Nicholas Stern: ‘I Got It Wrong on Climate Change – It’s Far, Far Worse’

Lord Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change that became the reference work for politicians and green campaigners, now says he underestimated the risks, and should have been more “blunt” about the threat posed to the economy by rising temperatures.

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75 percent chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

He said some countries, including China, had now started to grasp the seriousness of the risks, but governments should now act forcefully to shift their economies towards less energy-intensive, more environmentally sustainable technologies.

“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

Stern said he backed the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act, which commits the government to ambitious carbon reduction targets. But he called for increased investment in greening the economy, saying: “It’s a very exciting growth story.”

David Cameron made much of his environmental credentials before the 2010 election, travelling to the Arctic to highlight his commitment to tackling global warming. But the coalition’s commitment to green policies has recently been questioned, amid scepticism among Tory backbenchers about the benefits of wind power, and the chancellor’s enthusiasm for exploiting Britain’s shale gas reserves.

Stern’s comments came as Jim Yong Kim, the new President of the World Bank, also at Davos, gave a grave warning about the risk of conflicts over natural resources should the forecast of a four-degree global increase above the historical average prove accurate.

“There will be water and food fights everywhere,” Kim said as he pledged to make tackling climate change a priority of his five-year term.

Kim said action was needed to create a carbon market, eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies and “green” the world’s 100 megacities, which are responsible for 60 to 70 percent of global emissions.

He added that the 2012 droughts in the United States, which pushed up the price of wheat and maize, had led to the world’s poor eating less. For the first time, the Bank President said, extreme weather had been attributed to man-made climate change. “People are starting to connect the dots. If they start to forget, I am there to remind them.

“We have to find climate-friendly ways of encouraging economic growth. The good news is we think they exist.”

Kim said there would be no solution to climate change without private sector involvement and urged companies to seize the opportunity to make profits: “There is a lot of money to be made in building the technologies and bending the arc of climate change.”

This article was originally published by the Guardian on 26 January 2013.

Copyright The Guardian. All rights reserved.



Heather Stewart

The Observer

Heather Stewart is the Observer’s economics editor.

Join the Discussion

  • kwatanabe

    “The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected and emissions are rising pretty strongly.”

    The above statement might indicate that we have consumed more natural resources and produced more individualized electronics/mobile/other products than we expected.

    Assume the mundane materialism would bear the consequences of climate change as its anthithesis. Theoretically, the conflict between the thesis and the antithesis would ultimately sublimate to a higher, truer thesis .

    As the article indicated, rhetorically such growth as sustainable development could be enabled. Education and training would be the one of only things that I can possibly imagine at present, aside from some compelling natural force, which would make such shift or sublimation possibly happen.

    The individuals and corporations are generally inclined to obey the law, provided the cost of noncompliance outweight the compliance, the desire to maintain public relations is stronger, and their public images would otherwise be tarnished irrevocably by noncompliance and so on.

    My point is these entities are not mere economic acotors but they are more sensible beings than most scholars would imagine. More incentives, rewards and other economic factors that enhance their public relations and meet their social responsibility by compliance might as well contribute to the climate friendly way of economic growth, I thought.

  • cinnamon50

    Inasmuch as Davos is an incestuous celebration of the bankers who screw the rest of us, I am (a) distrustful of anything from davos, and (b) not inclineded to listen to anyone who would degrade themselves by associating with the people who go to davos

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