Three Global Sustainability Leaders: Pope Francis, Jeffrey Sachs, and Nicholas Stern

III. Nicholas Stern on the Urgency of Tackling Climate Change
Whereas Jeffrey Sachs is a major figure in promoting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and the new Sustainable Development Goals, Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy and chair of the UK’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change (London School of Economics), is a major figure in climate change economics. A former Chief Economist of the World Bank, he was the lead author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007, 692p.), followed by A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change (Bodley Head, 2009). Along with Felipe Calderon, Former President of Mexico, he served as co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, which published its report, Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report in September 2014.

His latest book, Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change (The MIT Press, May 2015, 406p, $27.95), seeks to make the argument “as accessible as possible to a wide audience.”

He begins by stating that “The people of the world are gambling for colossal stakes…the risks from a changing climate over the next hundred years and beyond are immense…(with) a strong possibility that the relationship between human and their environment will be so fundamentally changed that hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, would have to move.” We are the first generation that “could destroy the relationship between humans and the planet, and perhaps the last generation that can prevent dangerous climate change.” The potential paths of development embodying strong reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and creative adaptation “are becoming ever clearer, and they look ever more attractive in themselves.” And the portrayal of climate action as being in “inexorable conflict with growth, poverty reduction, and radical improvements in human well-being is false and diversionary… A committed and measured low-carbon transition would likely trigger an exciting new wave of global investment, innovation, and prosperity.” (p.xxvii)

Chapters discuss the basic choices the world faces between peril and prosperity, alternative pathways we could take (exploring technologies, services, and processes, as well as costs and benefits), domestic policies for achieving dynamic structural change (including lessons from public economics on market failure), models of the economics of climate change that currently dominate much economic discussion (they “grossly underestimate the economic damages and risks”), the need for a new generation of models with “a broader and wiser set of perspectives” and evidence from a broad range of sources, the “serious analytical errors” in many analyses of intergenerational issues (especially in approaches to discount­ing associated with short-term decision-making), the “inherent conservatism of science and science modeling” (e.g., omitting key factors such as thawing permafrost, collapse of polar ice sheets, release of seabed methane, ocean acidification, collapse of tropical forests, etc.), the “unwillingness or inability to grapple seriously with the basic ethical principles underlying the values and valuations,” ignorance of much of the literature in public economics about cost-benefit analysis and discounting, the broader ethical and moral issues that inform policy analysis of climate change, recent global developments in climate action (there are many positive examples, but “the world is moving far too slowly”), how international climate change institutes and negotiations could evolve in the near future (e.g. the December 2015 “COP21” conference in Paris), and an approach to international equity that could underpin the framework for climate governance. “Progress at the national level would be greatly facil­itated by a deeper and broader understanding of what is happening around the world in the movement toward a low-carbon economy.” (p.245) Stated differently, “A failure to understand what others are doing, and a presumption that it is very little, reinforced by expectations that international cooperation will be weak, has generally hindered progress.” (p.250)

“In the eight years since The Stern Review was published, the arguments that the costs of inaction greatly exceed the costs of action, strong then, are still stronger now… The choices we now face present an enormous opportunity. But delay is dangerous. If we fail to take this opportunity and attempt to follow the old ways, the opportunity will be gone. We use it or lose it.” (p.303) To avoid the many risks, or reduce them radically, “fundamental change will be necessary, including essentially zero emissions in the second half of the century… Delay is dangerous because flows of emissions build stocks of greenhouse gases…high-carbon capital and infrastructure, which can last for decades, can lock us into high-emission activities.” (p.304)

Stern finally asks “Why are we moving so slowly?”(p.305) and explores four answers:

  1. Analytical Difficulties and Failings: the unwillingness of many to recognize moral responsibilities toward future generations, the importance of equity among people (“it is usually the poorest, who have contributed the least to creating the problem, who are hit the earliest and the hardest”), and the nature and scale of what is happening worldwide;
  2. Communication Deficit: action has been hampered by lack of communication of sound arguments, and a surplus of effective communication of misguided arguments. Moreover, messengers matters: if movement for change is to gather momentum, we can expect different communicators for different audiences, utilizing rhetoric and frames that resonate with values and emotions that could inspire large-scale action; “the importance of frequent, accurate, clear, and accessible public discussion of climate change places a great responsibility on media organizations” (p.307), many operating under a misguided conception of “balance” between scientific evidence and nonscientific opinion;
  3. Psychological Barriers: communicating and persuading people to act on climate change may be more challenging than many believe; myriad psychological processes work against action, and risk perceptions too often correlate with basic values;
  4. Structural Barriers: the organization of politics and the structure of the political economy; disproportionate influence of vested interests; groups that see themselves as threatened and fear dislocation; many politicians facing short-term electoral incentives despite medium- and long-term benefits of climate policy; short-term incentive structures in business; a dearth of disclosure and transparency requirements in many jurisdictions; media that that favor immediate consumer interests or do not promote the long-term public interest.

In light of the above, Stern concludes with several lessons for climate change: 1) Good analysis is critical: “climate change concerns the management of risk on a colossal scale” (p.314); 2) Appealing to values and a sense of justice can be powerfully motivating; “the transition must be equitable and seen as equitable” (p.315); 3) Communicate strategically and use examples; “extreme weather events can be the most powerful examples of all” (p.315); 4) Package policies: “integrate climate action with other reforms”; 5) Technological, economic, social, and political change are all needed and can reinforce each other; 6) Young people will continue to be a powerful source of pressure for climate action; it is they who will suffer most from the negligence of earlier generations; 7) International cooperation can help drive change: “it is important to understand what others are doing and planning; that is the foundation of cooperation” (p.318).


The obvious and important difference between these three books concerns their general focus. Nicholas Stern centers on climate change and transition to a low-carbon and no-carbon economy. This challenge is the most immediate of the three, with the clearest alternatives. And, indeed, the transition is already underway to some degree, although much more needs to be done, especially in overcoming “analytical failings” of economists.

Jeffrey Sachs focuses on planetary boundaries—a broader and even more worrisome concern that goes beyond climate change—and on pursuing the UN’s new “post-2015” Sustainable Development Goals, a “multigenerational problem” that we are still unequipped to think about, and far more ambitious than transition to a low-carbon economy.

Pope Francis goes even further, calling for a “bold cultural revolution” (#114) to counter the “dominant technocratic paradigm” (#101) that has created much of today’s messy mega-crisis. This is the loudest and clearest call for what the World Academy of Art and Science calls a “human-centered paradigm.” It will surely be difficult to initiate and maintain the many dialogues and debates that are needed, but such a change toward seriously thinking about “integral ecology” may be the most important of all.

Viewed together, the three books should be seen as complementary. All are concerned, for example, not only with the environment, but with ending poverty and promoting human well-being worldwide. Perhaps these books can be seen as three stages of transition—if we are wise and lucky in overcoming the barriers identified by Nicholas Stern. (Another barrier, generally neglected, is the immediacy of security concerns—especially terrorism and cyber-security—which displace attention to long-term climate threats. Ultimately, we cannot have sustainability without security, and vice versa, and the two realms are slowly beginning to overlap.)

A final note is deserved about the efficacy of a new economic paradigm or new economic theory to displace the industrial-era economics that does not value human and natural capital. This is an important part of the long-term human-centered paradigm project. But, as pointed out by Nicholas Stern, what we immediately need is “new economic models with broader and wiser perspectives,” consideration of ethical principles about future generations and more, and overcoming ignorance of the literature on cost-benefit analysis and discounting. Inadequate economic thinking about basic climate concerns is not as grand as a “new economic paradigm,” but simply responsible and thoughtful economics for the 21st century, perhaps encouraged by more debates and dialogues, as the Pope advocates. And, as Stern urges, the sooner economists (and concerned citizens to prod them) engage in necessary learning, the better. Continuing education is demanded for physicians and airplane pilots; why not economists, too?

These three deeply thoughtful global sustainability leaders deserve attention. One does not have to agree with everything they say, but their books could serve as common ground for overcoming fragmentation (Pope Francis, #110) by initiating a “new dialogue” (#14) and the broad scientific and social debate that is so badly needed (#135).

Pages: 1 2