Science & the Political Dimension
World leaders must co-operate on talks for a strong new climate change deal
by Nicholas Stern
The most comprehensive scientific study of climate change has been released, with an urgent message for governments
At the end of September, 195 governments around the world accepted a summary of the most comprehensive assessment of the basic science of climate change that has ever been written. The IPCC's report, which has been prepared by 259 researchers from 39 countries, shows even more clearly how human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels and deforestation, are creating a dangerous trend with immense risks for the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world from shifts in extreme weather, rising sea levels and other serious problems.
It also underlines the fact that delay is making things much worse, both because the ratchet effect of emissions is causing a rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases and because we are locking in our dependence on the fossil fuels that cause the problem.
Current action is much too weak to reduce emissions by enough to avoid a significant probability of the global average temperature rising by more than 2ºC above its pre-industrial level by the end of this century. The Earth has not experienced a global temperature more than 2ºC higher than pre-industrial since the Pliocene epoch 3m years ago, when the polar ice caps were much smaller and sea levels were about 20 metres higher than today. Modern humans have only been around for about 250,000 years, so we have no experience of such a climate.
What we have learned from history is that if people are faced with increased dangers of floods, droughts and other extreme weather, they will try to escape, resulting in population movements of perhaps hundreds of millions, leading to widespread and continued conflict. We have to decide if this is the kind of world we want to present to our children and grandchildren.
Some have argued that we have no responsibility to future generations and that whatever risks we create for them, it is their problem. But imagine what the world would be like if we applied such an unethical approach to our everyday lives and relationships with the people around us now.
There are others who think that, no matter what damage unmanaged climate change might create in the future, our children and grandchildren will be much richer due to many decades of relentless economic growth in the future. But that ignores the fact that unchecked climate change could produce such a hostile environment that it will undermine and destroy growth, such that future generations will be worse off than us.
What we could do instead is create a story of rising living standards, stronger communities and a more resilient society, embracing the challenge of poverty reduction – with everlasting benefits. Our children and grandchildren could inherit a low-carbon economy that will be safer, as well as cleaner, more secure and more efficient, created through investment in an exciting period of technological innovation.
But to achieve this we will need clear and consistent policies not weakness and vacillation, to unleash private investment in a low-carbon economy. We will also need greater international co-operation, with countries sharing examples of the benefits of the new low-carbon industrial revolution.
Every world leader will need to recognise the importance of the international negotiations towards a strong new international agreement on climate change at the UN summit in Paris in 2015.
The new IPCC report confronts us with the risks we would face from unmanaged climate change, and should help us to recognise there is so much we can do to create a better world for ourselves and future generations.
◊ Lord Stern [pictured above] is chairman of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and Professor of Economics & Government at the London School of Economics.