Nicholas Stern: Climate inaction risks a “global war”

Nicholas Stern, one of the world’s most prominent climate economists, believes that failure to address global warming could eventually lead to World War III.  Brad Johnson has the exclusive interview and video.

In 2006, he produced the Stern Review on behalf of the British government, clearly laying out the potentially catastrophic economic consequences of failing to address climate pollution. Since then, the scientific understanding of the damages from global warming has grown, and Stern has warned that his report “underestimated the risks.”

In an exclusive interview with ThinkProgress, Stern described his current understanding of the stark consequences of inaction, which defy the scope of standard economic language. If no global policy to cut carbon pollution is enacted, there is about a 50 percent risk that global temperatures would rise above levels not seen for 30 million years by 2100, an extraordinary rate of change [see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F].

The “potentially immense” consequences of this radical transformation of our planet, Stern explained, include the “serious risk of global war”:

The temperature increases, the temperature changes of this kind, transform where people can be. In the upwards direction, you’re going to get some areas that become deserts, probably most of southern Europe. Others that are inundated: Florida, Bangladesh, and so on.

The point is that climate change will change the lives and livelihoods and where you can live all across the globe. We live where we live because of patterns of climate, where the rivers are, where the seashores are. That’s what determines where we are.

What we’re talking about here “” this the cost of inaction, the cost of not doing much “” is a transformation of where we can be. Over a hundred, 120 years, we can’t be that precise, a serious risk of global war, really, because you’ve got hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions of people moving. That’s the cost of inaction. It’s potentially immense.

Watch it:

The global climate system gives us both life and death, feeding civilizations and smashing them. Our fossil fuel pollution has already altered that system, pushing it out of natural balance. With the pollution we have already generated, the world now has 25 to 50 million climate refugees.

If we do not change course, and continue to increase the burning of coal and oil as multinational energy companies desire, we will fundamentally transform the very land we live on, the water we drink, the air we breathe in ways that are beyond our ken. The U.S. military dryly describes these consequences as a “threat multiplier.” If we are to learn anything from history, these are the kinds of threats that lead to war, and geometrically growing global warming brings threats on a global scale.

Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics, was visiting the United States to receive the Leontief economic prize from the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute for his work on the economics of climate change.

— Brad Johnson, in the first of Wonk Room’s three-part interview with economist Sir Nicholas Stern on climate policy.

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21 Responses to Nicholas Stern: Climate inaction risks a “global war”

  1. Mark says:

    And before that terrorism. I can’t imagine at least some of the suffering poor of the devastated dust bowls in Africa, Latin America and Asia not responding aggressively to Western responsibility for trashing their environment, coupled with the likely denial of migration and inadequate humanitarian and adaptation assistance. The new Roman Republic crowd in the US Congress seem to point to this sort of era.

  2. Lewis C says:

    Mark – what you’re writing of is not terrorism – it is fully justifiable retaliation for genocidal damages to many societies.

    To claim retaliation is justifiable may seem radical, but it is actually one of the few reasons for war accepted under international law.

    Given that the US has known the general consequences of its policy of inaction to halt its exacerbation of global warming since the presidency of Linden Johnson, and yet has led the world into ever greater dependence on fossil fuels while playing ‘Pledge & Review’ thrice in the UN, there can be little doubt of its culpability for intentional genocide, on an unprecedented scale.

    How long the world will tolerate that conduct without retaliation remains to be seen.



  3. Robert In New Orleans says:

    One major flash point I see is tens of millions (if not more) of Chinese climate refugees flooding across the border into Russian Siberia looking for refuge from climate disaster areas in their homeland.

    And what is supremely ironic is that the Russians continue to sell advanced weapons and weapons technology to the Chinese in the name of capitalistic profit.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Stern is a visionary, but “war” and even “terrorism” don’t capture where we are headed. It’s not going to be armies in uniform, lined up on opposite sides of a battlefield waiting for the cannon to signal that it’s time to start killing. Neither will it be random attacks on civilians, followed by internet proclamations about redressing historical grievances.

    People are going to be way too preoccupied with finding land that they can occupy and defend. Night attacks and village scale genocide will be the order of the day. Weapons of choice will be light artillery and the assault rifles that one can find any week of the year in a Texas or Arizona gun “show”. Soldiers and victims will include men, women, and children. Starvation and chaos does that to people.

    The closest historical comparison is the Thirty Years War in southern Europe in the early 17th century, which was partly brought on by frosty weather and crop failures. It began as something between Catholics and Protestants, but by the end religion was forgotten, as pillage and slaughter became routine, and warlords fought over the spoils. Much of southern Germany became depopulated, and didn’t recover for centuries.

    Contemporary examples are ongoing tribal war in Afghanistan and Uganda, but these are trivial compared to what’s in store, since population has been increasing in both countries. When farmland which was marginal to begin with dries up, we are going to see carnage.

    The Right subconsciously likes this scenario. They think battle is glorious and is part of an evolutionary plan, even though the biggest proponents will be the next generation’s Dick Cheneys, cowards who never actually saw battle before. Rich Republicans look forward to Versailles with flat screens in their fortresses. Their minions think they’ll be headed to heaven, and the rest look forward to finally getting a chance to get their money’s worth for their gun collections.

    I won’t say they deserve this fate, either. This is horror beyond imagining, and nobody else deserves it, either.

  5. Leif says:

    Humanity does not “risk” world war, it is a guarantee! We can have it one of two ways. As Mike Roddy points out above @ 4 or a preemptive “We All Win War” where humanity puts a price on polluting the commons and collectively works to bring healing to Earth’s life support systems.

  6. Stern has become increasingly outspoken in part because of the lack of action. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 he told me we’re facing a 50 per cent chance of 5C at this rate… He also said govts don’t get it…don’t really understand the serious risks we’re running here.

    Sir Nicholas Stern: On Our Way to Calamitous +5

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    One vitally important point, not mentioned in the clip of Sir Nicholas Stern (but mentioned by some earlier commenters, I see), is this:

    Many of the victims of climate change and its ramifications will have good, justifiable reasons to blame the governments, economies, companies, and (if one generalizes) citizens of countries who are the heavy GHG emitters and who have chosen to keep emitting rather than to make the responsible changes called for. In other words: the U.S.

    The disruptions that Sir Stern talks about (places to live, access to food, migrations, and etc.) are, of course, the causal factors (to conflicts of many kinds, including wars) in one sense. But disruptions alone sometimes don’t bring about wars: For example, the disastrous and unfortunate earthquake and tsunami today won’t bring about a war. But when the stresses and disruptions come about from unjust actions — or even when they are perceived to result from unjust actions — conflicts and wars become inevitable. If a person stubs his own toe on a tree, that person has nobody to blame. But if a person’s neighbor steps on his (that person’s) toe, repeatedly, and causes it to hurt, he blames his neighbor, and correctly so (in this example).

    The world knows that the vast majority of our scientists, and the world’s scientists, have been telling us (in the U.S.) that emissions of GHGs are causing climate change. It’s no secret. And the vast majority of our ethicists and humanists and generally admired “thought leaders” regarding justice have been telling us that we ought to change our ways, and that it’s not our “right”, nor is it right, for us to continue actions that will bring about harms to others. (See the book “Moral Ground”, among others.) So whether we like it or not, we are going to be seen as blameworthy, and we will be held blameworthy, and we will actually BE blameworthy, if we don’t face facts and change our ways, soon.

    This aspect of the risk of war (I’d call it a certainty, if we let climate change continue) should be discussed, front-and-center, in these dialogues. It’s not “merely” that millions of people will have to move, or will find themselves without sufficient food or water, or will find themselves in droughts and floods. Instead, the situation is this: Those things will all happen, and those people will have US to blame! That’s not a good situation, for us or for anyone. The only way out of it is to actually address climate change. The sooner we see that, the better.

    Be Well,


  8. Mike Roddy says:

    You’re right, Jeff. Americans certainly didn’t get us into this mess on our own, but we’ll be a convenient target when the time comes. People will be looking for places to focus their rage and frustration, and that means us. All the money and weapons in the world won’t save us from that kind of anger.

  9. Leif says:

    “All the money and weapons in the world won’t save us from that kind of anger.” Right on again Mike.

    However a CONCERTED effort on the part of the American people and most importantly Corporations and Capitalism, to make amends and transfer that knowledge, mitigation tools and strategy to the rest of the world just might.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree, Leif. If the corporations are going to call themselves human for purposes of campaign contributions, they need to start acting like them.

  11. Jeffrey Davis says:

    From time to time, I think that the model that we need to look at is Africa.

    All of these plutocrats aren’t stupid ideologues. Most of them, I suspect, recognize the BS that their hirelings spew out is simply BS. What they’re doing with their billions is making a bet. They’re wagering that the world of 40-50 years from now will be manageable by their heirs. It will be a shoddier, more dangerous place to live, but money will help in ways that competence can’t. They’ve decided, and sometimes I agree, that nothing substantive can be done to mitigate AGW. So bring on the change. (The sooner the better!) And so they’re trying to game the existing political structures in rather obvious way. It will be a more simplistic world politically. Less political wrangling and compromise and more brute force.

    Their models aren’t Jefferson and Madison and Adams. Or even Ayn Rand.

    Their models are Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe.

  12. Ed Hummel says:

    A lot of good points made above, and I totally agree with all of them, especially the idea that the US will become the target of many disgruntled people around the world who will blame us for what is transpiring. We shouldn’t forget that 9-11 was a direct result of what some people perceived to be the anti-Muslim policies of the US (not that they didn’t have plenty of reasons for such beliefs!). Imagine what the possibilities would be if all disadvantaged people all over the world held similar beliefs (again not without cause!) concerning our role in the destruction of a habitable world. Starving, desperate people have nothing to lose if they strike out at what they consider to be their tormentors. The US isn’t the only place in the world that is flooded with cheap, easy to obtain weapons and instruments of lethal destruction. Perhaps the collapse of the airline industry would be a good thing in more ways than one.

  13. Paulm says:

    Looks like people are starting to realize the accuracy of Lovelock prediction.
    World population 1 billion if were lucky. I suspect anything over 3-4c probably means even lower level.
    It’s going to be just brutal.

  14. Scrooge says:

    My feeling is the US will war amongst themselves before the threat of global war enters the picture. The battle lines are being drawn now. The government we chose now will be the government our grandchildren live with only amplified. Do we want them to have social capitalism or Koch fascism. Its clear where the arm chair patriot republicans stand. Just wearing a flag pin does not make you a patriot. The only right they are concerned about is the right to carry. This may have to do with a deficiency in anatomy but they seem to think that carrying makes them a patriot like our troops that are actually doing something for our country.
    The generation before knew where Macarthyism and the birch society/teabaggers would lead us and when they raised their heads they were cut off.
    It looks like its up to the Kochs and what they want their puppets to do. The point of no return is coming sooner than most realize. A one foot rise in sea level is something florida is not prepared to handle. If social unrest hasn’t happened before then that will be the time everything starts to unravel. I read Churchills famous speech the other day and couldn’t help but wonder if my grandchildren will give or hear similar speeches.

  15. Solar Jim says:

    “Stern described his current understanding of the stark consequences of inaction, which defy the scope of standard economic language.”

    Precisely. That is because “economics” is a human made construct that is presently based on nation-state war directives of defense with power. That power is based on materials of uranium and geologic hydrocarbons which provide explosive arsenals and their fast delivery systems.

    We have effectively civilized weapons systems as “energy resources.” This is religion as economics and represents physical fraud (matter vs. energy) and economic fraud, enabled by massive nation-state subsidies and other policy for acquisition of “cheap fuel” and weapon systems. That is, we have an Economy of Explosives, not of “energy.” This state of affairs occurs along with attendant concentration of political and economic power as well as externalization of disease and liabilities.

    The present Western war-based, corporate-state economics is inherently fraudulent, fascistic and ecocidal. The cost of defining petroleum etc. as “energy” is infinite. It represents an existential discontinuity that will kill civilization.

    Redefining energy would turn trillions of dollars in petrochemicals (and atomic fission) into liabilities, therefore potentially bankrupting western finance which is built on monetizing minerals. Thus we drift toward bankruptcy of much more profound consequences.

  16. Roger says:

    My, how the tone of comments has changed here in the past year! Concern has become incredulity.

    So, when are we going to seriously DO something about what’s happening? I mean besides writing?

    A commenter said nuclear accidents are rated on a scale of one to 10, where a ‘one’ is a worker spilling a bit of radioactive water in the plant’s lab, and a ‘nine’ is a core meltdown. How is that relevant? Well…

    To date, our collective reaction to the insane situation we face has, in my opinion, been a one or a two. Folks have done much more in the ME recently, just to strive for democracy, let alone a livable climate!

    Will Joe, Jeff, or someone, please put forward a strategic plan of action to counter the Kochs’ takeover?

    I sense a lot of intelligence on this blog. Do we have a complement of courage too, to save ourselves?

  17. Tom Lewis says:

    “How can we save the world?”

    It’s the wrong question, and as long as we cling to it we’ll get wrong answers, for several reasons. 1) It’s too late to save the world. The feedback mechanisms are running and accelerating, the precipice is too close and the bus is going too fast. 2) Whatever answer you come up with to this question, it will either fail to cover some corner, class or continent of the world with salvation, or it will require some price not acceptable to some corner, class or continent. This flaw is built into the question, and thus any answer it elicits. Thus for half a century we have had proposals to save the world, followed by triumphant discussion of their flaws, followed by inaction. Thus, reason No. 1.

    “How can I save myself and my family?”

    Here’s a question that has answers. Sustainable living is within the grasp of anyone who wishes to make the hard choices and do the hard work required. Everyone cannot be saved; but anyone can be.

    By the way, I would suggest that “World War III” is not the right picture for thinking about the aftermath. Very quickly after the collapse, which most likely will be initiated by oil shortages and prices, the ability to travel, whether to conduct war or find food, will be denied to almost everyone. The need for food and water will very quickly become the preoccupation of everyone alive, and while some no doubt will use violence to get food, that is after all just another unsustainable activity.

  18. Jeff Huggins says:

    Roger (Comment 16), good morning, and I hear you. I share the same frustration — but frustration won’t tackle the problem, you’re right. I’m thinking about stuff. I have several ideas, but no “platform”, no resources to make them happen, and nobody in the community of climate change organizations who does anything other than send me the standard automated e-mails that ask us to keep the faith or to do X or Y. Somehow in the movements, we haven’t achieved cooperation yet, or at least not much.

    Today I’m reading Walden (Thoreau), which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read before. And I’m kicking myself because, even as I lived on Massachusetts Ave. in Arlington for two years, and even as I visited Lexington and Concord for the main historic sights, I never visited Walden Pond, right there in Concord.

    That’s it for now. I haven’t given up yet.

    Cheers and Be Well,


  19. Prokaryotes says:

    I have several ideas, but no “platform”

    Jeff, have a look at this platform then

  20. During the Cold War, international relations were structured by the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD); measures were taken so that irresponsible action by a few did not lead to the destruction of all. As the impact of climate changes worsens, will we be entering a Warming War in which we adopt a new concept of MAD, taking measures to ensure that the irresponsible failures to act of the few will not lead to the assured destruction of all?

  21. I agree with this, but my only problem with this kind of thinking is that it is very likely we are already going to face these consequences. If we focus too much of preventing what is already going to happen we risk being unprepared to deal with the challenges of climate change – especially for developing nations.

    I think it is a bit of a backwards approach to try to stop climate change to stop global instability. This instability is already coming regardless of what we do (remember how long C02 stays in the atmosphere), and unless we deal with it first, it will prevent us from collectively tackling climate change in the future.