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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis