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WHY ARE WE WAITING? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change by Nicholas Stern

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
WHY ARE WE WAITING? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change by Nicholas Stern
01 Sep
2015
It might be argued that humanity’s limited capacity for noble self-sacrifice and its puny reserves of foresight are never going to save the planet. I’d prefer to think our better angels will prevail, and I suspect Nicholas Stern would agree

However, it’s always useful to have another hammer in your intellectual toolbox. This wonderful book provides one.

It does not ignore the ethical dimensions of the climate debate but it rests on a fundamental economic reality: that, given the challenges ahead, the perils of inaction outweigh, by some measure and even in the relatively short term, the costs and risks of dynamism.

No sacrifice is required. A low-carbon revolution would soothe our souls, but it would also be good for business. This makes it all the more mystifying that ‘perhaps the last generation’ that can set us on the right track is still ‘gambling for colossal stakes’.

Stern understands the perennial obstacles. Like any sane person, he has no doubts about the ‘simple and strong physics of the greenhouse effect’ so some sharp words are aimed at the deniers. That said, he admits that ‘it is almost as if the science of climate change has conspired to make the generation of action as difficult as possible’. We struggle to understand a threat of such magnitude and the delay between current action (or the lack thereof) and future consequences invites us to shrug off the issue for a little longer.

Here, Stern advises scientists to do a much better job of communicating their findings. He also takes some of his fellow economists to task. Many of their models ‘grossly underestimate’ the damage that would ensue from soaring temperatures.

Beacons of hope are also clearly visible. Stern notices that sensible, if limited, measures have entered statute books around the globe

This is not a gloomy book, however. Stern is brimful of cautious optimism. We are not doing enough to limit future temperature rises but, at some levels, we have made meaningful progress. Technological advances in, for instance, renewable energy have outstripped earlier expectations and Stern sees genuine potential for a period of investment, innovation and, yes, prosperity. He looks to the past, as rounded economists are apt to do, and explains how earlier waves of advancement (from the era of steam and trains to the information age) have tended to be rapid, focussed and productive. We must, I suppose, hope that history repeats itself.

There are factors in our favour. The next crucial decades will coincide with major structural changes in the world’s economic and social infrastructure. Newer cities will expand while older ones will have to be renewed, so we might as well plan, build, and allocate land usage in environmentally sensitive ways.

Beacons of hope are also clearly visible. Stern notices that sensible, if limited, measures have entered statute books around the globe. He also points out that even when nations decline to sign up to global climate-improving obligations, they are more than capable of launching local initiatives. Finally, one of the most cheering messages is that places bearing little responsibility for the current mess are taking the lead in setting a ‘low-carbon, climate-resilient’ example: he singles out Ethiopia, Colombia and Bangladesh for special praise.

So many books about climate change offer a diagnosis without providing a course of treatment. Stern takes out his prescription pad. He writes at length about a host of vital subjects. What is right and what is wrong with the process of international negotiation in the climate arena? A global, cooperative approach is mandatory but we can be overly ‘centralised and legalistic’. How do we sustain a sense of equity, between richer and poorer nations, in the process of solving the future? Who is going to pay for the solutions? How should different economic sectors adjust? Stern does not conjure up some panacea but his educated guesses and suggestions are detailed and fair-minded.

Stern knows the maths but he places the equations in a broader cultural context. When did you last see an economist bolstering his theories by invoking Kantian categorical imperatives or Aristotelian notions of virtue? These digressions are only fitfully successful but they emphasise a basic point. Acting now is both morally appropriate and economically sound. 

WHY ARE WE WAITING? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change by Nicholas Stern ; The MIT Press; £19.95 (hardback/ebook)

This review was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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