Saturday, May 2, 2009

Stern Words in Seattle

Stern lessons worth heedingAddressing climate change "is not all sack cloth and ashes."

So said Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, who was in Seattle this past Thursday, where I was fortunate to be able to meet him at a private breakfast gathering in the Mayflower Park Hotel. Stern, best known for his eponymous report, is on a tour promoting his book, The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress and Prosperity. Stern is the former chief economist at the World Bank and has held a variety of senior economic policy positions in the UK government and has taught and researched at MIT, Ecole Polytechnique, the Indian Statistical Institute and People's University of China.

Stern spoke extemporaneously for about 30 minutes and took questions for nearly another 30. As one might expect from a professor at the esteemed London School of Economics, his tone was measured but purposeful with the power of his presentation coming from the force of his words rather than the style of its delivery. He's very soft-spoken and only once betrayed a flicker of emotion, when asked about the role the media has played and needs to play in educating people about climate change. He seemed a touch exasperated as he termed "insane" the media's relentless need to provide (faux) "balance" by always pairing a climate change denier with reality-based scientists.

Early on Stern declared that addressing climate change was "all about economics" but later said (accurately) that "the problem comes down to political will." Both matter of course, but I was struck by how much his remarks focused on the politics of addressing climate change and the educational challenges. Some of the questioners suggested it was more than just political will but also social pressures and and the selfish behaviors that are the Tragedy of the Commons.

Stern hit the large themes of his book, which in turn is based on his earlier paper "Key Elements of a Global Deal" [pdf] first published on the LSE website a year ago to the day. The following are combined notes, as best as I could take them, from both his talk and the Q&A, organized loosely by topic. Any errors are assuredly mine, not his.

On the global extent of the problem
Stern started by stressing the global nature of the problem: contributions of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere from anywhere increases the incidence and likelihood of bad consequences everywhere. Climate change is quite obviously a global problem, and storms and extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity. He also briefly alluded to the increasing occurrence of anomalous weather: flooding, droughts, signs of desertification.

On the science of climate change
He did not spend much time summarizing the state of the science. I knew about a quarter of the attendees, and if they were representative of the room as a whole, everyone present was already well aware of the salient climate change facts. (I suspect too that they were also largely united in favor of action rather than delay.) He noted the core problem: If we change nothing about what we do, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will reach 700-800ppm by 2100 and lead to an average increase in global temperature of 5°C, and "we haven't a clue how to cope with that." Humankind has survived a drop of 5°C in global average temperature in the past but never a rise of that amount. Anticipating a standard denier argument he added, "of course there have been fluctuations in human history, but nothing like this." The core "science is 200 years old" starting with Fourier, and "all the time evidence is coming in to support the theory of GHG-caused climate change." The state of the science on climate change? It's settled. "Delay is very dangerous."

On developed vs. developing world
Stern's key point: "Rich countries have to take the lead; it cannot work by rich countries pointing fingers and lecturing other countries." The perception abroad of what the US can do and be has changed in the aftermath of the Bush era; US leadership now is both more possible and more expected. Currently US per capita carbon emissions are 20 tons annually. Europe is 10-12 tons. China is 5. By 2050 the per capita figure needs to be down to 2 tons as a global average. This is "a big ask." China, Brazil and others have their own carbon plans today. These plans could be more aggressive, but that will only be possible if the rich countries take a position of leadership on setting and working towards more aggressive goals themselves. The politics going into this fall's global meeting in Copenhagen will entail a lot of "hard bargaining" from India, China and other developing countries over emissions targets. The strategy from the industrialized countries should be one of obtaining "a commitment to commit" from the developing countries, which will require the US and Europe to take the first large steps. The developing countries will follow this lead because "they know they are vulnerable" should inaction on climate change continue. On a practical level, richer countries must engage in "technology sharing" with poorer ones to mitigate the growth in per capita carbon emissions in those countries. Such sharing would also provide political support for the leaders of developing countries to forgo the dirty carbon growth path and its promise of economic bounty that the rich countries took in their day but which now must be replaced with a new way.

On how to regulate carbon
There's no significant economic reason to pick between a carbon tax and some form of cap-and-trade system; both put a price on carbon emissions as a way of providing an economic incentive towards their reduction. Stern wryly noted the "lack of total sincerity" of some advocates and that some were pushing the tax precisely because having a "tax" makes for an easier target politically. However structured, a cost of $50/ton for CO2 by 2020 would be a powerful incentive for technological progress of the right kind.

On transportation
It's pointless for any policy to be based on the idea that people will give up their own personal transportation (cars.) The policy has to find a way to make that indispensable part of modern industrial life possible in a way that is compatible with a sensible carbon policy. Electricity will need to be the power source for cars.

On coal
"Coal is a problem." Coal has been promoted as a solution to energy security, but it is the only source that fails to pair energy security with climate change mitigation. About 50% of the world's electricity comes from coal, and we cannot suddenly stop using it, so we need to deal with that reality. It took "much too long" but at least, at long last, in the UK there is now a policy that no new coal plants will be built unless they have a full carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) system. We need to devote greater effort to finding a viable CCS approach, as well as greater plant efficiency, for now, as we work to replacing coal with renewable sources.

On what doesn't work
"If you ask for things that can't be done you just marginalize yourself." He cited the calls by some to immediately shut down coal plants as an example of this. We must be practical and realistic in what we choose. The current approach to global development, especially by the large institutions like the World Bank is "a disaster" because it lacks the relevant big picture context on promoting growth of the right kind. It proceeds "project by project" treating each in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole with interlocking and cumulative impacts. Most dangerous would be trying to reinflate the bubble economy. The seeds of the bubble just burst were sown right after the "madness" of the dot-com bubble. "Rekindling the old growth story is rekindling the past."

On growth
"Low carbon growth is the only growth option." Carbon growth will no longer be possible or sustainable due to its rising cost and environmental consequences. "Clean tech will be the big driver of growth" just as other transforming technologies of yesteryear (autos, computers, etc.) were the engines of growth in their day.

On the role of government
Need "real investment" and "real policy" that focuses on clean tech as the initial leader and ongoing catalyst of economic growth. Our society is a "dynamic creature" that needs only the right kind of public policy guidance. The government cannot be completely neutral on technology choices but it can and should set broad policy to restore economic vitality via growth of the right kind. "The linkage between public policy and private sector response is very powerful." An example of this is French government support for high speed rail, which resulted in the best such in the world, the TGV.

On educating and communicating
It is "very important that people understand the risk" posed by climate change, but motivating an "unengaged" populace will require a "steady calm explanation of how dangerous delay is." "How do we persuade people and get them to come together on this? Quite a lot of progress comes from good communication." Need to employ the right kind of methods, "get the argument right" and be creative. Stern cited Yann Arthus-Bertrand's book Earth from Above being used in French schools as an example of what is needed. Stern expressed encouragement that the pace of growing awareness has really picked up, and noted that business leaders generally and the heads of large companies in particular have become aware to the danger to a much greater degree in the last 2-3 years. This is starting to really shift the attitudes of politicians, who lag in their understanding compared to the public.

On what we must do
"We need a collaborative response to a very clear human danger" like the global community was able to do in response to past crises. Solving the climate change challenge "will be the largest collaboration the world has ever seen" but not unprecedented, as the world collaborated before on smallpox eradication, for example. Much of this will need to come from collaboration amongst political leaders and their countries. "There's a tremendous amount we can do" including zero-carbon transportation, efficiency (which saves money and doesn't cost much), stopping deforestation, and especially planting more trees (to which he referred several times) as this has a "carbon-negative" benefit that is quite strong.

Stern stated flatly that 2010-2020 are the "crucial" years for the pace of adoption by the developing world of measures to address climate change. While the "political dynamics are strongly in the right direction" and current signs are "strongly encouraging" it is nonetheless "very worrying how far we have to get." Ours is "the first generation that can destroy humans' relationship to the planet."

"If we fail our problems are enormous" but "we have to be extremely positive about what we can can see what we have to do."
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