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Climate and poverty: exclusive interview with Lord Nicholas Stern

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By Nicholas Stern, illuminem

· 6 min read

We recently spoke to Lord Nicholas Stern, ex-Chief Economist at the World Bank and author of the groundbreaking Stern Review.

Lord Stern warned of the potential impact of climate change on conflict and vice versa, identifying the poorest people as those who are “hit hardest”.

These links have taken geopolitical centre-stage in the past weeks, as gas prices soar across Europe and fears of conflict driven food shortages multiply.

For a vital conversation on the social impact of climate change - from exacerbating conflict to damaging public health - check out the full interview below.

illuminem: We included a quote of yours on our platform recently: “Climate change and global poverty are two sides of the same coin, if we fail on one we also fail on the other". Can you explain that dynamic for us, why are they so interlinked?

Lord Stern: I should underline that I've been working on development all my professional life; I came into the story of climate in large measure from that perspective and thinking about public policy in relation to development.

So why would I offer that statement? Well, first, if we do not manage climate the consequences for the poorest people of the world are absolutely devastating. It's the poorest people in the world who live in areas particularly vulnerable to desertification or to flooding. If you look for example at hurricanes and cyclones (Katrina in New Orleans for instance) the death toll was high, and in every case, it was the poorest people who got hit because they are in vulnerable places and they're less equipped to get away quickly, or indeed get the early warning.

Climate change unmanaged, or managed badly would likely lead to hundreds of millions of people having to move. Of course, the ones who couldn't move might do even worse than the ones who do. That could result in conflict, and again, it's usually the poorest people who get hit hardest. So failing to manage climate change is very bad for the poorest of the world, it's bad for us all, but it's particularly bad for the poorest of the world.

Going the other way, if we try to manage climate change in a way that seems to increase poverty, we will quite rightly get the pushback that would flow from that. It's entirely unnecessary. What you can do is build systems change which has to have major investment and innovation both at the big systems' levels of grid structures, but also for individual households and how they organize their power, their heating, agriculture and so on.

If we organize that in ways that generate opportunities, then the investment and innovation that help us tackle climate change can also help us overcome poverty. Modeling shows how much bigger the opportunities created are than the opportunities lost.

Mangroves provide another valuable example here: mangroves are very good for catching carbon, providing sea defenses, and for protecting fish. Often it's the poorest people who look after [and subsist] off these ecosystems. Going to another end of activity, public transport particularly benefits the poorest people and remember that they're the ones who suffer especially badly from air pollution, which arises from using diesel and other fossil fuel transport mechanisms.

So that's the story: If you don't manage climate change, the consequences for the poor will be dreadful. If you try to manage climate change in a way that undermines the income and livelihoods of the poorest people, they will quite rightly push back and remind you that poverty itself can lead to cutting down trees and so on. At the same time we must show that development processes really can tackle climate change, promote resilience and advance development particularly for poorer people.

Map of the impact of climate change on GDP per capita (graphical addition by illuminem editorial team)

illuminem: Given that dynamic and the Western world's role in generating the climate crisis, why in your view is it taking so long to secure climate funding to the global south?

Lord Stern: Well first, the rich countries have never been overwhelmingly generous in support to the poorest countries and shame on them. Many of us have been pushing for big parts of our lives for that to improve, but there have been some specific circumstances in the last decade.

The expenditures and damage to output and activity levels caused by the global financial crash made countries much more nervous about committing out of their public finances. And that's really been a legacy of a dozen or more years now [exacerbated by] the mismanagement that generated the crisis and the not particularly good management coming out of it.

The COVID crisis, which obviously dominated our attention in the last couple of years, I think has actually reduced bandwidth and at the same time has put pressure on the public finances. But actually, the right way to respond to climate and the right way to respond to the disruption in the economy from covid are very similar: invest strongly in the technologies and opportunities of the future.

illuminem: We've mainly discussed systemic and institutional change (and rightly so), but what would you suggest young people can do to help tackle the climate crisis?

Lord Stern: There's lots you can do, and this is an example of the kind of thing that you can do: insist on informed analytical, purposive argument and in that argument demonstrate the urgency and the scale of the action we need.

One thing that impressed me enormously is that pressure from the younger generation has gone way beyond shouting at the older people who've done far too little. In my experience, the younger generation, students and young graduates are getting pretty good at articulating what we have to do because on the whole they've studied it more carefully than the older generation!

So the kind of thing you're doing now; insist on strong, high profile discussion of these issues and demonstrate that there's so much that we can do; It's not just a hopeless story, but it's urgent and that has to be fundamental.

And then in the actions that you take as young people, most people in the richer countries now will be enrolling for defined contribution schemes. You can insist that your future pension goes in directions you think are both good for the planet and the people in the future, but also remind [yourself] that that the technology and activities of the 21th century are going to do much better than the dirty activities of the 19th and 20th.

Where you work [is also important]: work for responsible firms that recognize that the talent will go wherever responsible behavior is taking place. That then puts a lot of pressure on businesses because they always want the best people. So what you say, where you work, the energy and transport you use, etc - these are all decisions you will have to make one way or the other.

And lastly, and perhaps even most importantly, is to be active politically. Press in the public domain and in the body politic. Press for action, inform on action and let people know there are a lot of people who are going to vote. Whether it's a local council or Westminster in the case of the UK, a lot of people are going to vote on these issues!

So there's actually a great deal that young people can do. You occasionally get young people saying, ‘these old people mucked it all up (well true) so there's nothing that we can do’ - That's false, this isn't a hopeless story.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Lord Nicholas Stern is the former Chief Economist of The World Bank, the current Chair at the London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change & the Environment and the world's foremost expert on the critical relationship between climate change and economic development. 

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