Just in time for the UN Global Climate Summit in New York two big beasts in the climate debate have addressed the media. Nicolas Stern is a leading voice of a new report and Naomi Klein has a new book out. Both have been featured in the Guardian by journalists largely sympathetic to them. Fiona Harvey covered Stern, Suzanne Goldenberg Naomi Klein.
Frist of all, what is the summit about? The official website tells us that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked world leaders 'to bring bold announcements and actions to the Summit that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015. Climate Summit 2014 provides a unique opportunity for leaders to champion an ambitious vision, anchored in action that will enable a meaningful global agreement in 2015.'
So the emphasis is on vision and bold statements, with the commensurate action to be expected at next year's meeting in Paris.
Looking at the contributions from Stern and Klein they certainly tick these boxes. But there is a noticeable difference which is interesting.
Harvey quotes Stern as saying "Reducing emissions is not only compatible with economic growth and development – if done well it can actually generate better growth than the old high-carbon model". Stern repeats his earlier argument that GHG mitigation costs less than adaptation. The story line is the same with regard to the earlier report which preceded the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 -- that the world has little time to act. However, we still have 10 to 15 years to do this, as we were told 5 years ago. So there is hope: 'The world can still act in time to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and enjoy the fruits of continued economic growth as long as the global economy can be transformed within the next 15 years.'
As before, the remedy offered is a high carbon price to alter the incentive structure in favour of renewable energy (see here why this is wrong, p.32-33). The thinking still seems to be that the required technologies are available to achieve the needed energy revolution. (The report also examines the role and function of cities with regard to climate policies, which is an interesting aspect to which I will return in a later post).
Stern still holds on to the dramatic scenario 'We have just enough time to do it' arguably because recent developments in the renewable energy sector have been positive. The language used is interesting. In comment box next to Harvey's article, Stern writes with Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD:
'In energy, we are on the verge of a revolution. The price of solar and wind power has fallen so far that in places as diverse as Brazil, South Africa and Chile, renewable energy can now compete with fossil fuels without requiring subsidies. At the same time, coal has become more costly and less secure... It is now likely that renewable energy could make up half of all new electricity generation over the period to 2030 – unthinkable just a few years ago.'
There is a lot if wishful thinking in this. Even if solar and wind energy become cheaper and more widespread they need backup, which under current technological arrangements will come from fossil power plants. Unless energy storage technology becomes available, for every GW of renewables you need a GW of fossil energy. The price of coal has dropped, arguably as a result of the shale gas revolution in the US, making it the cheapest source of energy in many countries around the world. And the last sentence ('It is now likely that renewable energy could make up half of all new electricity generation') has two conditional clauses which make for a very weak statement. The language used betrays that the bold statements invited for the New York Summit will be tested against the possibilities offered by reality.
Finally, it is somewhat dishonest when Harvey uses this euphemism to describe the original Stern Review and the Copenhagen Summit: 'That report marked a revolution in thinking on global warming, and was a major factor in the agreements forged in Copenhagen in 2009 by which developed and major developing countries for the first time set out joint measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.' I thought everyone was agreed that Copenhagen was a dismal failure.
Without mentioning Stern, Naomi Klein seems to open a different line of argument in her new book and in the interview with Suzanne Goldenberg.
'Go to the UN climate summit in a couple of weeks and it’s all going to be the new green economy and the head of Bank of America sitting down with the president of Mexico – and we are all going to do it together... That is a dangerous idea at this stage of history. We now have two decades to measure that model. We are not talking about a theory here, we are talking about a track record. I think it’s fair to say: ‘OK, we tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.”
By 'your way' she implies the logic of international negotiations and the promises by big business to implement voluntary regulation (Richard Branson in particular attracts her ire). However, she throws the baby out with the bathwater; being skeptical about the enlightened self interest of capitalists does not mean that there can be no reform within the current system. But she seems to be tied to this fundamental premise, that capitalism is the root cause of climate change and that we must get rid of the former in order to solve the latter. What she has to offer is hope in a radical opposition movement, 'scattered groups of climate organisers, grassroots and indigenous people’s groups that have been ready to take on corporate power in a way that Big Green is not'.
Her critical view of established green groups puzzles the Guardian journalist. Goldenberg says:
'She goes so far as to lump centrist environmental leaders together with groups such as the Heartland Institute, which denies the existence of climate change. “Between the Heartlanders who recognise that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” Klein writes in the book.'
From different ends of the political spectrum, Klein and the Heartlanders assume that climate change could threaten the existing capitalist system, with the difference that she wants to abolish it.
While Klein emphasises the size of the challenge she has nothing to offer in terms of pragmatic politics. Stern plays down the size of the challenge, but exhorts leaders to reach a strong international treaty resting on a high and rising carbon price. Two different voices from climate celebrities sharing an alarmist conviction, but both deeply flawed.