How To Save the Planet

Published November 03, 2006, issue of November 03, 2006.
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Last Monday, a scant eight days before America’s critical midterm elections, the British government released a new report on global warming and its consequences that is being described — in Britain, at least — as the most thorough, authoritative study of the topic to date, and the most apocalyptic. Commissioned by the British Treasury, prepared by a former chief economist of the World Bank and presented to the public personally by Prime Minister Tony Blair, the report might also be described as a desperate cry for help. We can still avoid planetary catastrophe, it says, but there’s not much time left.

The 700-page document contains a hair-raising litany of calamities that will befall the earth and its inhabitants within the next century if drastic measures are not taken very soon. Oceans will rise. Coastal cities will be washed away. Farmland will turn to desert. Species will go extinct. Diseases like malaria will spread out of control. Millions will die of hunger and sickness.

None of these predictions is conjecture. They all represent the consensus of the world’s scientific community. None of them is particularly new, either. What is new in the report is the economic analysis by the chief author, Sir Nicholas Stern, currently Britain’s chief government economist, of the costs and benefits of acting versus failing to act against the threat. Stern and his team calculate that if emissions of carbon into the atmosphere continue to grow at anything like their current pace, worldwide economic output will begin to decline by midcentury at a rate of 5% to 20% per year. The impact will be comparable to the world wars or the Great Depression of the past century. Unlike those disasters, this one will continue to grow, and it will be irreversible.

On the other hand, the Stern report makes clear, none of this is inevitable. Specific, practical actions are available. If the right steps are begun soon, they will halt the increase in carbon particles in the atmosphere, freezing them at “manageable” levels and thus arresting the rise in the Earth’s mean temperature. But the key word is “soon.” The possibility of averting catastrophe, Stern writes, is “almost out of reach.”

The most arresting portion of Stern’s report is his conclusion that the recipe for saving the Earth is economically feasible, contrary to what global-warming skeptics in the Bush administration and elsewhere say. Stern estimates that the needed steps — developing alternate energy, imposing emission caps on industry, stopping mass deforestation and more — will cost the world’s economies about 1% of global GDP, or about $350 billion per year at the outset. That’s not pocket change, but it’s a lot cheaper than the alternative. Significantly, Stern writes that the cure will generate new growth of its own in the form of new technologies and industries to apply them. “The world does not need to choose between averting climate change and promoting growth and development,” the report says.

The hard part, Stern makes clear, is neither economic nor technological. It’s political: convincing the world’s biggest economies to take the problem seriously and adopt the cure. This is not a problem that can be left to the market alone for a fix, Stern writes: “It requires cooperation between countries.”

Stern didn’t name names, but his Downing Street bosses made it very plain who they’re worried about: America, which produces one-fourth of the world’s dangerous greenhouse gasses (with just 4% of the world’s population), and China, which is coming up fast behind us.

Blair promised a year ago that his top priority during his remaining time in office would be convincing the Bush administration and the American public of the urgency of global warming. He didn’t mention that vow this week, but his comments on the Stern paper — he called it “the most important report on the future” ever published by his government — suggest that he sees the paper as a major step in that effort. British press comment reflected that view: Newspapers from the rightwing Times to the leftwing Independent described its release as a “watershed” that finally would turn the tide on climate change. The personal involvement of Blair, President Bush’s closest overseas ally, and Blair’s naming of his Treasury chief and presumed successor, Gordon Brown, to head up a new global campaign suggest that he’s getting serious.

On the other hand, the document can just as easily be read as an expression of frustration with the slow progress up till now on the American front. Characteristically, the White House responded with a throwaway comment from a low-ranking official, essentially promising more of the same inaction. The press mostly buried the story on inside pages. Readers hardly noticed.

Perhaps the report’s timing heightened the challenge, coming as it did a week before the congressional election, when voters are concerned with matters close to home.

Then again, that might have been Blair’s point.

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