Is world hunger worse than disease? How do both compare to civil war or government corruption? And what about global warming and water contamination?
The ultimate "world's worst" match is under way this week in the Danish capital, nothing less than a lofty effort to determine which of 10 scourges the world ought to address first.
The twist: An esteemed jury of eight top economists, including three Nobel Prize laureates from the US, are to ignore politics and emotion and instead focus on how to get the biggest bang for the world-aid buck.
By the time the weeklong Copenhagen Consensus wraps up Saturday, the panelists are expected to release a list ranking the problems in order of which yields the highest benefit for the cost.
"We hate to admit this, but we don't have the money to deal with everything, so we must prioritize," said statistician Bjorn Lomborg, event organizer and director of its main sponsoring group, the Danish think-tank Environmental Assessment Institute. "We need cold-hearted economics to make a warm-hearted contribution to the world."
To that end, for each topic Mr. Lomborg recruited one expert to write a paper for the economists arguing why his or her issue would make the best investment and suggesting possible solutions. Two other scholars then wrote opposition papers in response.
The 30 writers also are appearing in public to debate and defend their positions before 80 college students from 25 countries brought to Copenhagen to conduct a parallel debate and ranking.
Lomborg says his sole goal is a novel exchange of ideas, but critics have charged that the Copenhagen Consensus is a simplistic approach to divining solutions for complex questions. A two-day counter conference, the Global Conscience Forum, sprang up to protest the event's methodology. There, the United Nations Environment Program executive director Klaus Toepfer said the world's problems "must not be diminished to an economic machinery."
Critics are also suspicious that the conference is merely a setup by Lomborg, a one-time Greenpeace activist who is seen today by environmentalists as a defector. His 1998 best-selling book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," blasted the notion that global warming is a threat and questioned whether efforts to reverse it are worthwhile. He has since become one of the most prominent Danes, and was on Time magazine's April list of the 100 most influential thinkers.
But Lomborg says he has no vested interest. He points to the invitation of Yale economist William Cline, one of his most vicious detractors, to write the paper arguing that climate change should land atop the list.
Mr. Cline, under fire from his own colleagues for playing along with Lomborg, says: "I don't think anybody who pays attention to the issues would come to the conclusion that if climate change comes out near the bottom of the list, that it's unimportant. But I suppose the list could be inappropriately used."
Another concern, even among conference participants, is that the suggestions by paper writers are nebulous or unlikely to succeed politically. Several writers acknowledge that their statistics are sometimes speculative. Some economists have said they are wrestling with which figures seem realistic and which ought to be recalculated.
There's the suggestion that stamping out bribery to government officials would save the world $1 trillion a year, or that United Nations intervention in a dozen civil wars could save $397 billion over a decade.
The calculations also involve placing a value on human life, as viewed by productivity. One paper, for example, argues in favor of combating hunger and malnutrition to avoid low birth weights and increase lifetime productivity.
Still, many insist the event is geared toward sparking discussion.
"I don't think that anyone is under the illusion that at the end of the week, we can give marching orders to the world," says University of Chicago economist and jury member Nancy Stokey. "But it is extremely valuable to focus in different ways so we can learn something new."
Lomborg says his one worry is that no consensus will be reached at week's end. He says it's been a challenge to keep all the academicians from wandering off-topic. "It's been frustrating at times," Lomborg says. "These are scholars. What they do well is come up with 'Wow, wouldn't-it-be-interesting-if' thoughts. I am trying to get them to actually produce something - a list - and not just to talk about it."