Nicholas Stern’s new climate crusade

For the record, Lord Nicholas Stern thinks his famous handiwork, the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, was a bit off. Or rather, its projections were underestimates. Three years ago Stern’s report galvanized international attention with its main findings: that addressing climate change sooner would cost far less waiting until later. But in ...

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585952_090512_stern2.jpg
Professor Nicholas Stern, one of the worlds leading environmental economists, flanked by Professor Dan Kammen (L) speaks on the last day of the Climate Change Copenhagen Congress on March 12, 2009. The congress, which is arranged by Copenhagen University, serves as the preliminaries to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December this year. Only months before make-or-break UN climate talks in Copenhagen, an extraordinary conclave of climate scientists gathering to warn that global warming is accelerating more quickly than forecast by a key UN report for policymakers. AFP PHOTO/Jens Nørgaard Larsen/SCANPIX (Photo credit should read Jens Nørgaard Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)

For the record, Lord Nicholas Stern thinks his famous handiwork, the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, was a bit off. Or rather, its projections were underestimates.

Three years ago Stern's report galvanized international attention with its main findings: that addressing climate change sooner would cost far less waiting until later. But in a speech last Thursday in Oxford, UK, he noted that economics is a dismally flawed science - forecasting tools aren't yet up to the task of modeling scenarios involving the scale and uncertainty of climate change. "Looking back," he said, "I think we actually under-did the story."

For the record, Lord Nicholas Stern thinks his famous handiwork, the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, was a bit off. Or rather, its projections were underestimates.

Three years ago Stern’s report galvanized international attention with its main findings: that addressing climate change sooner would cost far less waiting until later. But in a speech last Thursday in Oxford, UK, he noted that economics is a dismally flawed science – forecasting tools aren’t yet up to the task of modeling scenarios involving the scale and uncertainty of climate change. “Looking back,” he said, “I think we actually under-did the story.”

Stern is known in Britain alternately as Mr. Climate Change and Lord Climate Change. It’s always struck me that the man responsible for putting climate change squarely into mainstream international debate was not a scientist, a politician, an advocate, a poet, a celebrity, or a writer, but an economist. (Until recently, Stern served as economics advisor under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and before that at the World Bank.) While most economists have lately fallen out of public favor, Stern seems an exception.

These days he’s trying hard not to be a doom and gloom guy. Rather than envisioning future catastrophes, he’s focusing now on how to build the political alliances necessary to find workable ways forward. His speech coincides with the release of his new book: A Blueprint for a Safer Planet.

Aside from stressing that the crucial question now is how to get developing nations(read: China) on board in Copenhagen – any deal must be “efficient and equitable,” he noted – Stern’s main point was that predicting and accepting doomsday could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Collective pessimism about our inability to act will deliver an inability to act.”

So what will holding global C02 levels to a livable level cost — and who will pay? On the first question, Stern estimates about $2 trillion. On the second,well, that remains the big unknown. 

Jens Nørgaard Larsen/AFP/Getty Images

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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