Lord Nicholas Stern: Optimism or Pessimism for the 21st Century

Lord Nicholas Stern presented at the 2nd James Martin Memorial Lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 19th October 2015. Stern is famous for his Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, a critical report which discussed the implications of climate changes on the economy. As such, the talk provided an overview of current thoughts on climate change, economics, risks and our future. Naturally, the talk covered expected outcomes of the COP21 talks which are happening shortly in Paris; Stern was keen to state that Paris is different to Copenhagen (COP15), which was “a shambles.”

In addition to the COP21 talks, Stern briefly mentioned the release of his latest book “Why Are We Waiting?” to the audience of 700 people. He stated that the book is a rhetorical question and is supposed to summarise logic, science, economics and urgency; within this book, Stern supposedly describes the sort of new World we are currently making and living in. Of course, Stern is most famed for the ‘Stern Review’ and his thoughts have not changed. He still believes that “we shouldn’t be waiting; the costs of inaction are far greater than the costs of action.” Essentially, if we fail to manage climate change, we will make hostile environments for citizens and communities, in terms of living and in terms of political relationships, for example.


London School of Economics, no date,  [last visited on 05-NOV-2015]

One point that frequently comes up in climate discourse is the 2oC threshold as a 2oC warming is the government’s defacto with regards to climate change policy; this talk was, of course, no different. Stern described the 2oC change as being above the extremes and irreversible. He referred to his grandchildren, aged 0-4years and noted that the increase in temperature will certainly happen in their lifetime. “It’s not some abstract future,” he said. To make the temperature stable or decrease toward a pre-anthropogenic emission, we need to emit 0 tonnes of emissions in the next half of the century. Instead, for 2015, we are emitting 55 billion tonnes of carbon with a 50/50 chance to increase temperature beyond the 2oC rise outlined by the government, with plans to increase the output of emissions by 10%…

So, where do we go from here? Companies are currently working to reduce carbon emissions through the use of biomass, carbon capture storage (CCS), reforestation and land reclamation. But, “whatever way you look at it, the action we need to take is immense” stated Stern. One positive outcome from Copenhagen is that we have learnt economic growth mechanisms and we are now acutely aware of how infrastructure needs to develop in accordance to the demands of a changing climate and what is unattractive/attractive. From this, we can ask ourselves: what kinds of cities do we build now? How can we organise ourselves (i.e. people)? For example, infrastructure is critical in shaping the rest of the century – of a 9billion large population, 3.5billion lives in cities (70%). Stern indicated that we will obtain better defined conclusions from COP21 in terms of emissions objects and practical solutions, for example, in the form of infrastructure.

In summary, I felt that Stern was very straight with his facts and he was neither particularly positive, nor overly pessimistic. I liked that he presented both sides equally and factually. A good summary arrived during the questions of the presentation, when asked “what are the promises that inspire you, despite the fact that it’s too late?” Stern responded “being optimistic about what we can do and worrying about what we can’t do.”


Further information about the presentation including slides and video can be found here.



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