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The Global Deal: Climate Change and the…

The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress…

by Nicholas Stern

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Economist Nicholas Stern evaluates the economic future, and the essential steps we must take to protect growth and reduce poverty while managing climate change. The future Stern outlines is optimistic and pragmatic; he believes we have the capacity and creativity to change. But we need the will to inspire our political leaders to drive a new global strategy.… (more)



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Review of The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress and Prosperity, By Nicholas Stern

Nicholas Stern is a very interesting man. A member of the British House of Lords (Baron Stern of Brentford!), he was chief economist of the World Bank and head of the British government’s economic service. In 2005, the UK leadership asked him to undertake an evaluation of the costs and benefits of dealing with global warming, and the report he produced a year or so later became one of the landmark documents in the twenty-year debate over climate change.

What Stern’s team concluded, to be very brief about it, is that the cost of doing nothing about global warming would be very high (larger than the costs of the both world wars and the Depression combined), while the cost of transforming our energy system would be relatively low. In this very lucid and well-written book, he manages to go into detail on those points, mixing in some of the latest science. And as a bonus, he provides a fascinating look at the complicated international politics of climate as we approach this December’s momentous Copenhagen global warming negotiations.

Stern begins where any account of the problem must, with a quick recapitulation of the science. Though he has the annoying habit of using a particularly arcane metric (co2-equivalent concentrations, which includes a variety of other gases and is an unnecessary and obscuring filigree when carbon dioxide is the main problem), his view is based fairly strongly on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He believes that nothing we can do will prevent us from a warming of more than three degrees Fahrenheit (so far we’ve seen about one degree) and he believes really catastrophe lies north of that number, at five or six degrees Fahrenheit. Here his science is perhaps a little out of date—the most recent data indicates that we’re already seeing enormous shifts in the planet’s climate system (the melt of Arctic sea ice and so forth). We now think that we can afford even less carbon in the atmosphere than Stern contends.

But never mind—in any event, the job of curtailing emissions is large enough no matter where you start. As Stern shows through a series of easy-to-follow calculations, U.S. industry will need to be essentially carbon-neutral by mid-century, with much of that change coming in the next decade, and even China will have to reduce the amount of energy it uses per unit of output by as much as 95 percent. That will be the largest short-term task that human beings have ever undertaken—as Stern rightly points out, it’s very much harder than landing a man on the moon. (It’s more like landing everyone on the moon).

If it’s going to happen, we’ll have to hope that all the possible technologies work. Some are clearly coming along nicely—wind is the fastest growing source of electric generation on earth. But others, not so much. Stern is very hopeful about the prospects for sequestering the carbon pouring out of the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. This is so far a techno-fantasy, in that nobody is doing it. And the infrastructure required would be mind-blowingly large—by some estimates you’d need as much piping as the whole petroleum industry has built up over the last century. Still—whether with carbon capture or some other technology—we have to at least try to get this problem under control.

And the good news, Stern insists, is that it’s affordable. It would require about 2 percent of the world’s GDP each year over the next half century, he calculates—and since economies will be growing quickly, we’ll be able to manage that. “Such a payment is not very different from the premium to insure against a small probability of a disastrous outcome,” he writes. “Another way of looking at it is to recognize that such a one-off cost would imply that the world economy would take roughly an additional six months in reaching the level of world income it would otherwise reach by 2050.”

After laying out the basic case, Stern reaches the most interesting part of the book, and the section that’s freshest. In the years since his report was published, he has traveled the globe, meeting with policy-makers and premiers. He offers here a not-very-veiled set of instructions for them to follow in the next seven months leading up to Copenhagen.

There will, he says, be four main players: the EU, the US, China, and India. The Europeans have been at the forefront so far, and doubtless will continue to push the pace. America is clearly back in the game with the election of Obama, though the Congressional politics of passing a bill (never mind confirming a treaty) are large. But if the U.S. acts on domestic legislation sometime fairly rapidly (and Rep. Henry Waxman of California has just put forth a sweeping bill), it “could unlock potential international commitments, particularly from developing countries, in the near future.” In India, the sprawling democracy leads real progress prey to demagogues who will say it balances the world’s carbon budget on the back of the poor—but increasingly Indians re realizing the danger they face from out of control climate change.

It’s China where Stern provides the most interesting analysis. Stern says he made his most recent visit in October of last year, meeting with the highest-level officials, and he is optimistic that they’re ready for a deal. Already, he notes, they’ve passed aggressive mileage legislation for cars, started shutting down inefficient factories, and begun massive reforestation campaigns. They’d like, all things being equal, to keep burning coal, because it’s the cheapest way to keep pulling people out of poverty (and maintain the stability on which Party rule depends). But they recognize their own deteriorating local environment, and more they recognize “that there will be no global deal unless China plays a very strong role: it is a potential deal-breaker. If you know you are vulnerable if a deal fails, and if you know you are a potential deal-breaker, then you have to concentrate.”

The good news, he points out, is that the country is run mostly by engineers, who are capable of engaging the U.S. directly over questions of technology transfer. The conversation will go something like this: we’re going to need our help if they’re going to kick the coal habit. In fact, the whole developing world will require assistance from the rich world—assistance that’s only just, given that we’ve spent centuries filling the atmosphere with carbon, the very act that made us rich. If they’re going to forego that strategy, we’re going to need to help them do so—and help them cope, too, with adapting to the change that’s already too late to avert.

This call for a powerful internationalism is the hallmark of Stern’s book. He points out that this is the first international negotiation in which the developing world comes to the table with leverage. If we design a new regime for controlling carbon, it can’t be run by the west alone, or even mainly. “Climate change is a subject covering the entire planet, and 8 billion of the 90 billion who will be on this planet in 2050 will be from currently developing countries. If this new institution is to work effectively, it must start with a governance structure and with rights to shape and determine decisions which reflect the whole world in an even-handed way.” A tough order of business, for the toughest of problems.

Progressive Book Club editorial board member Bill McKibben is an American environmentalist and writer who frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history. He is the author of many books.

This review originally appeared at Progressive Book Club. ( )
  ProgressiveBookClub | Jun 25, 2009 |
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