that have scary pictures that move our emotions," Lomborg told ABC News. "But we need to act on the cool question of where we actually do the most good, and that may lead us to some boring problems where we have an incredible opportunity to do more good. So we want to make sure we don't just focus on things that are fashionable, but things that are rational."

Every four years Lomborg runs what you might call the Olympics of Worthy Causes. There is no torch, other than what he obviously considers the light of reason.

It's called the Copenhagen Consensus, and it all kicks off in Denmark this week.

A panel of eight famous economists, including five Nobel laureates, will decide which global crises should be given top priority, based not necessarily on "worthiness" but upon the cold calculation of whether spending money on a given problem is efficient and productive, or merely a popular feel-good phenomenon.

"One example is our focus on international terrorism and global warming, both of which are real and substantial problems," Lomborg said. "But spending so much money on the military, or cutting carbon emissions right now may not be the best way to these problems in the long term. And we allow both of those problems to overshadow many other issues like malnutrition, affecting half the world (with loss of IQ points and potential to work), which is very cheap to do something about."

The 10 topics for the debate are: terrorism, conflict, malnutrition and hunger, education, the role of women, air pollution, subsidies and trade barriers, disease, sanitation and water, and global warming.

The Copenhagen Consensus' economists will compile a league table to, they hope, guide charitable investments and big donors.

They will sit as a jury, sort of like the panel of "American Idol," watching 30 expert advocates for various global problems perform their routines.

The object for each contestant is to convince the panel that their cause should be at the top of the priority list. But they will get no points for pulling heart strings, only for using economic logic.

"It is not a list of inherit morality, or a list of what is the most fashionable, or most politically correct," Lomborg said. "It is list of where you can do the most good, what is the most effective use of the money we are going to spend.

For example, in the first Copenhagen Consensus report in 2004, global warming was judged to be a low priority for donations.

"In 2004 with global warming, for every dollar you spent on solutions you only got about 90 cents worth of good for the world, so it is all about finding smarter solutions," he said. "Like in the Olympics, we make every solution idea run as fast as it can to come up with the smartest way to deal with the problem."

Lomborg said that because more efficient global warming solutions have been found, it could wind up higher on the priority list this year.

The Copenhagen Consensus sees itself as building and updating a donation menu for the world.

"It supplies society with prices and sizes on this menu," he said. "At the end of the day it is democracy that makes the choice. Do we want to buy the most cost-efficient dinner on the menu, or do we just want to buy lobster with all of our money. But at least now we have the opportunity to make an informed choice."