Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change
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)