The Stern message: it’s not what gets said, but who says it. But will they listen?

Stephen Hale, director of Green Alliance and former Special Advisor to Margaret Beckett, gives the Ecologist his thoughts on the Stern Review

'The launch of the Stern Review is a reason to be cheerful; the case for action has now been made in a 700 page “desk-breaker” by a man who speaks the language of those in power. It poses an ideological challenge to governments and the dominant view of markets and market failure. With the dis-honourable exception of Nigel Lawson, it will not be easily dismissed. But the vested interests that resist change will not melt away. Success, as ever, will depend on our ability to win the argument and to shift power and influence. Time is against us. 

His conclusions bear analysis. He concludes that a failure to tackle climate change will have devastating effects on our economies and society, with unabated climate change reducing global GDP by perhaps 5% a year. He confirms that the costs of averting these impacts are far lower, but require decisive action now. He makes three broad policy recommendations: the introduction of a global carbon trading regime, technology policy and action to tackle other “market failures” - removing the barriers to energy efficiency and personal action.

The report is too timid. Stern concedes a rise in global temperatures above 2 degrees, which would have devastating ecological costs. He also places more faith than many of us feel in the ability of a carbon trading to drive the change required.

The threat of climate change ought not to require translation into costs and market failures. GDP is a pretty poor measure of course. The Chancellor acknowledged at the launch that tackling climate change is not simply an economic issue, but a moral one.

But this is a language that those in power understand. It is not an analysis that they will find comfortable. It is a challenge to the status quo, and world-view of those who shape the parameters of debate on the role of governments, international institutions and business. It confronts the fact that the market alone will not resolve this problem. It requires decisive government intervention, and runs counter to the trend of less rather than more government intervention. It requires rapid increases in expenditure, which governments find it very hard – except when they go to war.

Stern is rightly aimed at a global audience. But it has profound implications for the UK government. They will need to find the resources that Stern calls for. And the report confirms that the UK’s target for emissions reduction is far too un-ambitious. Will any party address that in the forthcoming Climate Bill?

The Stern report is a cause for hope. But will they choose to listen? As ever, those with a stake in the status quo will not melt away. The fate of his last report, the Commission for Africa prior to the G8, is evidence of that. The task of (literally) turning the super-tanker remains as daunting as ever. The argument is shifting. But whether we succeed will depend on whether we can build a movement that shifts the debate, power and influence from those with a stake in the present to those that want to invest in the future.'

Stephen Hale is Director of Green Alliance, an environmental think-tank. He was a government adviser on environmental issues from 2002 – 06. 

The Ecologist’s own in depth analysis of the Stern review will appear in the Dec/Jan issue of the Ecologist, on sale 1st December…

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2006

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