An ethical approach to assessing the risks of climate change will help countries to both overcome poverty and develop sustainably

Posted on 10 Sep 2015 in

Countries can make the transition to low-carbon economic growth, overcome poverty and raise living standards, if they both recognise the great opportunities available and embrace an ethical approach to managing climate change, Nicholas Stern will tell senior representatives from the Catholic Church at an international meeting on environmental justice and climate change in Rome today (Thursday 10 September).

Speaking at the Istituto Patristico Augustinianum, Professor Lord Stern will criticise the practice of heavily “discounting” the lives of future generations when considering the impacts of climate change.

He will say: “Discounting future welfare or lives means weighting the welfare or lives of future people lower than lives now, irrespective of consumption and income levels, purely because their lives lie in the future.

“It is profoundly unethical, relative to most serious moral frameworks to apply high discount rates, which effectively means that damage and harm caused to lives and livelihoods by climate change decades from now, no matter how large, is largely ignored.

“It cannot be right, for instance, as some would suggest, to apply a 2 per cent pure-time discount rate which means that the life of someone born 35 years from now, with given consumption patterns, is deemed half as valuable as that of someone born now, with the same consumption patterns.

“That is discrimination by date of birth, and is unacceptable when viewed alongside notions of rights and justice.”

Professor Lord Stern will warn of the huge risks of climate change to human populations, potentially causing mass migration and conflict.

He will say: “We live and work where we do, in large measure, because of where rivers, shores and ports are located, and where the climate is favourable or manageable. Climate change could radically alter all of that.”

Professor Lord Stern will warn that an increase in global average temperature of 4 centigrade degrees or more above pre-industrial levels is possible under ‘business as usual’ emissions of greenhouse gases, and would be “enormously destructive”.

He will add: “The dislocation and damage to lives and livelihoods of such rapid and large climate change would be immense with hundreds of millions, probably billions, having to migrate, resulting in the likelihood of widespread conflict and loss of life.”

Lord Stern will argue that the goals of poverty reduction, sustainable development and climate action support each other and should be achieved in parallel. “We now have a much greater understanding of how economic growth, development and climate responsibility are mutually supportive and intertwined”.

The transition to the low-carbon economy is full of innovation and dynamism and will foster inclusion, Professor Lord Stern will point out. He will say: “If we try to manage climate change in ways that create barriers to overcoming poverty, we will not put together the coalition that we need to manage climate change.”

Professor Lord Stern will conclude: “We can and must rise to the two great challenges of this century: overcoming poverty and managing climate change. But if we fail on one, we will fail on the other. We must not fail.”

Full text of speech by Lord Stern on environmental justice and climate change – 10 September 2015, Vatican City

Presentation slides from speech by Lord Stern on Environmental Justice and Climate Change – September 2015, Rome




  1. Lord Stern is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, as well as I.G. Patel Professor of Economics and Government, at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Since July 2013, Lord Stern has been President of the British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Lord Stern was with HM Treasury between October 2003 and May 2007. He served as Second Permanent Secretary and Head of the Government Economic Service, head of the review of the economics of climate change (the results of which were published in ‘The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review’ in October 2006), and director of policy and research for the Commission for Africa. His previous posts included Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist at the World Bank, and Chief Economist and Special Counsellor to the President at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Baron Stern of Brentford was introduced in December 2007 to the House of Lords, where he sits on the independent cross-benches. He was recommended as a non-party-political life peer by the UK House of Lords Appointments Commission in October 2007.
  2. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment ( was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment (
  3. The ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy ( is hosted by the University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council ( The Centre’s mission is to advance public and private action on climate change through rigorous, innovative research.