Global environmental challenges
Stern, in center of climate pessimism, hopeful about U.S.
Nicholas Stern, the British economist who warned five years ago that global warming could cost the world’s GDP as much as 20 percent a year by 2050, hasn’t given up on the United States taking action on climate even though he’s down on Washington for not passing a bill that would do just that.
“If you look around the world, of all places to sit and wonder where (climate policy is) going, this is probably the most pessimistic place — this city,” he told a small gathering of reporters at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. late this week.
But all one has to do is travel out of the U.S. capital to see enormous potential for taking action, he said. Stern is optimistic about U.S. companies in Silicon Valley and Boston and other places developing low-carbon technologies such as batteries for electric cars, or new biofuels that aren’t made out of food crops.
“There are so many technological ideas on the table that you don’t need all of them to work, just some,” he said.
He also takes heart in state level mandates for renewable energy and the reelection of Jerry Brown, the pro-solar governor of California, who wants to set the bar even higher for renewable energy.
Be that as it may, Stern is even more deeply concerned about the risks of climate change.
He thinks he underestimated the risk in the Stern Review issued five years ago. But now he doesn’t describe the risks in terms of percentage points of lost GDP. He believes hundreds of millions of people could be forced to migrate in coming decades because of global warming, resulting in conflicts, or even wars.
“The kind of scale of risk we are talking about is important to focus on, rather than a particular number or what output loss might be for a particular crop,” he said.
Ever the economist, he hasn’t given up entirely on numbers. In the 2006 review, Stern said preventing the worst effects of climate change would cost 1 percent of annual global GDP. Now he thinks it will cost 1 to 2 percent, but he emphasizes that those won’t just be costs, but investments that can have good returns – energy security, less pollution and increased safety.
And though the United States shows potential with technology, the risk remains that the policy that will lead to emissions cuts will languish. If the United States falls too far behind, it could face risks. When the U.S. Congress was considering a climate bill, one of the measures it was considering was adding a tariff on exports of developing countries that were not taking action on climate. But if Washington does not move on climate the table could turn: Those same countries, that are moving on climate, could put tariffs or other limits on the U.S. in 10 or 15 years, Stern said.