Nicholas Stern: ‘I Got It Wrong On Climate Change–It’s Far, Far Worse,’ An ‘Existential’ Threat For Many

"Stern now believes he should have been more ‘blunt’ about threat to economies from temperature rises" -- UK Guardian

Another day, another climate expert explains the deadly combination of inaction and faster-than-expected impacts.

This time the man ringing the bell is Lord Nicholas Stern, the author of the famous Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. The UK Guardian reports:

Stern … said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

That would be 4° to 5°C aka 7° to 9°F aka the end of civilization as we know it (see World Bank Climate Report: ‘A 4°C [7°F] World Can, And Must, Be Avoided’ To Avert ‘Devastating’ Impacts). Stern continues:

“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

Stern was not alone in raising concerns at the World Economic Forum:

Stern’s comments came as Jim Yong Kim, the new president of the World Bank, also at Davos, gave a grave warning about the risk of conflicts over natural resources should the forecast of a four-degree global increase above the historical average prove accurate.

“There will be water and food fights everywhere,” Kim said as he pledged to make tackling climate change a priority of his five-year term.

The time to act was a long time ago but now is infinitely, existentially better than later.

Related Post:

67 Responses to Nicholas Stern: ‘I Got It Wrong On Climate Change–It’s Far, Far Worse,’ An ‘Existential’ Threat For Many

  1. PeterM says:

    Sterns warning represents another in the parade of warnings about the climate disaster we are walking into. But is anything really being done? We are told by most politicians in this country that economic growth is paramount. Growth based on a 20th century paradigm of infinite growth and consumption.

    This will obvious lead to disaster. Most still do not seem concerned with the physics, or the data of our predicament. The mania for more energy- from fossil fuels seems unabated. We are headed for a worse case scenario- if lucky we will be able to stop at 2-3 degrees- if not then 4 degrees seems now the likely outcome.

  2. Dan Ives says:

    Joe, I read about this on Truthdig and that article mentioned that the European carbon trading scheme has basically collapsed because the carbon price has gotten too low. Would you be willing to do a post on this with your thoughts? I’d like to hear what went wrong and how it could be avoided if the US created such a carbon price and trading scheme. Thanks.

  3. Salutations,
    To ask if you had a leaking pipe wouldn’t it be best to apply to a plumber before it entirely burst. Kind regards Caroline

  4. Salutations,
    Recently reviewed EU Carbon exchange is viewing applying bi-lateral arrangements with Aust. 2018 – Perhaps investigations on Australia’s participation would shed some light – to consider attendance aligned perhaps more within trade sensitivities which then raises partnerships based viewing Free Trade Agreements AUSFTA and AANZFTA. Kind regards Caroline

  5. Josh says:

    I say, let the d*mn world burn. We humans, haven’t been good stewards of the earth, anyways. BTW, 60° for Lex. Ky. on Wen.! Fri.–snow. YAY!

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Given the rates of rainfall we have seen in Qld and NSW, I am thinking that the additional percentage water vapour held in the atmosphere must be up from 4%. Latest estimates? ME

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    Well, for me it’s another day of climate change inaction. I have to set up my tax prep job for money to pay the rent.

  8. Jack Wolf says:

    About 10 years ago, I began to notice that most climate change reports and scientific papers use less than realistic emission scenarios in their calculations. Since these emissions are long lived, this has led to a deepening concern about the climate situation and its impacts, in my lifetime, and in your lifetime.
    This important talk by Dr. Anderson, link below, at the 2012 Cabot Lecture clearly points the finger at scientists for not accurately reporting how bad the climate situation is. He also explains why we cannot meet the 2 degree C (3.8 F) target set by the world’s government and its impacts on us today. His talk is timely in light of the recent report from the World Bank that found:
    “Even with the current mitigation pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s.”
    Globally, we are nowhere close to meeting our mitigation pledges and long lived CO2 emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. It’s like civilization has collectively said: Screw it. Dr. Anderson is very animated and I think you will find it enlightening.

  9. 5% is the latest I heard, though I can’t remember exactly where I heard or read that. I think at a Bill McKibben lecture I attended.

    The extra 1% is a lot but, as I’m sure you know, there’s more to its effect on local weather patterns than just the global atmospheric water vapor content. Its where and when that “what goes up” eventually “comes down” that matters the most.

  10. clays says:

    Lets all remember, Western Civilization has been using the scientific method for hundreds of years. And 99.999% of the conclusions pronounced by “infallible” science have been wrong.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thank you, ME

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There is a question as to how long the IMF etc can prop up the ephemeral infrastructure of the global economy. If that crashes, many things including emissions will crash with it, ME

  13. Jacob says:

    So what are you saying? Everything is peaches and cream and we have nothing to worry about? The evidence says otherwise, though the way our civilization is proceeding with business as usual would suggest we don’t care what the evidence indicates.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Australia is in the midst of weather disasters, from record temperatures, raging mega-fires, to record floods (‘once in a hundred year’ floods occurring every couple of years in parts of Queensland since 2000)and ‘unprecedented’ weather patterns. Yet, even as the evidence kicks us, forcefully, in the sensitive parts of our anatomy, the head remains rock solid and obdurate. Climate change has not been mentioned, not even to be refuted as it was in the 2011 flood disaster (when everything was blamed on La Nina, and the MSM, led by the Murdoch infestation, went to great lengths to actively deny any climate change influence). Now it’s just ignored, while every day new plans for expanded coal-mining, or gushing predictions of 200 billion barrels of shale oil get the greed-heads’ ‘animal spirits'(apologies to animals) sparking. At least in Australia, greed is still good, and life is an ‘externality’ soon to be liquidated on a massive scale.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m annoyed. According to the song, ‘God sent Noah the rainbow sign, no more water etc’ yet here we are, and the treacherous old ego-projection in the sky is sending both fire and water. Any Free fans out there?

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’ve been convinced for about that long that the predictions were being deliberately underplayed, but, naturally, being an internal optimist, I hoped that I was wrong, and the scientists were correct. Well I don’t believe that any more, and I’m getting very impatient waiting for the scientific community to get suitably agitated.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I think your figure is misleading, and the use of the word ‘wrong’ absolutely inappropriate. Science, apart from frauds like climate change denial pseudo-science, or the Piltdown Man, makes the best available approximations to the truth, and then works on better ones, trying to falsify the old theories. Science today will be falsified in the future (if we have one) by better theories, but to call current knowledge ‘wrong’ is wrong. It is merely ‘incomplete’, and always will be, to the end of time.

  18. Spike says:

    Indeed Mulga the Guardian reports:

    Australia’s climate commission says global warming is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. But asked whether people on Australia’s east coast should expect this, the New South Wales premier dismissed the question.

    “If the question is about climate change go and ask me another day,” Barry O’Farrell said.

    “Let’s not turn this near-disaster, this episode that has damaged so many properties and other things, into some politically correct debate about climate change. Give me a break.”

    Refusal to even contemplate the possibility of error, ideological dismissal of evidence, sociopathic disregard for suffering – full house.

  19. Nick B says:

    In the UK Stern came under recent attack from the politicized oil lobby in the form of Peter Lilley MP – a fool who thinks that economics can trump nature. It’s good to hear Stern come out and reinforce his points with updated estimates of rising temperatures and their true meaning for life on Earth.

    After sitting through Dr Holdren’s speech in London showing the impacts of 1C for the US, discussion about 2, 3 or 4C is utterly stupid. Strip idiots like Lawson and Lilley of their state paid for privileges (scrounging little tripes that they are!) and create an informed council of action charged with implementing the evaluations and solutions required to sort this mess out and move into a new paradigm!

  20. bill says:

    1: Your Pollyanna-ish claim is absurd – it’s source, if it has any at all, is most likely to be a bus-ticket. It’s like that ridiculously long-lived myth that we ‘use only 10% of our brains’.

    2: This is not even an argument. Uncertainty cuts 2 ways; things could be – indeed, as time goes on it seems increasingly likely that they are – dramatically worse.

    3: Yep, science is pretty-well always wrong, claims some random guy on the internet, perhaps using his iPhone, uplinked via satellite, maybe while jetting back and forth at 24 000 ft watching CGI blockbusters. If you don’t get the point I’m making, that’s because the almost ludicrous successes of science have made it so all-pervasive that it’s now like the air we breathe, pretty-well invisible to us.

    Enabling some people to make some pretty dumb comments about it.

  21. Spike says:

    Floods in Indonesia and Mozambique too – the latter sounds especially serious:

  22. BillD says:

    MM–That’s incredible. I thought that with your modest carbon tax that the Aussies were on board with climate change. Now it’s an unmentionable? It would be really interesting to read a poll about what people are thinking but not saying. They know that climate change is supposed to lead to more heat waves, droughts and floods, right?

  23. Superman1 says:

    Stern could have predicted 10 C in the 2006 report; as we used to say, that and five cents would have gotten him a cup of coffee at H&H. Experts today are predicting 5-6 C by the end of the century, without including positive feedbacks, and nothing is being done. How long does the inaction time series have to be before we accept all the points have been, are, and will continue to be zero?

  24. Superman1 says:

    So, now we get more accurate assessments and predictions by Anderson et al, and what difference does that make? Still, nothing is being done. How many more data points do we need in the inaction time series to accept that nothing has been done, nothing is being done, and nothing will be done in addressing climate change?

  25. Superman1 says:

    “internal optimist”

    I assume you meant ‘eternal’.

  26. Superman1 says:

    We are treating climate change social data very differently from what we would do in any other branch of science. We have a stream of climate change action data going back at least thirty years, and every year we see ‘goose eggs’. There is zero evidence that trend will change in any way; the BP energy outlook for 2030 projects a 30% increase in fossil fuel usage over 2010, and this is based on what is on the books and corporate/government plans. Yet, what is our response on these blogs; why, we project all sorts of scenarios that will keep us below 2 C, and talk about the urgency of initiating them. At what point do we accept that the vast majority have no intentions of making the personal sacrifices required to stay within even a dangerous target like 2 C, and the only sacrifices they are willing to make are the extended lives of their children?

  27. Endofmore says:

    we must face the truth, that people in high office have been saying ”we must act now” for years.
    what that really means is, ” not immediately”, because that is not very convenient, we need to do a few things before we actually make a start.–er–next year sometime?? maybe?
    I too have a PhD in prevarication and next year I expect to get the Nobel prize for lethargy
    None of us will find it very convenient when the lights go out and the supermarket shelves get stripped, but hey–it was good while it lasted

  28. Spike says:

    The Scottish Government has today unveiled plans to decarbonise its energy sector by 2030 and boost the offshore wind energy supply chain, as it also prepares to update its climate change strategy.
    First Minister Alex Salmond confirmed this morning that Scotland would aim to cut emissions from the electricity sector from 347 grams of CO2 per kWh in 2010, to 50g CO2/kWh by 2030, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

  29. Lore says:

    I wish this were true, but I’m afraid the only way emissions will come down is when the world population takes a drastic drop. Until then people will burn and use every available source of energy they can get their hands on.

    Greece is a good example, right now, where the citizenry can no longer afford heating oil and are burning every available stick of wood they can find. Including their furniture and an ancient olive tree that legend has it Plato once leaned upon.

  30. Artful Dodger says:

    Hi Bill. Don’t be confused or misled by the Murdock media. They are the same ones that run Faux Noose in the U.S.

    They are NOT the public. They are the 0.01% and they WANT you in denial. So at least for today,denial is a river in Queensland.

    Cheers, and be well!

  31. Artful Dodger says:

    ME, the original statement was that there is 4% additional water vapour in the atmosphere for every degree F above normal. We’re well above that 1 F increase now. But it let’s you predict increased storm intensity quite well.

  32. Anne says:

    The nation sees 50+F degree swings in temps from one day to another, and still, “news” articles still attempt to deny, deny, deny. This one from Cleveland is a classic. Climate change isn’t happening, because, uh, the reporter knows a guy who can do some math. Deplorable. HEAD VICE LINK:

  33. John McCormick says:

    Re: O’Farrell,

    Explaining to him the connection between Australia’s climate chaos and climate change is like trying to get a serial killer to value the sanctity of life.

  34. Paul Klinkman says:

    I have a long history of complaining that consensus science is way too timid — as in, wrong, kind of dumb and not worth giving tenure to this clown — for the actual data. We have a long geologic history of massive upward temperature response to small driving changes. We see evidence of positive reinforcement mechanisms. All of this is ignored. In what other field would this behavior be acceptable?

  35. Superman1 says:

    Unfortunately, Paul, in too many others. I spend most of my computer time researching the biomedical literature. Much of the prevailing wisdom is consensus driven, by design. The status quo is profitable for many people, and they want it to remain that way. The journals, the citation process, the review panels, the awarding of grants, all are aimed in the same direction: preserve and enhance the status quo. I see many parallels between medical ‘science’ and climate change. The ‘patients’ in medical science don’t want to give up their junk foods, their toxic exposures, their hours on cell phones; they all want that little ‘magic pill’ that will allow them to continue business as usual, and not suffer the consequences. No difference from the energy consumer.

  36. Superman1 says:

    There are many people in this world who care little about living out their years; these include chain smokers, excess alcohol drinkers, excess uncontrolled substance takers, excess cell phone users, excess junk food eaters, etc. Why would they worry about what happens to civilization? Unfortunately, their vote counts equally with those of us who are concerned.

  37. SecularAnimist says:

    Despair is the new denial. For a generation, the fossil fuel corporations said that global warming was not a problem, so there was no need to end fossil fuel use. Now that line of propganda has become untenable. So the new, improved line of propaganda is that global warming is hopeless, so there is no point in ending fossil fuel use.

    Give up. Resistance is futile. Accept the absence of a future. ExxonMobil’s continued profits depend on it.

  38. Raul M. says:

    Well, in the U.S. it is illegal to live in nature as nature would have it. We have been very busy “improving” on what nature would offer us. Building, designing, cleaning up, even renaturalizing areas damaged by weather extremes. But natural would include the effects of the hurricane, the new natural.
    Now that it is more difficult to enjoy nature and rebuilding is necessary how does that change our basic desires for comfort and convience? And I’m sure that code enforcement has made it even more illegal to live with what nature may afford. Just saying, enjoy.

  39. Icarus62 says:

    Nothing effective will be done before the warnings of devastating consequences due to AGW become observations… and by then it may be too late. We would of course need geo-engineering on a massive scale, and in my view the most important action by far is to actively remove our excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That would have an enormous cost in terms of materials and energy – where is the energy going to come from, to run civilisation and geo-engineer the planet? Obviously it can’t come from fossil fuels.

    Any ideas?

  40. The status quo is always privileged. It’s built into the human amygdala. People will take the devil they know. Aside from all the vested interest issues, it is THE problem.

  41. God will not end the world by flood again. He has something way more excruciating up his wide white sleeve, which He’s giving us a little peek at.

  42. I, for one, am relieved. Thanks, Clays! I don’t know why I haven’t looked at it that way. 99.999% is pretty irrefutable. Now I can go on with life.

    Except that experiment they did at Alamogordo–that did seem to play out the way they said. Also acid rain. And DDT. And the ozone hole. But I guess that just goes to show how many absurd claims they make, if these constitute the 0.001%

  43. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Correct and Mulga is also picking cherries although it is late in the season, ME

  44. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Correct and Mulga is also picking cherries although it is late in the season, ME

  45. J4zonian says:

    Yes, but they get fewer of them, so it’s OK.

  46. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yep, and there are some on this blog, inadvertently or otherwise, encouraging that profit taking, ME

  47. paul magnus magnus says:

    Why it’s important we have alternate enegy alternative in place…..

  48. paul magnus magnus says:

    Saw the abc video of that, unreal. He’s right though not many auzies are talking about climate disruption at the moment. You can bet they are thinking it though.

    It’s the deer in the headlights effect.

  49. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There is good empirical evidence from 2009 and it would take a lot of furniture to fuel some of our heavy industries, ME

  50. paul magnus magnus says:

    Indeed. I find the talk on 4c odd. Considering the impacts we are seeing at .8c we are going to be lucky, very lucky if we are around when it gets to 1.5C.

    There’s that reticence again. It really is difficult for people even those in the know to accept dire situation.

    People have an inbuilt optimism which I guess helps to be successful in many situation, but not in this one with global warming.

  51. Superman1 says:

    There is ‘despair’, ‘wishful thinking’, and a recognition of ‘reality’. I prefer the latter!

  52. Superman1 says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. If you add the fossil fuel necessary to ‘run’ the present civilization, do geo-engineering, and convert to renewables, that’s probably more than enough to drive us over the brink, if we’re not over the brink already. I don’t believe there is a voluntary solution to the problem. The electorate at large seems more than willing to sacrifice the future of their progeny to whatever remains of the gluttony of the present. Our only hope is involuntary takeover by those who control the physical levers of power, and the imposition of extremely harsh measures to reduce fossil fuel emissions. We will find the inaction of the past thirty years on climate change will translate into the premature loss of at least tens of millions of lives. Lethargy has its price!

  53. paul magnus magnus says:

    Sterns missing a couple more fars in his statement….

  54. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Check the 917 comments on Hilmer’s article on Climate Science on The Drum, ABC, ME

  55. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Fatty O’Barrell was a hard Right zealot in the previous ‘Liberal’ state regime in New South Wales in the late 80s and early 90s. Then, when he was running for Premier a couple of years back, he was suddenly transmogrified into a ‘moderate’. Amazing to relate, and I know you’ll all be as astonished as I, once elected, he mysteriously reverted to being hard, hard Right, and destroying renewable energy and all environmental progress made over the last thirty years has been one of his absolute priorities. I just cannot believe that the ‘Free Press’, in particular the sainted Murdoch apparatus, could get it so wrong.

  56. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The average Australian is so dumb that, ‘They wouldn’t know a tram was up ‘ém, till they rang the bell’ as we used to say. But then we got rid of trams, preferring sitting in solitary grandeur in our cars, in our ever-expanding traffic jams.

  57. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sour cherries, ME-my favourites. Or Morellos – Esperanto for ‘little morons’.

  58. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Despair is the new black, and the real denial, in my opinion, is pretending that times are not pitch black. Only through confronting the Gorgon head on…OK, bad analogy…only by confronting the dragon head-on will we come through, thoroughly singed, there’s no doubt about it, but, hopefully, still around.

  59. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The European carbon trading scheme collapsed because the financial kleptos who run all ‘free markets’ decided that was the most profitable route to take. Leaving things to ‘the market’, where the only rule is profit maximisation and crude self-interest is king, is a recipe for disaster, and, once again, we have the evidence to hand, which will now simply be denied away by the market fanatics.

  60. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Externally I’m quite pessimistic, saturnine, even. But, on the inside, all is sweetness and light.

  61. Lore says:

    Which is why dirtier, cheaper fuels like coal, will still be used in economically advancing countries where their population is looking to become just like us here in the US. Regardless of the consequences to its people, as we are witnessing right now in China.

    The 2009 blip in emissions here in the US is a footnote to total global output and its still rising.

  62. wili says:

    Paul K said: “I have a long history of complaining that consensus science is way too timid”

    Then you may be interested in this piece:

    “Climate Scientists Erring on the Side of Least Drama”

  63. wili says:

    Exactly right!

    And that is why nearly all climate scientists are almost certainly about to be proven wrong by events as they unfold:

    it will be discovered by us all that things will unfold much more rapidly, much more extremely, and much more fatally than nearly anyone had estimated.

  64. OH says:

    The United States has power, Conservatives. Countries half around the world cant even legalize marijuana without persmission from the US govt. We can start building those 144,000 windmills, we can skip one stupid war, we can let these big cities build a transit system without being sabotaged by rural idiots who have an ideology against transit, our kids dont have any problem eating less meat. We can lead the world.

  65. Amari Blaize says:

    Doesn’t really matter whether its 2-3 degrees or 9-10 degrees. Who can stop the earth’s core overheating because that is where the heat is held. We cannot cool that. So the planet will take action to protect itself regardless of human endeavours. When the earth dies in time it will spring back into life, as will humankind, as a new civilization. Climate change is an evolutionary step for the planet.

  66. lannie says:

    Would really love to know where the big shots plan to ride this out. You know they must have a plan that has been worked on for decades.
    Step 1: Get the helicopter port set up on our Hideaway spot. Step 2: get the planet down to a managable 1 million worker bees.
    Step 3: Get on with the show.