I am on the train zooming up the East Coast from London to Edinburgh. It’s a cold and crisp November day and it really doesn’t feel like we’re in the warmest year since records began, but still my mind is busy thinking about Climate Change. Last night I attended the Carbon Trust’s Annual Innovation lecture by Professor Lord Stern from the London School of Economics. Professor Stern will be known to many of you for the Stern Review on the economics of climate change published in 2006. In the report, he discusses climate change as the largest market failure that the world has ever seen, mainly because we’re not accounting for the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels.
Ten years later and having just returned from the COP22 in Marrakesh, Prof Lord Stern presented a refined and updated summary of his analysis of the economics of climate change. The messages where clear: If we want to tackle climate change, we need to tackle world poverty as we can’t separate one from the other. Innovation is key, but not just restricted to technology, we also need to be innovative in our policies, our economies and our ways of living. We need to correct for the market failures associated with not having to pay for the environmental costs of fossil fuels, otherwise we will create extraordinary costs in the future, threatening us and future generations. Economically speaking, it simply makes sense to invest now.
The solutions that Professor Stern suggested were familiar: apply a carbon tax, promote innovation in sustainable infrastructure, tackle energy efficiency etc. But what really struck me was that again and again he highlighted the urgency at which we will have to implement these solutions. The policy decisions of the next 10 years will determine what kind of climate we will be living in in the future. If we get it wrong now, it is unlikely that we will be able to correct for it afterwards and the associated human and economic costs will be incredibly high. This is something that many of us global change scientists have been worried about for a long time and the gloomy mood that settles over the coffee room after someone mentions the speed of climate change is too familiar to many of us.
Professor Stern was clear that this is one of the biggest failures of the discourse so far: We haven’t managed to communicate the urgency of climate change well enough! And here is where I see us global change scientists come in. We might not be able to advise on detailed policies, innovation strategies and market economies, but we can do much better at communicating the changes that we observe and the consequences that they might have in the long run. This is something that we at Team Shrub feel quite passionate about, but I think we have a lot to improve and often I find myself wondering how to best go about it. Isla discussed this very nicely at the end of her Our Changing World lecture at the beginning of the month.
I think it is easy to forget the power of storytelling and personal connections when we’re under the pressure of scientific publication high up on our ivory tower. Many times, I have been surprised by the amount of interest and the positive responses that we receive when speaking to strangers about our work in the Arctic, be it a member of the Carbon Trust at the canapés after the lecture or a mining engineer on holiday in Alaska. We can connect to people and we do have to make more of that!
In that sense, I would like to finish on a positive note and quote Professor Lord Stern who, after highlighting the positive developments of the recent years including the fast ratification of the Paris agreement and China’s commitment to tackling climate change, contemplated about the future environmental policy of America’s increasingly mellowing president-elect: “I do not know… we do not know… and probably he doesn’t know”. So let’s be open and optimistic!
I would like to thank the NERC E3 Innovation Programme for funding my travels to London; Susan Davies and Laura Scotland from the ECCI for organising it all and Zack, Emil, Richard and Sophie for all the great discussions around it.
Professor Lord Stern’s lecture will be available on the Carbon Trust’s YouTube Channel.