Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review of Stern

Avoiding the many jobs I have to do, I gave myself the fleeting pleasure of reading the news and blogs over my early morning coffee. The Guardian had a compelling interview with Nicholas Stern, the former UK government climate economist. Here's the full article, and here's an extract:

"Recklessness is the only word. I mean, we have to recognise the scale of the risk. If we go on at anything like business as usual, we'll be at concentration levels by the end of this century which will give us around a 50-50 chance of being above five degrees centigrade relative to, say, the 19th century. We humans are only 100,000 years old. We haven't seen that for 30 to 50 million years. We haven't seen three degrees centigrade for three million years. The idea that humans can easily adapt to conditions like these ..." He lets the proposition tail away, too foolish even for words.

"What will we do? We'll move. People will move. Why? Because much of southern Europe will be desert. Other places will become underwater. Others will be hit by such severe storms with such frequency that they become almost uninhabitable. So hundreds of millions of people will move. You're already seeing people moving in Darfur, where droughts devastated the grazing land of pastoralist people, and they moved, and come into conflict with people in the places they're moving to. We're seeing that already on just a 0.8 degree rise. We're the first generation that has the power to destroy the planet. You're re-writing the planet. So you can only describe as reckless ignoring risks like that."

At the heart of Stern's work is a simple calculation. If the science on climate change is right, the transition costs incurred by switching to a low-carbon economy will - however daunting - be a fraction of what we will save by averting disaster. If the science is wrong, and we incur those costs unnecessarily, they would be "very far from disastrous", and we would still benefit, "because we will have a world that is more energy efficient, with new and cleaner technologies, and is more biodiverse as a result of protecting the forests". The logic of the argument is compelling, but is there any part of Stern that believes the science could be wrong?

"It's very, very remote," he says slowly. Less than one in 100? He looks surprised. "Oh, much, much less." The puzzle must therefore be why anyone would still doubt it. Nigel Lawson, for example, dismissed his review as "fraudulent", and published a book last year disputing the entire scientific premise of climate change.

"As an undergraduate, I did maths and physics. That doesn't make me a scientist," Stern responds, with exaggerated patience. "So I try to read and understand and talk to scientists. I'm staggered by how many people who are lawyers, or politicians ..." Or former chancellors? "For example," he agrees drily. "Taxi drivers. People behind bars. People cutting hair. They all seem to be knowledgeable and expert on the science.

"In public policy we have to understand a little bit about nuclear physics, and biochemistry, and genetics. So what do you do if you want to understand about genetics? You talk to a geneticist. You don't turn to taxi drivers or politicians. Both respectable professions, but you don't go to them for the science of climate change, you go to scientists. And what do you hear? That this is basically simple physics. It's not as if it's something strange or mysterious that people can't explain to you. It's not something outside the experimental. The greenhouse effect is something you can observe experimentally - and most people have observed the greenhouse effect themselves, in greenhouses. Yes?"

Does Stern feel angry with sceptics - or, as he calls them, irrational optimists? "Well, they're marginal now," he says with rather withering indifference. When he finds himself sitting next to one at a dinner party, does he even bother to argue? "I still believe in rational argument and communication. It's our duty to try. But it is an area in which people can be deliberately destructive," he says disdainfully. "There's a kind of yah boo argument: 'Don't believe it, don't believe it, don't believe it.' Or using language that's slightly more colourful, like that Paul Whitehouse character who said bollocks to everything. That's the kind of thing. It's yah boo stuff."

Stern suspects their perversity is ultimately down to political prejudice. He has no patience with those on the right who assume climate change is just a Trojan horse - an excuse for the left to interfere in the market. "This is about trying to help markets work. This isn't anti-market, this is about making markets work well. My position is pro-markets and pro-growth - not anti-growth. Indeed, it's ignoring the problem that will kill off the growth. High carbon growth kills itself. First on very high hydrocarbon prices, but second and, of course, much more fundamentally, on the very hostile physical environment it would create."

But he has even less time for those on the left who think climate change is "an elitist hobby horse"; a distraction from poverty in the developing world. "We will not overcome world poverty unless we manage climate change successfully. I've spent my life as a development economist, and it's crystal clear that we succeed or fail on winning the battle against world poverty and managing climate change together. If we fail on one, we fail on the other."

1 comment:

Steve said...

In doing some background work about the Sustainable Energy Conference is Wiscasset on May 9th, I found an interesting report on how global warming will affect Maine that was recently completed by The Climate Change Institute, formerly chaired by Prof. Jacobsen. Frankly, the report attempts to raise red flags but its conclusions (which are based on admittedly large "knowledge gaps") seem fairly benign to me, if not downright positive. Plenty of biomass, a longer growing season, more abundant fishery, less severe winters. What's not to like? Take a look at it and see what you think.