With Lord Stern saying we’re on track for 4 degrees warming, is it time to dust off plans to emigrate to somewhere ‘safe’ like New Zealand?
My twitter feed today had many, many people linking to Lord Stern’s interview in the Observer. The headline is this quote:
I got it wrong on climate change – it’s far, far worse.
Back in 20o6, the Stern Review was a watershed. A credible member of the establishment making the economic argument for action. Martin Wolf, the FT’s most important commentator, concluded that “In spite of sceptics, it is worth reducing climate risk”.
The case was made. Action is bound to follow. Bound to.
We’re seven years older and what progress there has been (like the UK Climate Act) has been too small and too local. On one level the reason is obvious – entrenched interests have too much to lose – though there is a lively debate in the US on the specifics.
Lord Stern’s interview is just the latest of a series of warnings. Late last year New Scientist had a special edition with the title “Climate Change: Five years ago we feared the worst; but its looking even worse than that.”
Faced with these stark facts, and glacial pace of change, anyone who has worked in this field for any time is bound to feel moments of despair. Which is where New Zealand comes in.
Now, there are lots of reasons for wanting to live in New Zealand. I’m a big rugby fan, and that might be enough by itself.
But consider: it has resilient political institutions; they speak English and have deep historic connections with the UK; it is separated by oceans from other places; it has a large farming sector.
Where better to retreat in the event of run-away climate change?
The UK has greater wealth, but has other disadvantages. It has a high population density, a depleted natural resource base (we’ve used a lot of our coal, oil, soil and forests) and is enmeshed in global trade for many basics. In the words of David Steven, the UK has made a one-way bet on open global systems. (Note: the link has the quote applied in general; I can’t find the report where he says UK specifically. It has a blue cover.) I can see a world like Children of Men, where the UK’s wealth attracts climate refuges from all over, but especially Africa.
For sure, New Zealand would need to re-orientate its economy. It too relies on exports (especially of its farming goods). But at least it would have that option. I worry the UK wouldn’t have that choice.
In a way the problem for me is one of timing: when do you commit to such a big move? If you wait until all the evidence is in then lots of others will have come to similar conclusions. If they have more money or skills then New Zealand will take them instead.
Of course, the picture of a protectionist world I’ve painted here is only one of many plausible scenarios. Back in 2008 I was part of team which create 5 such possible 2030s, in a report for HP Labs called “Climate Futures“.
Protectionist World was one. The others were: Efficiency First, where rapid innovation is just about dealing with the environmental aspects (think California max); Service Transformation, a massive growth in collaborative consumption, sharing economy and closed loops; Redefining Progress, where economic growth is being replaced with other means of fulfillment; and, Environmental War Economy, when governments take charge of everything and act (like in World War 2).
Now, you can make a case for aspects of Efficiency First and Service Transformation happening. But my instinct is that these aspects are too slow, small and local to avoid run-away climate change as things stand. There’s always talk of redefining progress but show me increasing numbers of people changing behaviour rather than eminent reports.
You can say that we’re not that stupid, that we will respond when we see the cliff-edge. But the longer we wait the larger the response will need to be and the more it will need to be of the scale of total war.
Clearly, China has the political culture and institutional levers for Environmental War Economy. It does seem to treat solar power as a sector of strategic importance. But, if you want market-led democracies, then you want to avoid getting to a point where governments feel they have to intervene like that. The irony is that, at the moment, it is the pro-market people who are creating a situation where anti-market responses will be necessary.
What we didn’t put in the report were the scenarios that were plausible but not useful – if they were happening there was nothing you could do as a global company. One of those was called something like ‘its too late’, which speculated about what happens if you realise you’ve already gone past the point of no return. What if in 2020 we learn we locked ourselves into greater than 4 degree rise in 2014?
Lord Stern’s remarks – combined with all the latest science – reinforce the sense that we are more heading towards the worse end of outcomes. Which makes it worth dusting off those back up plans. Mine is emigrating to New Zealand.