Listening to a lecture of Nicholas Stern feels like being on the USS Enterprise travelling at warp speed, such is the scale of the consequences linked to climate change and global warming he describes.
This is how I felt when listening to his LSE public lecture The Stern Review +10: new opportunities for growth and development .
Ten years have passed since the landmark review that takes his name. What has happened? Are we moving in the right direction? Are we still on time to find solutions or is it too late?
During his lecture, Nicholas Stern uses data analytics and research evidence to travel millions of years back in time and to describe trends in our planet temperatures . He then warps into the future (25 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now) and describes some possible scenarios for our planet.
It is a scary journey. Not so much about whether the Earth will survive us. It will, in one form or another. The problem is whether it will survive us and maintain the conditions we need to inhabit it.
The scary parts of this journey across space and time are the scenarios. The immense scale of the changes that will occur depending on the level of action or non-action taken by governments, leaders, and individual citizens. Those scenarios tell us that the window for slowing global warming is closing. We face a real risks of desertification at the equator, raising sea levels and displacement of hundreds of millions of people living near the seas, increased pressure on reduced amount of land suitable for food production, fresh water scarcity, stronger weather phenomena, increased deforestation, further increase in temperatures, hundred of millions of people on the move to find a place to live, etc. etc. The worst case scenarios are terrifying.
Despite all this, Lord Stern is relatively optimistic. The evidence that he uses to describe the problems and its consequences is also telling him (telling us) that there has been progress during the last ten years. Renewable energy sources are growing, CO2 emissions are reducing, countries like Sweden have committed to go carbon neutral by 2045, China is the leading polluters but also showing that when government steps in, it is possible to begin reduce emissions and develop new technologies on a large scale, Paris has happened … but more needs to be done.
Nicholas Stern speaks of climate change as has the largest market failure the world has ever seen. It may also be the largest evidence-policy making failure of all times. The evidence has been there for decades. Possible solutions and policy recommendations have been written up and documented in countless reports, academic papers, treaties, documentaries, books, you name it. Yet, we find ourselves almost at a point of no return.
Why is that?
There are of course powerful business lobbies that have a lot to lose from reducing carbon fossils consumption.
But there is more than that.
Policy makers, prime ministers, presidents have a short-term perspective of things which is linked to the term they are in office. It goes from one election to the next. You need to be an enlightened politician to invest today in large scale mitigation and adaptation programmes, thus reducing investments in other more current and visible problems such as public services or infrastructures, while the outcome will be felt maybe 50 years later. Human nature and political instinct do not cope well with those timeframes.
Human nature does not cope well also with the immense scale of the consequences described by Lord Stern. I am writing this from Indonesia. The president and the government are rightly preoccupied with urgent problems: how to provide social security and access to good health services to all citizen, but in particular to the 100ml or so with a low incomes. Indonesia is a middle income economy, how to avoid falling back into the low income group when extractive industries and raw materials’ exports have exhausted their economic return? How to transition the economy to a knowledge economy when universities struggle to be visible in international rankings and research funding is one of the lowest in the region? Big problems, that will define the future of this country. At the same time, I think that these problems will be dwarfed by the need to relocate tens of millions of people who live along the coast lines if the sea level continues to raise. Where to reallocate them? Who will give up their land to make room for them?
In Europe, the refugee crisis is straining political and social systems in several countries and of the whole European Union, yet, that is nothing compared to the influx of people that may be on the move due to desertification, lack of food, and the conflicts that will begins as a result of all of that.
How are we preparing for all this ? Are we doing something today to reduce those consequences? Am I doing my part? Am I helping my daughters to understand all this?
The eldest one, told me yesterday that she did a small survey among her friends at school. One thought that global warming does not exist. Four said they did not know about it. Five said they know about it and believe in it. A 50% positive response is better than 40%, but there is room for improvement. Hopefully soon 100% of students in her school will say that they know about climate change and global warming and they can then decide independently whether to do something about it or not.
After listening to Nicholas Stern’s lecture I did not feel as optimistic as he says he is. But I want to trust his knowledge of the evidence and the facts. The journeys of the USS Enterprise are science fiction and always end well. Global warming and climate change are real, scary, and we do not know how the movie will end. Let’s do something about it right now.