Why Are We Waiting?

If you want to read one book on climate change, which provides a balanced and comprehensive overview of the topic this is it. Nicholas Stern has been engaged in the issue for decades. In 2006 he produced “The Stern Report: The Economics of Climate Change” reviewing the economic implications of moving to a low-carbon global economy. The authority of the writer comes across from the start and builds as you read the book, which, for those that did woodwork, is not without its challenges.

IMG_1258The book came out just before the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. It set out a new approach to the global management of climate change moving away from top down, legalistic targets to an approach premised more on, effective measurement of emissions, individually set voluntary targets and regular review of these to establish more ambitious ones. In essence this seems to have been a recognition of the political reality that a) the US Senate would block any Treaty ratification and b) many of the emerging economies were unlikely to sign up to something that undermined their economic growth.

The title of the book aims to challenge the current complacency around the issue of climate change. Stern sees the next two decades as fundamental to determining whether the world can create a viable response to the threat of global warming. The reason for this is a combination of demographic, economic and infrastructure changes that are set to occur over the next twenty years.

Demographic projections between now and 2050 suggest the world’s population will grow from something over 7bn to just under 10bn. What is more, 70% of that population will live in cities compared with 50% now. Many of these people will be in the rapidly expanding emerging economies, notably China, whose growth is hugely energy resource hungry.

These mega trends have enormous investment and resource consequences, which, are intensified by the fact that the existing infrastructure of many developed nations is dilapidated and also requires significant investment. This means over the next twenty years there will have to be massive investment in developing new cities and improving existing ones.

How this investment is undertaken and its results will structure the world’s energy demands for the rest of this century and beyond. This is fundamental as the science makes clear we are now close to the limit of CO2 equivalent gasses (CO2e) that we can put into the atmosphere without creating an existential challenge to the future of the human race.

Currently, the world emits about 50bn tonnes of CO2e gasses annually. If we want to constrain the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius we need to reduce emissions significantly. Specifically by 2035 we need to be <35bn tonnes and by 2050 down to <20bn tonnes. Whilst the specific path might vary this level of reduction reasonably represents the scale of the challenge. A challenge magnified of course by the growth in the world’s population and in its wealth.

The book is well documented and provides a brief history of the underlying science relating to the impact of CO2e gasses on global warming. It charts the ups and downs of the international policy response since the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988.

The arguments in the book are very balanced. Stern is not one for “sexing up” the evidence. He genuinely believes it speaks for itself. He is meticulous at presenting the positive progress that has been made in some areas. Indeed he thinks this is vital in convincing people the issue is something that can be addressed, as well as must be.

His emphasis, however, is urgency. He explains how the nature of the problem is such that it conspires to undermine effective policy action. Its scale, the risk and uncertainty surrounding it, the delays in consequences and the “publicness” of greenhouse gas emissions all undermine an appreciation of what is a clear and present threat.

The notion of the “publicness” of greenhouse gas emissions is worth a word. By this Stern means it does not matter where the emissions come from, it is the cumulative total which matters, and its main impact will not be distributed on the basis of who has contributed most to the problem. This raises enormous questions of equity given that the largest contributors to the problem to date have been the, rich, developed nations of the Northern hemisphere and, per head, this remains the case. Ironically the, poorer nations in the Southern Hemisphere, who to date have contributed least are those likely to face the earliest significant consequences of change.

It is partly because of this that one, if not the, key theme of Stern’s book is the need to link the issue of climate change and poverty reduction. As he puts it “… the two defining challenges of our century are overcoming world poverty and managing climate change.” If you think solving world poverty sounds a bit idealistic reflect on the following. The current level of global CO2 emissions is 7 tonnes per person. If we want to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius this needs to come down to 2 tonnes per head by 2050. Currently China, the largest national emitter of CO2, emits the equivalent of 9 tonnes per person. The United States on the other hand emits 20 tonnes per person.

People living in grinding poverty, or even at standards which are half those of a small minority of the planets population are unlikely to worry about the impact of climate change if those that have been the “winners” to date are not seen to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting. The eradication of global poverty is no longer just a moral issue it is tied to the long-term sustainability of the planet.

There is a technical section of the book which looks at the models used to predict the impact of climate change. Stern feels there are some fundamental flaws to some of these models. He argues, “The basic problem is that they have assumed underlying growth plus only modest damages from big increases in temperature, plus very limited risk.”

Because they ignore some significant “tipping point” risks and issues like potential migration patterns they lead to overly optimistic conclusions. So, for example, some of the models assume 2% annual growth and 20% damages from climate change over time. These end up showing the world to be 6 times better off economically even with 8% temperature increase. So the economy is fine, it’s just that all the people are dead.

The book is written in a very clear and persuasive manner. There are no flights of emotional rhetoric, no avoiding difficult questions. The evidence is laid out systematically and rigorously. Mr Stern clearly believes in the power of rational argument, which is much to his credit. I would be very loath to question his grip on international policy development. If I have one concern it is that he may underestimate the strength and resolution of those with a material interest in rejecting the risks associated with climate change.

Unless there is a massive technological breakthrough on carbon capture and storage the reducing CO2e emissions path set out above is probably the only viable way to limit the increase in global temperatures. The implications of this are that somewhere between 65% and 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves currently in the ground have to stay there. That is a lot of pain. Pain, which would be felt by some of the most wealthy and thus powerful people on the planet. I am not sure how far rational argument will go along that line.

I started by suggesting that if you only want to read one book on climate change “Why are we waiting?” should be it. I would conclude by saying don’t read one book on climate change, read two. Read Nicholas Stern in conjunction with Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”. Stern and Klein have very different views about who will play the leading role in addressing the issue of climate change. For Stern the private sector has to be mobilised. For Klein it is an effective state energised by local activism. Whatever their differences they are both attempting to inject a much-needed level of urgency into the issue of climate change. They both provide insight and illumination. A Kein/Stern synthesis would be tremendous until then the effort of reading two substantial books will not be wasted both are excellent in their different ways.

Nicholas Stern. Why  Are We Waiting. MIT Press 2015


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