My Review of Nicholas Stern’s Book ‘Why Are We Waiting?’

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.

The published version of my book review is here (you can email me for a pdf), and a manuscript version is here.

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.

Stern book cover

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: UK public opinion: (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.

Update: Here is Josh’s ( take on the matter! Also at Bishop Hill.

Cartoon by Josh

Cartoon by Josh


28 thoughts on “My Review of Nicholas Stern’s Book ‘Why Are We Waiting?’

  1. “I have not tried to redo the calculation [in the 2006 Review]”

    Stern did not actually do said calculation in the 2006 Review. When it was pointed out that the alleged optimum did not meet the first-order conditions for optimality, Stern’s sidekick Zhengelis replied that Newton and Leibniz were long dead and calculus had lost its relevance.

    • Richard, none of you does any ”calculation” for genuine reason! BECAUSE: the more CO2 in the air-> the more is washed down by the rain -> co2 stays in the soil to fertilize it, water evaporates as distilled!

      #2: can CO2 stop winter climate going into summer climate, or the other way?! insinuating that co2 has anything to do with the non-existent global warming is the precursor of all today’s evil… badmouthing the essential co2, is trendy and profitable BUT: the truth always wins on the end!!!: here is something for you, please read every sentence, if you have stomach for the truth:

      • Sorry Stefan, your first para makes no chemical/physical sense. CO2 is more volatile than water and does not ‘stay in the soil’ unless taken up by photosynthetic organisms (or, very slowly, by a chemical reaction with some minerals, but this accounts for a tiny proportion of atmospheric CO2 over decadal timescales). If the water evaporates, so does the vast majority of the dissolved CO2.

        I’m not going to debate the role of CO2 in the greenhouse effect – as far as I’m concerned (I have a degree and PhD in Chemistry), CO2 is a greenhouse gas and the Earth is considerably warmer than it would be without it. Further discussion of this subject will be deemed ‘off-topic’.

        • Professor Ruth Dixon,
          Forgive the reply here, but I hope you will be notified of it and so read it.

          Irrelevant to your good review but very relevant to the subject, LENR (aka cold fusion) is alive and well, despite the lack of attention. Industrial Heat’s commercial LENR 1 MW thermal plant has now been running for six months as part of a 350 day trial. Various independent sources report it is operating well with a COP of 20 – 80.

          So we will know in February whether there really is a safe, clean, cheap new energy source that will replace fossil fuels over the next several decades.
          One wonders why the greens ignore it.

  2. “…and wonders why progress is so slow.”

    Possibly because no-one takes him seriously?

    Here are the results of the 2015 United Nations My World global survey, currently running at 8,116,686 respondents and climbing.

    Out of 16 categories of concern, ‘action on climate change’ came flat last.

    • Here’s an interesting (amusing?!) conundrum that someone – somewhere along the UN line – probably needs to resolve.

      Notwithstanding (or perhaps to counteract?!) the above, it seems that on June 6, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) decided to hold its very own one-day:

      “largest ever global citizen consultation on climate and energy. On June 6, beginning at dawn in the Pacific Islands and ending at dusk in the West Coast of the United States, citizens around the world took part in the largest ever public consultation on climate change and energy.”

      On the bright side, at least the participants seem to have put the mythical “97%” out to pasture. But …

      The full report, evidently, won’t be available until the end of September. In the meantime, one has to wonder how the reported views of the “10,000 citizens from 76 countries” who participated in this one-day event succeeded in trumping those you reported above (and on which I have reported from time to time via my blog!)

      Perhaps someone somewhere along the UN line has … uh … redefined “largest ever”;-)

      Details, such as they currently stand, available at: World Wide Views on Climate and Energy

      Can’t help wondering if Stern’s latest and greatest depends, to some extent or other, on these … uh … findings. [Memo to self: Read Ruth’s full review very soon!]

  3. Stern seems to excel at “questionable assertions”, does he not?! In fact, the only instance I can recall of Stern painting what might be described as an “honest picture” was a few years ago (circa Sept. 24, 2013) when he had rather quietly announced to those assembled, the birth of the somewhat grandiosely named “Global Commission on the Economy and Climate”.

    This commission’s self-declared mandate was to produce:

    independent and authoritative evidence on the relationship between actions which can strengthen economic performance and those which reduce the risk of dangerous climate change

    And here comes the honest part of this then soon-to-be-produced new, improved picture (my bold -hro):

    The New Climate Economy’s starting point is the perspective of economic decision-makers: government ministers, particularly ministers of finance, economy, energy and agriculture; business leaders and financial investors; state governors and city mayors.

    For such decision-makers, climate change is rarely a primary concern.[…] Yet their decisions powerfully influence the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

    The above – along with other related stuff I had found – led me to conclude:

    Perhaps this heretofore unheard of “independent” New Climate Economy group, led by old-hand Stern was established to rescue the CO2 demon from its natural state of “rarely being a primary concern”

    Ruth, my apologies for not yet taking the time to read your full review of Stern’s latest and greatest. However, his apparent meandering into the realm of “attributing the lack of action to factors such as ‘a communication deficit’ and ‘psychological barriers.’” strongly suggests to me that perhaps Stern’s been too enchanted by the likes of 3rd raters, such as Cook and Lewandowski, for his own good. This may have led Stern to revert back to “recycling” mode – via fields in which he has no demonstrable expertise.

  4. Stern’s argument is, at its heart, built on a contradiction.

    Stern would have us believe that the economic case for rapid action to tackle the threat of climate change is so compelling as to be a “no brainer”. But he would also have us believe that the case is so feeble that the movement towards action can be crushed by a handful of sceptics. These ideas cannot both be true.

    I wish he would make his mind up.

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  8. There is something that troubles me in the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) debate that I would like to bring to light and solicit remarks from others in helping me understand it. I used to believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) when I first heard about it decades ago because it seemed plausible, but as I read articles skeptical of it I saw how I had been fooled. Being a skeptic I must dig in and get both sides of a controversial subject and then decide for myself. I’m a mechanical engineer and I understand physics and chemistry and energy a bit better than the average bear.

    Naomi Klein, how can she daily beat the CAGW drum and then live the typical western (high CO2) lifestyle? That would cause massive cognitive dissonance with me.

    A few years ago I was listening to a popular radio show, “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross on NPR, and she was interviewing a warmist whose name escapes me. I think he traveled around the USA on a university speaking tour, getting the word out about AGW, and when Terry gently reminded him that he was producing lots of CO2 by traveling on jetliners, he quickly countered “…ah, but I’m doing good work.” That revealed to me an elitist mindset; that it is okay to do what one is telling others not to do in order to spread the pearls of wisdom to the ignorant masses.

    Taking that notion, I want to make an analogy. Imagine a scenario of miners who are trapped underground after a cave in, with apparently limited air supply. One miner begins to tell the others that they should remain calm and sit down and relax and conserve oxygen until help arrives, and then other miners who agree also go around telling everyone the same and soon every miner is running around frantically telling everyone else to sit down and relax but no one will do what they are telling others to do because they think it is doing good work. Later, after rescue they are told that the mine is so big that there was no danger of oxygen depletion anyway. What if everyone were to fly around on jets and preach to everyone else not to fly on jets? One could not even email others and tell them not to use their computers because it takes coal to make the electricity. It puts warmists in a wildly bizarre dilemma, so how can they justify it? I would say compartmentalized thinking.

    The CAGW faithful talk it but do not walk it (except Ed Begley jr.), and I really notice it at the priestly level, mainly from pundits and bloggers. They should give up modern luxuries because of their belief in CAGW. I never expect a politician to practice what he preaches, but I would think that if all these warmists really believe in their cause they would all band together live much like the Amish, not for theological reasons, but simply to avoid being flaming hypocrites. And if the oceans rise up to smite us skeptics, then the warmists, from their sea-walled enclaves can say, “We told you it would happen, so don’t blame us because we have lived like the Amish for 88 years!” (2100 – 2012 = 88) I use the year 2100 based on all their “by the end of the century” predictions.

    The CAGW debate should be a purely scientific debate, but too often it is a political debate. Lefties (American partisan politics) are automatically warmists because for them it is politically correct to promote the CAGW meme. I fancy myself a skeptic, and within the skeptical movement is the famous Professor Robert Todd Carroll, of California who authors “The Skeptics Dictionary” ( I really admire this man, I have learned a lot reading his web site. However, he is a warmist, seemingly because he is a leftie. Many of my friends are lefties and I have no problem with that, but here is a stellar example of someone who is 99% skeptic, yet puts political fashion above evidence. Here I am, the student, observing my mentor doing what he taught me NOT to do, but I respect him so much that I do not want to call him out on it. In my view, a true skeptic should doubt the CAGW meme.

    From the McKibbens down to the warmist bloggers, I would love to follow any of them around for a day and remind them not to use any carbon-based energy, lest they be elitist and hypocritical. Don’t you dare heat your house in the winter, or use an air conditioner or drive a car, or cook on the stove or use your computer, because that would make you look like a “denier” as they call my kind. If I were a warmist I would not be caught dead in a car or an airplane. I would set a golden example and walk or ride a bicycle or use a paddle boat. No phone, no lights, no motorcar, not a single luxury!

    • A few thoughts on your question – I hope others will chip in.

      1. A person’s behaviour is not evidence of how valid their views are – though it might (as you say) indicate the strength with which they hold those views.
      2. Few of us are wholly free of hypocrisy and completely live up to our ideals, or put all of our resources (or even as much as we intend) into the causes that we support.
      3. I know people, both in the public eye and out of it, who ‘walk the walk’ regarding their carbon footprint, take trains across Europe rather than flying, don’t own a car, and so on. They are frequently characterised as eccentric (see some of the comments made about Prof Kevin Anderson (University of Manchester)). But would they be criticised whatever they do? “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” Matthew 11:18-19.
      4. Some people buy electricity from ‘green’ suppliers or buy carbon offsets to compensate for their air travel. I have doubts as to how effective such actions are, but no-one knows what anyone else is doing ‘invisibly.’

      5. One common response is that there is no alternative (at the moment): something else is needed (low-carbon electricity, better public transport, car sharing schemes, etc.). And indeed, cities that have been adapted for cycling and walking have more cyclists and pedestrians. And if every country had as much nuclear power as France, electricity would be much lower-carbon. Of course this can be used as an excuse but individuals can do only so much. Taking my own family as an example, we are lucky enough to be able to cycle to work (and school) and we have improved our home’s energy efficiency considerably as I describe in this post but I’m under no illusion that it is possible to cut our personal CO2 emissions to the world average while living in the UK.

      I am critical of Stern’s book, but I’m not critical of those who think CO2 emissions should be reduced. It is simply a very difficult problem to solve. Whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas or not does not depend on how annoying I find Naomi Klein.

    • The ‘warmists’ say, when confronted with the hypocrisy of the likes of Naomi Klein, that the benefit of her ‘getting the message out’ outweighs her own enormous carbon footprint. The argument is nonsense of course – the idea that there are people in Australia (I think that is where she is now trying to sell her book on the evils of capitalism) who have not yet heard the sermon but will hear this version and respond as instructed is ridiculous.

      • I agree, Paul – it does not seem to strike people (Stern included) that the opinions of ‘celebrities’ will carry little weight if contradicted by their actions.

  9. Something I have thought about quite a lot lately…

    From Ruth’s review of Stern’s opus: “First, because most greenhouse gases (particularly CO2) are long-lived in the atmosphere…”.

    Now, we keep being told that it will take hundreds of years for the extra CO2 to leach out of the atmosphere even if we stop producing it right now. This seems highly unlikely for a number of reasons, but there is one piece of information that can shed quite a bit of light on this, and that is the Mauna Loa CO2 trace.

    Here is the plot of one single year of this.

    From the drop in CO2 over the period 2001.3 to 2001.7, from ~373.8 to ~368.2 = 5.6ppm over a four month period, we are told as a result of the growing season in the Northern hemisphere, if there was no additional addition of CO2, 16.8ppm per annum, so it should be possible to get a good idea of the natural depletion rate of CO2.

    Certainly less than 100 years, probably less than 20 to reduce the current level of CO2 from ~400ppm to ~300ppm.

    Can anyone comment on this?

    • A very good question, and one I’ve also wondered about. In fact I asked Richard Betts about it when we met, but we didn’t have time to get into much detail. As I understand it, there are believed to be various ‘sinks’ for carbon dioxide with different exchange rates and capacities – that is, although some CO2 is rapidly absorbed (just as you showed) that ‘fast sink’ saturates, so can’t absorb all the added CO2 each year, so on average the atmospheric CO2 increases year on year. But I can see no reason why the ‘fast sink’ would suddenly stop absorbing what it does today if we stopped emitting CO2, as you say, decreasing atmospheric CO2 to reach a new equilibrium concentration.

      The process is known as the Bern model and is something I’d like to look into more when I’ve time. It was discussed on The Blackboard a few years ago:

      Maybe others have more detailed knowledge.

      • From your link:

        “In anycase, “Thus, were CO2 emissions to abruptly halt, to first order CO2 absorbtion by the ocean would halt. ” seems utterly wrong, as do the statements MT made immediately before this conclusion.”

        The assumption that ocean absorption would halt would appear – inter alia – to ignore Dalton’s law of partial pressures.

        • I agree. I don’t think anyone on that thread agreed with MT on that point. The question is, given that there is more CO2 in the system than when atmospheric CO2 was 280ppm, what would the new equilibrium [CO2] be if emissions stopped? The Bern model suggests it would fall only a little from current levels over 200 years (see the IPCC graph in Lucia’s post), and I don’t understand the physical mechanism that causes it to fall so slowly.

        • “I don’t understand the physical mechanism that causes it to fall so slowly.”

          It looks highly dubious to me, although I’m a decidedly superannuated chemical engineer and very rusty on stuff like that.

          That graph looks like inverse log and for some reason seems to go asymptotic a good way above the original ppm level, which seems to ignore a number of feedbacks that should be evident, eg. we already know that over the past 20 years or so vegetation has increased by 10% or more ( ) so the absorption from the increased vegetation alone would act to reduce it faster than indicated, to say nothing of the biological activity of the oceans which I imagine would have increased also.

          The whole thing looks highly pessimistic in fact.

          Just out of interest, Google ‘purge systems chemical engineering’ for something that might give some insight.

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  11. People being pressured into something stupid frequently foot drag.
    Stern is pressuring us all (to his great personal profit) something incredibly stupid.
    And he is doing so by way of some of the worst economic analysis available.

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