The climate-change debate's most consistent iconoclast continued to go after environmental sacred cows this year, dismissing the Rio+20 summit as a "wasted opportunity," warning against "policy by panic" efforts to connect this summer's droughts to global warming, and celebrating hydraulic fracturing as "this decade's best green-energy option."
But Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist often mislabeled a "climate skeptic," is more than just a critic of environmentalism run amok. In a world of terrifyingly daunting problems and limited resources, Lomborg doesn't say that global warming isn't happening; he tries to urge leaders to think realistically about what to tackle first. For his innovative Copenhagen Consensus 2012 project, he convened a panel of more than 50 experts, including four Nobel-winning economists, and asked them how they would spend $75 billion -- a 15 percent increase in global aid spending -- to most efficiently bolster global welfare. The panel's top recommendations were interventions to fight hunger and improve education, as well as increasing subsidies for malaria treatment and childhood immunizations. Research to "fight biodiversity destruction and lessen the effects of climate change"? That came in sixth.
Reading list: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; Sustainable Energy -- Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay; The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, by Branko Milanovic. Best idea: Fracking gas could be this decade's best green option -- it has actually reduced U.S. emissions twice what the Kyoto Protocol ever did. Worst idea: Predictions that 100 million people would die from global warming by 2030 -- turned out it was exaggerated more than 12-fold, to get attention.
If there's one man who has stepped into the void in the Middle East, it's Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of a tiny country that few had heard of. Some might say it's his vast oil and natural gas wealth that has made the enigmatic emir a major player in conflict zones as varied as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen -- not to mention Palestine, where Qatar has largely usurped Egypt's role as the principal mediator between the feuding factions of Hamas and Fatah.
But the Qatari emir, who has been called the "Arab Henry Kissinger," is not just a sheikh with a big bank account. His ambition is nothing less than the remapping of power dynamics in the Arab world. Known for his grit and determination, which enabled him to turn the nearly bankrupt statelet he inherited in a bloodless 1995 coup into the planet's richest country, the emir also knows how to play great powers off each other to get what he wants. Qatar is home to one of the largest U.S. air bases, but the canny emir maintains cordial relations with his neighbors in Tehran as well, never mind his misgivings. (In one leaked 2010 diplomatic cable, he told U.S. Sen. John Kerry that "based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100.")
Magnifying Sheikh Hamad's voice is Qatari media giant Al Jazeera, which became the "unquestioned home of the revolution" during the Arab Spring, as FP's Marc Lynch put it. Not content simply to cheer the revolutionaries from the sidelines, the Qatari emir took the lead in mustering Arab League support for the NATO intervention that toppled Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, provided at least $400 million in aid for the rebels, and helped them establish training camps. He has also unveiled a mini-Marshall Plan for the post-Arab Spring world, pledging billions of dollars in aid and investment to Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Gaza. Now the loudest Arab voice calling for intervention in Syria, Sheikh Hamad, at September's U.N. General Assembly meeting, urged Arab countries to "do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria." Based on his track record, the rest of the world will get there -- eventually.