Earlier this year I was invited to review Nicholas Stern’s new book, Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change (MIT Press, 2015), for the Journal of Economic Psychology.
In Why Are We Waiting? (a follow-up to his well known Review of 2006), Nicholas Stern assembles scientific, moral and economic arguments that rapid and radical reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are needed to limit global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, and wonders why progress is so slow.
In my review, as I summarise in this post, I criticise Stern’s book for selective use of evidence, over-optimism regarding the co-benefits of climate policy (for instance for public health), and no discussion of the risks of climate policy (as opposed to the risks of climate change itself).
Stern’s book is not reliable on either science or policy. For example, there is no evidence that methane emissions from permafrost are ‘accelerating’ (p.12), and ‘wet-bulb’ temperature is below ‘dry-bulb’ temperature (and not above, as stated on p.137). And on policy solutions, small-scale solar photovoltaic systems will not readily replace biomass for cooking as Stern implies on p.79. I found many examples of such questionable assertions, some of which I discuss in my review, and which I plan to list in more detail in the future.
I hoped for a clear exposition of the economic costs and benefits of CO2 mitigation, but Stern simply asserts that the costs will be far less than the benefits, telling us: “I have not tried to redo the calculation [in the 2006 Review]… But the arguments given thus far in this book suggest the relative-cost argument would tilt still more strongly in favour of action now than [in 2006]” (pp.39-40). In Chapter 4 Stern tells us that current economic models of climate impacts are not alarming enough.
But in the end, the book’s main weakness is its failure to answer the question ‘Why Are We Waiting?’
As I say in my review:
“Stern finally turns in Chapter 10 to consider the question in his title ‘Why Are We Waiting?’, attributing the lack of action to factors such as ‘a communication deficit’ and ‘psychological barriers.’ He suggests that communicators are needed who appeal to and are trusted by particular sections of the public. Those communicators should not only be scientists and political leaders but include ‘actors, celebrities, and sports stars’, religious leaders, academic societies, the medical community, royalty and so on. The media should make the most of every ‘weather extreme’ to explain climate change risk. But this chapter feels substantially disconnected from the rest of the book. The communication strategies that Stern advocates are aimed at individuals, specifically those individuals in developed countries he considers insufficiently worried about climate change, while the rest of the book is about how major transformations such as energy generation and urbanization might be managed by governments.
Stern gives little indication of what those individuals are meant to do, apart from a vague injunction to ‘support climate action.’ But considerable support already exists. A large majority of the public in both the UK and USA (which, as Stern notes, are among the most sceptical countries) is in favour of cutting CO2 emissions and supports expansion of renewable energy.1 Whatever communication opposing climate action may have achieved (communication that Stern describes as ‘more effective’ than that in favour of action, although he gives no examples), it has not shifted public opinion away from climate action. Climate marches take place regularly in many developed countries. Public pressure via the Friends of the Earth’s ‘Big Ask’ was instrumental in achieving the UK Climate Change Act.2 It is not clear what more politicians could do if public opinion increased from its present levels of about 74% in favour of regulating CO2 (as in the US in 2014) or 80% in favour of renewable energy (in the UK). Radical policies have been enacted with much lower levels of support – consider same-sex marriage in the UK, or US healthcare reform. A clear majority of the public is convinced of the risk of climate change and supports climate action. So what is delaying a wholesale switch to a low-carbon economy? Stern provides no satisfactory answer to that question.”
1. US public opinion: http://environment.yale.edu/poe/v2014/ UK public opinion: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/public-attitudes-tracking-survey (Wave 13).
2. Neil Carter and Michael Jacobs. 2014. ‘Explaining Radical Policy Change: The Case of Climate Change and Energy Policy under the British Labour Government 2006-10.’ Public Administration 92(1) 125-141.
I don’t know the answer to Stern’s question. But, as I argue in my review, the problem is not a deficit of ‘communication strategies.’ What is lacking are realistic policies that take into account the physical, chemical, and engineering challenges arising from the world’s demand for energy. The fact that ‘climate action’ has not gone as far as Stern wishes suggests that such policies (or technologies) are not (yet) available.