For a man who likes to warn of impending financial meltdown because of global warming, Nicholas Stern has a gigantic carbon footprint. The soon-to-be former head of the UK Government Economic Service has criss-crossed the globe in recent months, to share the bad news — climate change could bring a worldwide economic downturn comparable to the great depression or the two world wars. After trips to Brussels, Washington DC, Japan, China, India and South Africa, next week he is scheduled to leave on the final leg of his end-of-world tour, taking in Indonesia, Australia and California.
Stern has been given much of the credit for the fact that global warming now tops the public and political agendas. His review last October was hailed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the most important document to land on his desk, and no discussion of climate change is complete without a reference to Stern's conclusion — that it is cheaper to tackle the issue than to wait and deal with the consequences.
But there has also been criticism. William Nordhaus, the esteemed Yale University professor of economics, said Stern's unambiguous conclusions brought to mind the one-handed economist demanded by former US president Harry Truman, who complained that they would always say on the one hand this and the other hand that.
The review's support for action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, just as the government is pushing for domestic and international measures to do just that, has even been labeled as another dodgy dossier.
For either a green prophet of doom or a shady conspirator, Stern seems relaxed. He admits that he flies too much and has yet to replace all the light bulbs in his house with low energy versions. If all the attention has gone to his head, he does not show it.
He is reluctant to take credit for the current focus on environmental matters. "Others have made their contribution and I hope we made ours," he says. That contribution, running to almost 700 pages, said the expected increase in extreme weather, with the associated — and expensive — problems of agricultural failure, water scarcity, disease and mass migration, means global warming could swallow up to 20 percent of the world's GDP. The cost of addressing the problem, it said, could be limited to about one percent of GDP, provided it starts on a serious scale within 10 to 20 years.
Breaking New Ground
The simplicity of this headline finding cut through the complications and caveats (the report itself warns the figures should not be taken too literally) and shifted the debate into new territory, at least in the UK. Although the report was written mainly for an international audience, it remains to be seen whether it, and Stern's globetrotting, will kick start the stalled negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. He says: "Everywhere we went, people have been engaged in the discussion, which is very healthy. Now everybody has to find their own way to what they conclude from that."
The review has its roots in the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland. Stern says: "There were two subjects, Africa and climate change. The previous year I'd written a report for the Commission for Africa. We got quite a long way on Africa and [UK finance minister] Gordon [Brown] felt this was very much on the basis of serious, careful analysis."