ďIíve been heariní stories, fact the word's all over town,
Iíve had my share of worries ever since youíve been around,
So come over here and listen, I donít want you to be missiní what I say,
And I ainít gonna waste my time sayiní it all again.Ē
Sir Nicholas Stern, a British economist that Britainís Blair government tasked with determining the economic costs of global warming, released his report on October 30. The news isnít good. If we do nothing, the course apparently preferred by the Bush government in the US and the Harper government here in Canada, the world economy will be taking a $7 trillion dollar hit.
Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change has been widely reported in the media as being a doomsday report. Things are bad, but we didnít really know how bad until a noted economist told us. At least thatís the impression youíd get if you listened to the mainstream media. Of course that same media is still trotting out Ross McKitrick for ďbalanceĒ without acknowledging his connections to oil-company-funded think tanks, the massive holes that have been poked in his attempts to debunk climate science, or his apparent attempts to manipulate the peer review process.
McKitrick isnít the only fossil fuel industry shill talking to the media. The usual suspects are beginning to make the rounds in an attempt to refute Sternís assertion that climate change is an economic as well as an environmental disaster, and the partisan conservative bloggers are in high gear. Some are still denying global warming, others are claiming that Kyoto should be scrapped and others are questioning Sir Nicholas Sternís economic credentials and political connections.
Some, including Conservative partisans in Canada, are claiming that it is proof that the Kyoto Accord is a failure and Prime Minister Harper is right not to attempt to meet its goals. That Stern himself explicitly encouraged Canada to try to meet its Kyoto targets in an interview with CBC News World seems to have escaped them.
Of course Rona Ambrose, presumably under the direction of her micro-managing boss, is claiming that this report is proof that the Conservative Green Plan should pass through Parliament without question. Apparently Ms. Ambrose forgot to read the parts about action needing to start immediately and the reductions in emissions needing to be not only larger than her weak plan, but based on 1990 emissions. Thatís not to mention the overall urgent tone of the report and its acknowledgment that pitting the environment against the economy is a foolís game.
The one thing that nobody seems to want to talk about is that there is nothing new in Sternís report. For years environmentalists have been making the argument that if we donít do something about global warming and other ecological disasters because of short-term economic concerns, we wonít have an economy in the long term. Stern may have quantified it in economic terms, but his basic premise isnít new.
The global economy is, in the very end, based on people and the access to the natural resources that support them. We may have distorted that relationship, especially since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century and the advent of the oil economy after World War One, but in the end we depend on the earth for our food, water, air and shelter and have throughout our evolution.
Destroying or greatly altering the systems that created the environment in which we evolved comes with a cost and the greater the alterations, the greater that cost is. That we needed an economist to point that out to us reveals more about human character, or lack thereof, than it does about climate change. That our political and business leaders continue to promote varying versions of business as usual reveals a lack of leadership that supports those who suggest our species should have stayed in the trees.
Those revelations may explain why Sternís report is being portrayed as a doomsday report. That portrayal is misleading though. This is a man who speaks the same language as Stephen Harper, George Bush, John Howard, and other leaders who have a record of putting corporate profits ahead of the well-being of human beings. The rush by the professional climate change naysayers to debunk, discredit, and lash out at Sir Nicholas Stern is a sign that the facts are closing in on them, not that Stern is wrong.
That such a report has come from such a reputable source not only weakens the argument for putting economics at odds with the environment, but gives voice to those who have been largely ignored in the debate about what to do about climate change. This has been evident in Canada since the release of the report, with opposition parties using it to press their own climate change programs. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton are playing a game of political one-upmanship that may actually yield results for a change. Although those talks seem to be breaking down.
The political discourse that the Stern report has elicited shows that it should not be perceived as a doomsday report. While the news isnít good, it opens the door for governments to finally move to do something to address climate change. The scientific debate was, for intents and purposes, finished a decade ago, despite the worst attempts of the global warming deniers and other purveyors of junk science. The only argument left to those who would prefer to do nothing was the economic one...that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would bankrupt us.
While Sternís thorough debunking of that argument is not new, having previously been put forth by everybody from David Suzuki to Al Gore, it does put pressure on governments to act. The environmentalists and political left now have the support of somebody who the moneyed establishment and corporate robber barons cannot simply write off, try as they might.
To ignore this report, as the Bush government in the US seems poised to do and the Harper government seems to be seeking to do, is to risk great political cost not only with the voters at home, but with foreign governments.
The implications of continuing to do nothing or to act so slowly as to achieve nothing have now been quantified and it threatens the economic life of the entire planet. Some see poor environmental stewardship as a means to gain a competitive advantage in business and trade. Nations that have been striving to reduce their emissions consider such advantages unfair and have expressed interest in launching trade suits against countries that refuse to reduce emissions. Stern gives weight to this argument in his review, saying, ďGreenhouse gases are, in economic terms, an externality. Those who produce greenhouse gas emissions are bringing about climate change, thereby imposing costs on the world and on future generations, but they do not face the full consequences of their actions themselves.Ē
The report goes on to suggest that the full cost of greenhouse gas emissions should be reflected in the price of goods and services. ďThree elements of policy for mitigation are essential: a carbon price, technology policy and the removal of barriers to international change. Leaving out any one of these elements will significantly increase the costs of action,Ē the report says. That flies in the face of what has been happening with trade around the world, where a desperate race to the bottom has been taking place for decades and multinational corporations have moved to countries with low environmental and labour standards as a way to increase profits, while the governments of wealthy nations such as the United States and Canada have cut money for research and development for clean energy and removed educational programs aimed at teaching people how to conserve energy.
Stern is very clear in his pronouncements. We need to reduce emissions drastically and we need to begin now. Governments that have not met their Kyoto goals need to do better. We need an international agreement that goes well beyond Kyoto that is binding and has real penalties for not adhering to it. We need to plan for the disasters that weíve already set in motion. We need to understand that global warming will cause an economic calamity. We need to comprehend that it is also a matter of security as the social upheaval that global warming causes will most likely lead to wars. Either we spend some money to protect the environment and address the security and social issues, or we wonít have an economy and will face social mayhem and resource wars as people suffer the effects of our non-action.
Not only are those pronouncements clear, but they are very public and are echoing throughout the world in a way that we have not seen before. Sir Nicholas is not the first to have pointed these things out to the world, but he is the loudest to date. In a political culture where the loudest is the most heeded, that makes Sir Nicholas the most effective.
Perhaps Stephen Harper has gotten the message, perhaps not. If he hopes to be politically relevant in six months, heíd better turn on his receiver and listen to what Stern and others are saying, though. The Canadian people arenít going to waste their time saying it all again.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on November 1, 2006]
Sir Nicholas Stern,
Stern Review on the Eco...