Climate change challenges us at almost every level of our identity. Photo: Getty
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Why are we still waiting for a solution to climate change? Because it’s hard

Stern finds solace in moral philosophy, drawing on Kant and Aristotle to argue the ethical grounds for action in defence of the rights of those as yet unborn.

Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change
Nicholas Stern
MIT Press, 448pp, £19.95

Recent temperatures have once again broken all records for a British July. We are now approaching the 370th month in succession that global temperatures have been above the 20th-century average. Yet, across the news channels, economists are insisting that London must expand an airport (but which one?) to sustain the inevitable growth in aviation. After 25 years of procrastination, why are we still waiting for policymakers and economists to accept the overwhelming evidence about climate change?

Lord Stern makes a strong argument for the economic and moral justification for ­action, just as he has done for close to a decade since he published his groundbreaking 700-page Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Stern argues repeatedly that it is an unprecedented threat and that a transition to low-carbon fuels will lead to a world that is “cleaner, quieter, safer, more energy-secure, more community-based and more biodiverse”. Hurrah for that.

Yet none of this is new: we have seen it in hundreds of reports, conferences and symposiums. Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Robert Mugabe, Osama Bin Laden and now the Pope – surely the most improbable coalition in history – have all warned us. The most interesting question (and the promise of the book jacket) is “why it has been so difficult to tackle climate change effectively”.

Stern often seems perplexed by the question he seeks to answer. His rhetorical style is to present to us, in a neutral and noncommittal voice, a range of answers that “seem wise”, “useful” or “may have implications”. He frequently spirals into convoluted constructions such as: “If this interpretation is correct, then it would suggest that the task . . . may be more challenging than many believe.” This style exemplifies all too well why many people remain unengaged with such a dry, abstract and distant-seeming policy debate. Nobody talks about terrorism in this way.

Stern adheres to the central belief that “sound argument should be a necessary condition for sensible and rational action”. It is, he writes, “the arguments that matter”. Thus, for him, the polarisation and denialism that are throttling the political process across the English-speaking world are fuelled by faulty logic: “simple-minded objections”, based on a “handful of erro­neous papers”. Challenging the s­ceptics, he outlines four criteria which can show that “basic common sense . . . points strongly to action”.

Behind this carefully modulated language, one can sense a frustration with many people’s inability to think rationally. In interviews, he is far more candid, referring to those who disagree with him as “idiots” and “politically naive”.

This is, I fear, to misunderstand the nature of climate-change denial, which is in fact highly politically astute, well-informed and strategic. Denialism is not about bad ­information. Nor is it irrational. It is about the defence of deeply entrenched cultural values and economic power. Nowhere in this book does Stern deal adequately with this raw identity politics, even though few people have had such a sustained opportunity to see the political sausage-making process at such close quarters.

It is somewhat ironic that his title – Why Are We Waiting? – echoes the chant, sung awkwardly to the tune of “Oh, come, all ye faithful”, that accompanied so many social-rights campaigns of the 1970s. Stern makes only passing mention of the brutal political struggles of the past and ascribes the success of campaigns against slavery and apartheid to a change in “social attitudes”.

The examples he proposes when seeking case studies of previous “big, difficult structural changes” – smoking, lead in petrol and drink-driving – have little in common with climate change but much in common with his world-view. Each of them illustrates the dominant role of expert guidance, or, as Stern writes (with regard to smoking), the “expert-led, top-down, professional route to formulating policy”, combined with a moral calling to social responsibility.

As Stern confesses in the final chapter, however, cognitive psychology shows that all of us – expert professionals included – can be highly irrational. His friend Daniel Kahneman (to whom Stern refers breezily as “Danny”) won a Nobel prize for showing how cognitive bias permeates high-level economic decision-making. In Kahneman’s experiments, people consistently reject the arguments that seem so “rational” to Stern; driven by their cognitive bias, they avoid short-term costs even when they are told that this may lead to far higher costs in the long term. This innate bias is then reinforced by the social norms among policymakers, false optimism and selective storytelling.

Technocratic cultural bias may explain Stern’s greatest lacuna, a failure to recognise the central role that fossil-fuel production continues to play in corrupting the political process. Stern welcomes the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels – these distort the free market, after all – but gives no thought to a cap on their production or the $1trn per year that still pours into their expansion. Nor is he alone in this. The World Bank, his former employer, now routinely warns of catastrophic climate change while continuing to fund fossil-fuel production and carbon-­based energy production – providing, by one estimate, up to $3bn per year.

Stern rightly complains that economists attempt to force everything into a cost-­benefit analysis and notes, “When someone has a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” He tries gamely to adopt other analytical tools yet there is no avoiding the reality: his life has been spent in the elite hammer culture of economic liberalism.

So, he brusquely discards the powerful critique of unlimited economic growth by his fellow economist Tim Jackson because it would “divert attention” into an “artificial race between growth and climate responsibility”. His commitment to the competitive market as the spur for innovation leads him to ignore the success of the Second World War’s command economies in transforming production. Surely these provide a better economic precedent for “big, difficult structural changes” than drink-driving?

That said, his critique of mainstream economics is still valuable and pertinent. Throughout his book, Stern keeps returning to the same core theme: that conventional economics is lousy at coping with intergenerational equity, in which the affluence of one generation is obtained at the cost of the others that will follow.

He is scathing about conventional economic models that have “grossly underestimated” the risks of future climate change. In a lengthy and often impenetrable section on discount rates (the rate at which utility declines over time), he shows that conventional theory so heavily discounts the future that it “comes close to saying, ‘Forget about issues 100 years or more from now’”.

Stern finds solace in moral philosophy, drawing on Kant and Aristotle to argue the ethical grounds for action in defence of the rights of those as yet unborn. His arguments, although maintaining his air of donnish abstraction, are an important attempt to place this nebulous issue within an intellectual tradition. It is when he drops the passive voice of the technical expert and speaks of his personal concerns for the vulnerable or future generations, however (as he charmingly showed in his Ted talk, standing next to his two-week-old grand-daughter), that he becomes most persuasive. Economics is a vital tool for implementation but it is these non-negotiable emotional values that are most likely to propel us into action.

So, why are we waiting? Because ­climate change is damned hard. It challenges us at almost every level of our identity and forces us to rethink what we assume to be true. Stern is a decent man struggling, like all of us, to cope with the immensity of this change and the challenge it poses to his world-view. I’m glad he is on our side.

George Marshall is a co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network and the author of “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution