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Lord Nicholas Stern. Why are we waiting to save the Earth?

Ten years after the publication of his report that changed the economic view of the world, the economist Nicholas Stern wonders why we’re waiting to get serious about fighting climate change. The question is rhetorical, the answer is known.

His report was crucial to stimulate public consciences on the economic impact of global warming. Published in 2006, the Stern Review, commissioned by the British government, has been a decisive turning point that let leaders understand the real, negative effects of inaction before climate change. Lord Nicholas Stern is the economist currently chairing the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment of the London School of Economics. He recently published the book Why Are We Waiting? – The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change because, despite many years have gone by, little has changed.

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The book of Nicholas Stern, Why Are We Waiting?

Almost ten years after the publication of your renowned report on climate, you’ve published a new book. Why don’t world leaders understand we must act now?

The first thing to understand is that we are in a hurry, because the concentration of greenhouse gases is already at a level which will make it very difficult for us to hold the 2°C (as pledged by the UNFCCC, Ed.). Despite this, we must at least try. The more we wait, the higher those levels and concentrations will be, and then it will become more and more complicated. If we don’t act now, it would become impossible to keep such promise. Consequences will be the melting of the polar ice sheets which could slide into the ocean and increase the sea level very quickly. We are on the edge of 2°C already.

How do population growth and urbanisation influence the increase in CO2 emissions?

Cities are built very quickly as the world’s population moves into urban centres. In the next 3 or 4 decades, they will go up from 3.5 billion people to 6.5 billion people. The kinds of cities we build have effects for a very long time. That means that, in the next 20 or 30 years, if we lock in to those city structures, which are wasteful, dirty, inefficient, congested, polluted, it will be extremely difficult to reverse it. Cities are what they are for a very long time. That’s why delay is so dangerous. So when I say “Why are we waiting?”, the implication is “We should not be waiting”, because it’s very urgent to take action.

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Nicholas Stern and the former Prime Minister Tony Blair during the presentation of the Stern Review, in 2006 © Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

What can we all do to fight climate change?

Insulate your house, take public transport, walk more, get a bike and you’ll be much happier!

On which conditions would you call the Paris climate conference (COP21) a success?

I have no doubts that there will be an agreement, and it will be an agreement that is much better than no agreement. In other words, we will move in a good direction. My concern is that the agreement will fall short of 2 degrees, in the sense that our emissions for 2030, which is the year being discussed, will be too high for 2 degrees. It’s good that we’ll have an agreement, but we have work to do. After Paris, we must accelerate actions.

Do you think Pope Francis’ commitment will be helpful in tackling global warming?

I think that Pope Francis’ encyclical was extremely helpful. I had the privilege of meeting him in September, it was a very inspiring moment. I’m not religious and I’m not Catholic, but that was extraordinary, visionary, deeply ethical, but also analytical leadership. On top of that, he has a very striking way of expressing himself. A really gifted use of language and leadership, along with good ideas, is what this situation needs now, because we have to accelerate. Pope Francis said that God always forgives, people sometimes do, but nature never does. It’s a very strong simple way of reminding us that we are doing wrong and how difficult it will be to go back and reverse the damage that we are already doing to our environment.

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