Why Are We Waiting? – Lord Stern at the University of Oxford

Why You Shouldn’t Wait – some thoughts by Joshua Wells and Vera Van Gool (1st year Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars) on a public lecture given by Lord Nicholas Stern: ‘Why Are We Waiting’, Sheldonian Theatre, 22/10/2015, at the University of Oxford hosted by the Oxford Martin School and the Environmental Change Institute

Standing in one of the many queues leading up to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, we were pondering the question,  ‘Why Are We Waiting?’. However, we were not to find the answer to this question in Lord Stern’s talk. Despite this question being the title of both his book and talk, Stern would emphatically argue that we should not be waiting.

Stern illustrated the importance of this talk by explaining that humanity is at a cross-roads. He appealed to the broad self-interest of humanity. As a species it will cost us more in the long run if we delay action and taking action is becoming ever more urgent. The views he presented here are consistent with his famous review, ‘The Economics of Climate Change: the Stern Review’. Naturally, he also added a new insight to his former work. Surprisingly this insight was that the challenge of overcoming poverty is very much intertwined with combatting climate change. The reason why this is surprising is that the idea has arguably been around for quite some time. He emphasised: “If we fail on the one, we fail on the other”.

Despite this huge challenge humanity faces, Stern is actually very optimistic about the economic incentives that could drive climate-change combatting actions. A transition to a low-carbon economy is where his optimism is placed. He also stresses that the coming century will be determined by the actions we take in the next twenty years. Therefore if his optimism is not to be misplaced we should see significant action within this window. Stern thinks that the success of this will in part be determined by the framing of our actions in combatting climate change. We would need to frame many of our contributions to climate change as cases of market failures. Then it will become ‘extremely attractive’ and ‘feasible’ for policymakers to address these market failures and in doing so climate change.

You might be wondering: isn’t this too good to be true? We were… Stern reassuringly commented that ‘certainty is not on offer’ here. Instead, reduced uncertainty is on offer. We know for sure that our inaction would gravely effect current as well as future generations. So isn’t that enough of a reason to start acting? On the subject of the future, Stern reflected on the way in which economists discount it. He explains that discounting is legitimate when we are engaged with questions of value regarding goods and services. However, he holds that it is not acceptable to apply the discount factor to lives. The value of a life in the future is not contingent upon that future’s wealth.

The talk then progressed to Paris, where Stern shared his thoughts on the upcoming negotiations. There is a general acceptance that the Copenhagen Accord was weak, due to the lack of political coherence and willingness (particularly on the part of the US and China). However, this time things are very different. China has progressed beyond all recognition in the past 6 years and the US now has a president who is in his last term of office and in Stern’s words is ‘seeking a legacy’.  There is now willingness from these two global powers which creates a much more conducive setting for substantial climate change negotiations.

Despite this Stern stressed that the agreement will not be sufficient. The agreement simply will not be strong enough with respect to emissions reductions.  Therefore Stern urged us to take responsibility and persuade our political leaders and representatives that they ought to do the same.