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IEAGHG Information Paper; 2013-IP5: Lord Nicholas Stern Identifies 3 Obstacles to International
Climate Action
Lord Nicholas Stern presented at an event hosted by WRI and the International Monetary Fund. A
synopsis of his presentation is given here whilst more details can be found at
The problem, according to Lord Stern, reflects a lack of understanding in three main areas: climate
change’s real risks, the benefits of an alternative pathway, and the need for collaboration and
mutual understanding.
The Real Risks of Climate Change
By Stern’s own admission, the Stern Review greatly underestimated climate change’s risks and
impacts. “Emissions are at the top or above the projections we talked about six or seven years ago.
Some effects are coming through faster,” he said. “We didn’t say enough about the interactions
between climate and ecosystems.”
He outlined how these risks are already presenting themselves today—and are poised to worsen in
the future. “Insurance companies tell us that weather-related catastrophes have tripled since 1980,”
he said. “The United States last year experienced 11 extreme weather events each costing more
than $1 billion. And the current drought may turn out to be the most expensive natural disaster in
U.S. history.”
Stern believes that a key component of mobilizing political will, then, is a stronger risk narrative
driven by a new breed of scientific models. These models should not only reflect the severity of
climate risks, but the human and environmental costs that are typically ignored in data-driven
models—like the thawing of permafrost and extreme weather events’ impacts on development.
The Benefits of an Alternative Path
According to Lord Stern, the world needs to view the next several years as a new era, the “New
Energy Industrial Revolution.” Like the eras of innovation that preceded it—the industrial revolution,
expansion of steam and railways, the information and telecommunications technology revolution,
etc.—this period will be full of growth, investment, creativity, and emerging markets. It’s important
to see it as a time of economic opportunity rather than a time focused solely on scaling back
greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s also a time to adopt win-win-win strategies that integrate development, adaptation, and
mitigation into one package. For example, decentralized solar power brings affordable electricity to
poor communities, reduces emissions, and is less vulnerable than traditional, grid-based power.
These are the types of solutions that will drive economic growth and climate stability.
Learning from Collaboration and Mutual Understanding
It’s important to point out that some people are moving on climate change, even if they’re moving
too slow. “We’re seeing radical change in China with the 12th Five-Year Plan,” Stern said. “The EU
has stuttered recently, but has been moving along. Ethiopia and Mauritius both have ambitious
plans. Understanding what others are doing is a crucial part of collaboration.”
Stern went on to explain how institutions like the IMF and the World Bank can play a key role in
fostering this collaboration. Collectively, these organizations work on poverty reduction, growth,
sustainability, and development. If they better align their individual missions, they can foster
international collaboration and ensure that economic development happens in harmony with
climate mitigation and adaptation.
2013: A Year of Opportunity
An hour-long discussion of underestimated climate risks was certainly a sobering experience. But
despite the discouraging data of late, Stern is hopeful. In fact, he believes that this year presents an
unprecedented opportunity to ramp up the political will for international climate action.
“You have John Kerry and new leadership in China raising the issue of climate change,” Stern said.
“The head of the IMF and the World Bank today made very strong public commitments. You look at
plans in Ethiopia, South Africa, Mexico, and other parts of the world, and leadership is taking these
issues seriously. My own view is that 2013 is the best possible year to re-double our efforts to create
the political will that so far has been much too weak.”
John Gale
April 2013