Saturday, August 22, 2009

Nicholas Stern: facing the future

On Thursday night I went to hear Nicholas Stern at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Lord Stern is the author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a 2006 publication of the Government Economic Service of the UK, which famously laid out an economic argument for a strong global response to climate change. The Review claimed that an annual investment of around 1% of global GDP is required to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which, if left unattended, could have a long term consequence of reducing global GDP by 20%.

Lord Stern has recently published another book, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, in which he defends the necessity and content of a comprehensive global agreement that must be achieved at the Copenhagen conference on climate change later this year, an event which he calls "the most important gathering since WWII".

His talk at the Book Festival the other night consisted of readings from his new book as part of a summary of its argument. In it, he claims that poverty and climate change are inextricably linked in our context and one cannot be addressed without reference to the other, that these are the two great challenges of the present time. In order to minimise the risk of runaway climate change, he argues for a 50% reduction in carbon emissions (from the usual 1990 baseline) by 2050, with developed nations (who have been responsible for the vast majority of carbon already emitted) leading the way to demonstrate that low-carbon growth is possible and developing nations following according to a timetable he lays out in more detail in the book. But for developed nations, this involves a 20-40% reduction by 2020 and an 80-90% reduction by 2050 (the numbers vary for different nations, depending on their current and historical emissions). This timetable would see emissions peak around 2030 and reach a steady level by 2050 at around 2 tonnes per person per annum (currently, the UK average is about 10 tonnes per person, the US and Australian average is almost 20 tonnes).

In passing, he acknowledged that the numbers used in 2006 to estimate the extraordinary costs of continuing business as usual were hopelessly out of date. When more recent data is included, he now believes the real cost would be far higher than 20% and probably closer to 50% of global GDP.

Nonetheless, he was upbeat and positive and confidently assumed that a solution is possible that includes continued economic growth (low carbon growth). Noticely absent was any mention of peak oil or any references to other reminders of the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite system. As a member of the UK House of Lords, he was also unsurprisingly positive about the role of national governments and international agreements (despite admitting that no precedent exists for an agreement of the scope and nature that he is advocating). He also seemed to be at least partially banking on technologies that remain as yet unsuccessful, making reference to carbon sequestration and nuclear fusion.

However, what I found of most interest for my own research were a couple of telling points during the question time with audience members after his talk. First, he was asked what would happen if no agreement is reached in Copenhagen, or the conference is inconclusive. His answer was over five minutes long but he never answered the question. He merely repeated how important it was that the conference not fail and pointed to various indications that might give hope of success. Second, the final question of the evening came from the lady chairing the session. She pointed out that he had spoken of some terrifying possibilities and that he had told us we ought to be scared, but that he had still come across as a cheerful person. She asked how he managed this. After first joking that it was due to his chemistry (natural, not illegal!), he went on to say that if we believed that it was impossible we would never even try. Optimism by itself may not be sufficient (since it may be deluded), but it is necessary. Amongst his final words were ones something like this:

"If we don't think we can do it, we may as well buy a hat [presumably due to the hotter climate?] and write a letter of apology to our grandchildren."
In these two responses I felt there was something missing (and granted that Lord Stern is a very smart man and the format was brief and fairly popular). There seemed to be nothing between success and total failure, no possibility that we might fail to solve climate change (or that some of these problems might lack solutions) and yet still respond well. I am not talking about mitigation or adaption, though these will be elements of any scenario since much damage has already been done. I am talking instead about the possibility of faithful "failure". This is not to say that action on climate change is unimportant, nor to foster any kind of defeatism. However, I do feel sceptical that we can (in the words of his new book's subtitle) manage climate change and create a new era of progress and prosperity. What if despite our best efforts at responding to climate change (and the host of other issues) we end up poorer and more fractured as a result of the damage already done? What if cushioning social decline is all we can legitimately hope for?

To put it in more personal terms, imagine someone dying of a terminal illness for which there is no known cure. The doctors may say that optimism is necessary but not sufficient, they may wish to try new things and seek breakthroughs, and these may all be good things. But the fact remains that it appears likely the patient will die. Faced with such a situation, it is tempting to think that there are only two options: success (a miracle cure) or failure (death). And it is tempting to think that the highest calling is to devote every resource to avoiding death. But might there be a way of dying, of facing one's own imminent end, that is faithful and "successful" in some deeper sense than spending every scrap of remaining energy on seeking to escape death a little longer?

Of course, the parallel is far from perfect, since a society is not a single organism with a lifespan that faces biological death. Such terms are metaphorical when used of societies, which transition from one level of complexity to another, rather than suddenly dying. But the point is similar: that perhaps there are situations where the desperate search for a solution that gambles everything on maintaining the status quo is a worse path than grieving loss, accepting change, caring for others and preparating for a very different future. I am not necessarily saying that we have reached that point, but if we had, how would we know? And if we had, would we be willing to admit it? Can our social identity survive the realisation that the foreseeable future might be all downhill?


Matheson said...

Byron, I haven't come across anyone else thinking about the questions you raise. But then you're the one who's been looking... Have you found anyone raising these questions in the climate change context?

It does occur to me that many/most societies do have a moral imagination that includes wisdom about what it looks like to fail well or nobly. After all, we are forced to narrate defeats or declines (retrospectively) sometimes, and a sympathetic narrator will find virtues to praise. The eulogy is a personal example, I suppose; but this goes for collective defeats and declines: military defeats (Gallipoli), economic decline (the Great Depression). The narrating elicits a moral account which lays blame, but also exonerates to some extent.

I'm thinking of the final orations in the genre of tragedy.

I don't know, if you are right, perhaps this is an age in which we need to rediscover the genre of tragedy to think our moral situation.

Sam Charles Norton said...

"Can our social identity survive the realisation that the foreseeable future might be all downhill?"

In so far as our social identity is predicated on the myth of progress, the answer is clearly No. However, in so far as Christians are at least potentially the possessors of a different form of social identity, the possibility of hope remains.

byron smith said...

Matheson - great suggestions. The category of tragedy is an important one, though as you point out, it is primarily a retrospective genre that attempts to understand past failures. Is it possible to see a tragedy coming and still face it with faithfulness? Obviously, I think here of Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, knowing that it will likely be the death of him and the scattering of his disciples.

Sam - I think you've just more or less summarised my answer (as I currently understand it) in two sentences. Thanks!

Matheson said...

Byron, yes tragedy is a retrospective sense-making within the narrative frame of the drama; but it also invites the audience into a moral reflection on their own situation and possible fate. So, in this sense it opens an imaginative space for anticipating that my own life too might be one like Antigone's, King Lear's, etc. And that's where it might get interesting for your project - contingency, fallibility, irresolvable conflicts of duty, irreversible confluence of seemingly unrelated acts...

Sam Charles Norton said...

I do like to be helpful :)

Are you familiar with Martha Nussbaum's 'The Fragility of Goodness'? I think it is highly relevant to this theme, and an excellent book. (All about Greek tragedy and how Aristotle etc understood the good life in the context of luck playing such a large role in whether it is achievable or not). Highly, highly recommended.

byron smith said...

Thanks - I'm aware of Nussbaum 2nd-hand, but I'll add it to the ever-growing list. :-)

Anonymous said...

I guess it depends on what you mean by "downhill". If civilisation is forced to adapt to drastically lower transport energy, and the "spanner in the works" scenarios for oil depletion do play out in a fast way, then "downhill" could be very bad indeed" in which there simply may not be that many survivors to even think about such matters. Those left in the wildnerness of a "Mad Max" world would be too busy scrounging out a living and wondering about the next meal for the kids to do any serious theological work on "our social identity".

But the point is similar: that perhaps there are situations where the desperate search for a solution that gambles everything on maintaining the status quo is a worse path than grieving loss, accepting change, caring for others and preparating for a very different future.
I guess since the Industrial Revolution every generation has had an aspect of this. Tolkein wrote of "The Ring" as the power of the Industrial Revolution and the terrible changes it wrought on the English countryside. Europe turned on itself and destroyed much that was beautiful and good. The post-war generation destroyed a sense of community as they built and 8-lane-highway through it. The world is changing fast, in some ways for the better and in other ways for the worse, and I think every generation grieves the loss of the perceived good and tries to make do.

However, societal collapse is on a spectrum. So in one sense, if the end of the personal automobile were inevitable (and I'm not even sure of that for now), then we'd be compelled to support "Transition Towns" and other causes that would "soften the blow" of the inevitable dangers and changes of such a large systemic transition. As far as collapse goes, "fight it to the end!"
The end of a society is a horrible, horrible concept. It's totally different to our own personal demise. It is watching all the systems that maintain food production and law and order crumble around you. It is watching your children start to starve, and fearing random attacks by madmen in the night.

As Alex Steffen of Worldchanging writes:

"But real apocalypses are sordid, banal, insane. If things do come unraveled, they present not a golden opportunity for lone wolves and well-armed geeks, but a reality of babies with diarrhea, of bugs and weird weather and dust everywhere, of never enough to eat, of famine and starving, hollow-eyed people, of drunken soldiers full of boredom and self-hate, of random murder and rape and wars which accomplish nothing, of many fine things lost for no reason and nothing of any value gained. And survivalists, if they actually manage to avoid becoming the prey of larger groups, sitting bitter and cold and hungry and paranoid, watching their supplies run low and wishing they had a clean bed and some friends. Of all the lies we tell ourselves, this is the biggest: that there is any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society."

Worldchanging October 2004

I think we have a Christian duty to do what we can to fight that outcome... as best we can with the time and resources we have. Fortunately I find it unlikely. Possible, but not inevitable. But only time will tell.