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Stern berates 'marginal' climate deniers

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes the final edits to its new report, there is trenchant criticism of those who argue for delay in tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

LONDON, 26 September – People who deny that climate change is a serious and urgent threat have been dismissed by a leading British economist and environmental writer as “intellectually marginal”.

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Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, is a former chief economist at the World Bank and adviser to the UK Government.

In a speech at the Royal Society in London Lord Stern said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would reaffirm strongly in its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) that “there is a powerful and dangerous underlying trend; the risks are immense; and delay is dangerous.” The IPCC will release the first part of its Report on 27 September.

He said a global mean temperature regularly exceeding 2°C above present-day levels – which the IPCC is likeely to say it expects to be reached this century- had probably not been known on Earth for three million years, when the polar ice caps were much smaller and global sea level was about 20 metres higher than today.

Temperatures had been stable for the last seven or eight millennia, allowing the development of sedentary agriculture, the cultivation of cereals and the growth of villages and towns. They had fluctuated by only about 1-1.5˚C on average.

“…above 2˚C will be well outside that range. Hundreds of millions, possibly billions, may be forced to move, with likelihood of severe conflict and loss of life”, Stern said.

Increasing risks

He told his audience: “We appear to be embarked on a massive experiment where the consequences are hard to predict and the effects may be irreversible.

“And the scientific evidence suggests the risks and the consequences are becoming still more worrying, for example: rapidly rising emissions and greenhouse gas concentrations; impacts appearing more rapidly than anticipated; major ‘tipping points’ look still more threatening; the state of the oceans is more fragile than thought and the implications of
their changes more complex and difficult.”

In his speech Lord Stern referred to those who argue for delay in tackling emissions, saying: ‘[Climate] deniers are increasingly intellectually marginal and irrational.

“To present a convincing case for inaction or delay you have to show you are very confident that the risks are small, or the risks of delay are small, or that a magic antidote will be discovered – or to care little about the future.”

Earlier he told the London Guardian: “It is astonishing, irrational and unscientific to suggest the risks are small. How can they say they know the risks are small?

‘Vested interest’

“The clear conclusion from 200 years of climate science and observations show a strong association between carbon dioxide rises and global surface temperature.

“The science is unequivocal and shows there is serious danger. What is coming from [the sceptics] is just noise, and should be treated as noise.”

Some sceptics were paid by industries hostile to the findings of science about climate change, Stern said, and had a vested interest in contradicting it. Some were “deliberately distorting” the way people understood risk.

Others were “deliberately naive” in arguing that the world could afford to wait for decades before acting to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. The main conclusion of the Stern Review is that strong, early action on climate change will provide benefits which far outweigh the costs of not acting.

Stern said delay in reducing emissions would be dangerous because it would lock societies into building infrastructure which depended on fossil fuels – power stations and transport systems, for instance – and that would mean emissions continuing unabated for decades ahead. – Climate News Network

Editors’ Note: For the launch of the IPCC Report (AR5) we plan to publish on 27 September:

– a short factual summary of the Report’s main points
– reaction from several climate scientists and writers
– a climate scientist’s reflections on the lessons of the last 25 years