Nicholas Stern calls for businesses, cities and young people to create “political tipping points” for climate change action

Posted on 3 Jun 2015 in

Business leaders, cities and young people should be placing more pressure on world leaders to create “political tipping points” for action on climate change, according to a new book by Nicholas Stern which is published today (3 June 2015) by MIT Press. He argues that the world now stands at a unique and crucial point in time for decision and action.

The book, ‘Why Are We Waiting? The logic, urgency and promise of tackling climate change’, is being launched 10 years after Lord Stern was commissioned by Tony Blair, the then UK Prime Minister, and Gordon Brown, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, to carry out a comprehensive review of the economics of climate change.

Lord Stern, who is Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Chair of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, and I.G. Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science, as well as President of the British Academy, highlights three crucial factors that will define the challenges of the next two or three decades:

  • profound structural change in the global economy with strong growth in the developing world and rapid urbanisation;
  • the fastest technical progress the world has seen, including in digital, materials and biotechnology); and
  • a critical period for climate action because concentrations of greenhouse gases are already at very risky levels.

Lord Stern suggests that the response to these factors will determine the world’s economy, environment and climate for the rest of the century and beyond.

Lord Stern warns that further delaying cuts in emissions is dangerous, both because investments in cities and in energy systems could lock-in high-carbon structures, and because it is very hard to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases once they have risen. On the other hand, he points out, investing wisely over the next two or three decades to manage the transformation in cities, energy systems and land use well, making the global economy more efficient and less polluting, will both promote growth and achieve much of what is needed in order to cut emissions. He writes: “This opportunity can be taken or lost”.

Lord Stern’s book examines carefully the economic and ethical case for strong and urgent action to tackle climate change, and finds that it is compelling. He shows that many economic analyses have badly underestimated the risks and costs of inaction, and that a transition to a low-carbon economy can be “extremely attractive, full of innovation, discovery, investment and growth”. He describes this as “the growth story of the future”.

But Lord Stern also argues that the world is still not yet showing the political will for the scale and urgency of the action required. He writes: “Those in political leadership carry a special responsibility for the future of their country and thus a responsibility to take a long view. Unfortunately, trust in politicians is low in many countries, and many politicians who understand the issues have been diverted by economic crises or intimidated by confrontation with vested interests. Strong action on climate change is often seen as making short-term election more difficult. But there is no more important issue, and it is their duty to lead.”

He adds: “To generate the acceleration that is now critical if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, we need leadership and social pressure to keep building – from young people, from cities, from businesses, from all of the other sources I have described, and more. If that pressure is focused, intelligently and vigorously, in the right areas, if governments heed the lessons, and if well-designed policies are implemented as a result, the political tipping points could be reached and big changes could happen surprisingly quickly.”

Lord Stern writes: “Businesses can lead through the power of their example, including by producing low-carbon and otherwise sustainable goods and services, and by making big advances in their energy and resource efficiency, by promoting emissions reductions and environmental sustainability throughout their supply chains, and by applying an internal carbon price to their operations. In these ways and more, businesses are demonstrating what can be done and how to combine growth and environmental responsibilities.”

He adds: “Businesses can also play a powerful and constructive role through the advocacy of strong and clear climate policy. While it is all too often the incumbent beneficiaries of the high-carbon status quo who dominate politics and policy formation, public business leadership on climate change is gathering pace.

Lord Stern draws attention to the important role of cities that are beginning to demonstrate the great potential attractions of a more sustainable, low-carbon, and less-polluted economy. He writes: “City governments also have an advantage in policy implementation because they are typically physically closer to, and have deeper relationships with, their constituent residents and businesses than do officials and agencies at the state or national level….Cities like Singapore and New York provide strong examples of what cities can do, and networks like C40 Cities are helping to diffuse good practices and build collaborative initiatives across large cities. Through a combination of leadership and social pressure, city governments and their constituents could well push their national counterparts toward more ambitious climate policy.”

Lord Stern also emphasises the importance of young people as “a powerful source of pressure for climate action” because “it is they who will suffer most from the negligence of earlier generations, including this one”.

He writes: “Today’s young people can and should hold their parents’ generation to account for their present actions. They can elicit an emotional response that can motivate action. If thinking about the lives of unborn future generations seems too abstract to motivate you to act, try instead looking a young child or grandchild in the eye and asking yourself what sort of future you are leaving for them. There is something that, on reflection, many adults would surely find repugnant in the idea that they will leave their children a damaged planet that will radically affect their life possibilities.”

Lord Stern’s book concludes: “We are at a remarkable point in history. We have a chance to combine the profound structural changes we are seeing in the world economy and extraordinary technological change on the one hand with a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy on the other. We can simultaneously find a much more attractive way to grow and develop, overcome poverty, and radically reduce the grave risks of climate change. We must decide and act or the opportunity will be lost. The time is now.” Lord Stern’s book ends with the question: “Why are we waiting?”


  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, leading the writing of the Commission’s report (2005). 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. He was knighted for services to economics in 2004 and elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 2014.
  2. The British Academy is the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. Its purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence in these disciplines throughout the UK and internationally, and to champion their role and value. More information about the Academy’s work is available at Follow the British Academy on Twitter at