World leaders missed the perfect opportunity to tackle climate change during the global economic crisis, according to the influential economist and academic Lord Stern.
The author of the seminal 2006 Stern review on the economics of climate change also criticised what he called a strange and anti-science wing of the Conservative party for putting the brakes on their leaders making progress on the issue in the UK.
Stern told an audience at the Hay festival the economic and technological conditions during the financial crisis would have made it easier to make progress on climate change, had politicians seized the opportunity.
“Really, the recession in many ways undermined action over the past five or six years,” Stern said. “The politicians’ attentions were elsewhere.
“Why it is impossible to think about the recession and climate change at the same time I don’t really know, but it seemed to be too much for them, when in fact this should have been the period when we were investing like mad.
“Interest rates on the floor, unemployed resources, so much technical progress showing you what’s possible – that was the moment we should have really gone for it and we didn’t. We did lose that opportunity.”
Stern said that although current climate forecasts were even more gloomy than he had predicted in 2006, technological advancement was happening at a far faster rate than he had imagined.
“Progress has just been amazing,” he said. “We’ve got three industrial revolutions going on at the same time: digital, materials and bio. That is an enormous opportunity.”
Politics had been the main impediment to change, he inferred, with the UK leadership understanding the problems but slow to act.
“I think in their hearts David Cameron and George Osborne understand the issues but there is a strange lot on the right wing of the Tory party who make very odd, anti-science noises.
“So are the leadership ready to go fast? It’s very important to keep the arguments coming.”
Stern expressed cautious optimism about key talks in Paris at the end of the year, which will be the first significant attempt to reach a worldwide consensus on global warming targets since the infamously chaotic UN summit in Copenhagenin 2009.
The Paris accord, which is set to take effect from 2020, would aim to limit global warming to a maximum of 2C above pre-industrial levels.
Lord Stern said that success after Paris meant ensuring the pressure was kept on governments to keep pushing at ambitious targets.
“It is very important as well that we have an objective to go zero-carbon for the world before the end of this century. That is a big ask but perfectly possible and we understand how to do it.”
“We have to ramp up, very strongly, look what we are doing every year and say ‘how can we make that stronger?’ Methods for doing that will probably be quite controversial,” he added.