Muckraker: Grist on Politics

U.K. economist Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 report, that argued that costs of inaction on climate change far outweigh the costs of acting, said yesterday that the planet is warming faster than previously predicted, which may increase the costs of action. Today he testified before the a House subcommittee on the increasing need for action, and the high economic and social costs of not taking the steps necessary to curb warming.

Stern’s initial report found that failure to act would cost at least 5 percent of global GDP, and possibly as much as 20 percent. He initially projected that it would cost just 1 percent of GDP to bring emissions to a safe level, but said yesterday that the cost might actually be 2 percent because climate change is happening faster than previous predictions.

“Looking back now, I think we underestimated the risks,” said Stern told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. “Emissions are growing faster than we thought, the carbon cycle is weakening more quickly than we thought, the climate sensitivity is greater than we thought.”

Stern said that the risk of lost economic growth is great as a warming climate causes storms, floods, sea level rise, drought, loss of agricultural capacity, and the potential spread of disease. These could in turn cause civil conflict and migration, which would also impair global economic growth, said Stern. He added that there are significant human costs that cannot be measured in financial terms, which his projections cannot really take into account.

Several Republican representatives noted in opening remarks that they’re still not quite sure whether climate change is happening. “I still think that you can have an honest debate about the science,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Barton also tried to make the case that Stern is profiting off his call for action on climate change, as he works as a consultant on the issue for several British institutions.

“I think it’s fair to point out in your non-academic areas, you have interests that benefit if we enact carbon constraints. You would tend to benefit financially if we enact some of these measures you’re talking about,” said Barton. Barton didn’t mention, however, the $2.3 million in campaign contributions he has received from oil, gas, and electric utilities during his political career. Barton is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and has been blocking fellow GOP committee members from entering into negotiations on a mandatory cap-and-trade bill with Democrats on the committee.

Stern attempted to counter these arguments by asserting that the potential costs are so great that action needs to be taken as an insurance measure. Even if the consequences aren’t as grim as climate modelers predict, the benefits outweigh the potential costs, according to Stern.

“If we act as if the science is right and it turns out to be wrong, we’ll have cleaner technologies, a more biodiverse world. It will be a cleaner, safer place,” said Stern. “On the other hand, if we act as if the science is wrong, and it turns out to be right, the gases will have built up in a way that it will be difficult to back away. We will have emitted ourselves into a corner where it will be very difficult to extricate ourselves.”

Stern emphasized a need to invest in carbon capture and sequestration technology to curb the emissions of the increasing number of coal-fired power plants, and attested that there is increasing desire to act in places like China, India, and other developing nations that make up the majority of the world population.

“I’m much more optimistic about a strong response than I was two years ago,” said Stern. “They realize that you can’t get action for the world of nine billion just by the one billion in the rich world … They realize how vulnerable they are.”

Stern emphasized the need for action from the United States in order to bring these other nations on board. He countered arguments from some on the committee that it would be more cost-effective to wait until the planet sees more effects of climate change to fund adaptation as opposed to mitigation.

“‘Adapt your way out of it’ seems to suggest that somehow that by pulling a few levers you can get back to the lifestyle you once had,” said Stern. “This is not the kind of thing where you can get back to the lifestyle you had before. Adaptation not a substitute for mitigation. We’re going to have to do a lot of both.”