Nicholas Stern – “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet – how to manage climate change and create a new era of progress and prosperity”

ISBN 978-1-847-92037-9 (hbk). “A blueprint for a safer planet – how to manage climate change and create a new era of progress and prosperity” by Nicholas Stern was published by The Bodley Head in 2009. Stern is of course the famous author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and former Chief Economist at the World Bank. One may think that Stern would be slightly away with the fairies in this 246 page book (including acknowledgements, introduction, ten chapters, notes, bibliography and index). However a stint in the World Bank doesn’t seem to have cured him of his fanciful sense of morality that may so alienate him from what might be considered the mainstream of Economic study. Indeed we might believe Stern as somewhat of a maverick if viewed through the eyes of neo-liberal-market-takes-care-of-all-economics of the Chicago School. Stern’s experience with development in Asia and Africa over a thirty year period obviously leaves a deep impression and he puts third world development at the core of much of his message. There is not a great deal here that you probably won’t get from Oliver Tickell’s “Kyoto 2” but you do get to see the world through the eyes of an economist. His view is undoubtedly distorted, imperfect, but refreshing.

If you believe in infinite growth on a finite planet then you are either mad… or an economist – as the old saying goes. Stern shares the gentle madness of his profession. He cannot abandon growth. This may be fair if viewed through the lens of third world development but he pretty much assumes global economic growth through the duration of the next forty years. This is not to say that he is unaware of peak oil. Indeed it is mentioned buried in the text in a few places. We do get treated to his view that mitigating climate change will decarbonise the economy so that it is more resilient to future fossil fuel shortages. However this point only arises in a few brief passages. Stern is still at the foothills of his understandings of the limits to growth. Maybe they just don’t teach this concept in economics? Clearly he is slightly blind-sided by his unswerving faith in “low-carbon growth”. For him technology and markets will sort everything out. Climate change is the result of a market imperfection hence governments must intervene to smooth out the imperfections This is all pretty much standard fair for all those who have flown too close to the bright burning heart of government and felt themselves slightly tinged. It is very new Labour. Very “third way”.

Stern has no time for climate change sceptics. He is actually quite dismissive which doesn’t show him in a good light. So the second weak point of the book is Stern’s lack of concern for the science. Don’t get me wrong, he is very concerned about the IPCC version of the “science” but he doesn’t question it. For him it is all about mitigating risk. For this we heartily cheer him on but there is an air of dogmatism about it that suggest he will never meet his “debunkers” half way. If he cannot see the other side of the argument it may trip him up. For example, this book was written in 2008 whilst Stern was looking forward to Copenhagen COP15 in December 2009. He writes as if it will be the greatest and last chance to save the planet. Writing in March 2010 I guess it is easy to be somewhat sneering about Stern’s enthusiasm for what turned into an utter fiasco. Maybe he should have been more familiar with the Realpolitik? Stern shows us that a deal is possible and gives us yet another framework. Yet the deal didn’t happen. Why? There is more to this than meets the eye.

Stern takes time in this book to answer some of his critics. This has been his chance to absorb what he has learnt since he published “…the Economics of Climate Change” and update it in a user-friendly form. He comes out fighting on the matter of discounting. I doubt if this will sway the critics because the entire topic of discounting is an area of economics shrouded in value judgements. However, having read a great deal about what his critics had to say it is worth a read of his self-defence. The defence is actually very robust. He really HAS thought hard about why he projected discounting in the Stern Report in the way he did. Towards the end of the book Stern comes up with an idea for the restructuring of the IMF, World Bank and WTO. He suggests merging the World Bank with the IMF (as if anyone really understood the difference) and then creating a new third body to over-see the international economic work to combat climate change, decarbonise the economy and help poor people adapt. This is a typical Stern-type solution. However, it is novel. It just might work. Maybe we really have a crisis of governance at an international level? Maybe such a body could actually punish countries for not getting on board? And maybe such a body could finally extinguish third world odious debt? Stern doesn’t much mention the forgiving of debt as a method of allowing poor countries to adapt to climate change and grow low-carbon economies. However it is a vital element. What is the purpose of using CDM (Clean Development Mechanisms) to siphon Western money into the Majority South if it is only sucked right back out again as debt repayment? Shameful. Drop the debt Stern. Make it policy.

Finally Stern ridicules his critics for completely failing to understand the very nature of the risk that climate change brings. He also (finally) points out that high discount rates assume endless economic growth based upon the endless availability of cheap fossil fuels. You simply cannot stick the money in the bank and hope that we will become so rich in fifty years so as to conjure away the damage that climate change may have caused – and will cause. Here he uses the projection of the IEA (International Energy Agency) to pour cold water on the idea that our economic growth is secure. Since oil prices will rise then the only growth sectors will be those that are ready and resilient. For Stern the economy can only grow in a post-peak oil world if it using post-carbon technology. In this he is spot on even if he underestimates just how difficult a task that conversion will be. Chapter 7 does mention the roles of communities and individual actions but Stern offers nothing new. There is no mention of Transition Initiatives. One suspects that, for Stern, it is a matter for the big boys in Government and the World Bank to manage this transition. But we wouldn’t expect him to belief anything else would we? This book is a work slightly flawed but with it heart in all the right places. Recommended but a dry read.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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