For a soft-spoken academic economist who only a year ago was almost unknown, Sir Nicholas Stern has suddenly emerged as a hot commodity.
A 700-page report that he wrote and that the British government issued last year predicted global warming could cause economic chaos if climate change is allowed to continue. Since then, Sir Nicholas has become a global environmental star, with some of his drawing power on display yesterday in Toronto on a one-day visit to Canada.
Prominent Canadians, from Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion to environmental crusader David Suzuki, basked in some of Sir Nicholas's reflected glory. He had planned to meet federal Environment Minister John Baird on Sunday, but his plane was delayed, and the two had to chat by phone.
Sir Nicholas also attracted hundreds to a sold-out luncheon speech at the Economic Club of Toronto, an organization more often associated with blue-suited business officials than environmental causes. He told Bay Street corporate leaders that the cure for global warming will be a lot less painful than the disease.
Toronto is just one of many stops for the bespectacled, grey-haired economist who is the British government's economic adviser on climate change. He's crisscrossing the world in a way that resembles the travels of former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, famous for his presentations about climate change that were made into an Oscar-nominated documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
Sir Nicholas, with only a modest slide show, is delivering an unconventional economic message about global warming. While most environmentalists contend that humans need to reduce living standards to deal with climate change, Sir Nicholas, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has turned this argument upside down. He's also thrown a challenge to those, like Mr. Baird, who say dealing with climate change would harm the economy.
Sir Nicholas says climate change needs to be dealt with to preserve current living standards and safeguard economies. He says global warming, if not confronted, will grow worse and cause costly disruptions, such as inundating coastal cities and environmental refuges in countries that will no longer be habitable.
"It's very clear to me now that we can be green and grow," he told reporters outside the Toronto Stock Exchange, where he held a joint news conference with Dr. Suzuki.
"I don't think it's a horse race between growth and being responsible on climate change. Good policy can give us both," Sir Nicholas said. "Eventually, if we ignore the problem of climate change, it's growth and living standards that will suffer."
In his presentation, Sir Nicholas said it will cost about 1 per cent of GDP, or economic output, to deal with climate change, which, at worst, could reduce the economy by 20 per cent. "The costs of inaction are far greater than the costs of action," he says.
He thinks countries can reduce their emissions through such steps as carbon taxes, capping releases for industries, and requiring devices such as appliances to be more energy efficient.
Dr. Suzuki, the well-known broadcaster who also heads an environmental think tank, was praising Sir Nicholas yesterday.
"I think most of us in the area are not economists. We can't speak with anything like the credibility that Sir Nicholas has," he said.
Mr. Dion met Sir Nicholas privately yesterday in Toronto and said they were both on the same page as to what needs to be done. "I [told him]his report has been tremendously helpful for humanity," Mr. Dion said.
Sir Nicholas's economic message is at odds with that of Mr. Baird, who recently likened the results of meeting Canada's Kyoto targets to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Baird said the British economist made "a powerful case" in his presentation yesterday.
"There is going to be a considerable amount of economic activity as a result of actions to tackle climate change. But you only get the economic activity if you make investments here in Canada," he said.
Mr. Baird has long maintained that he opposes a "carbon tax," but did respond to Sir Nicholas's call for governments to put a price on carbon emissions.
"We'll be coming forward with our plan to regulate industry and there will be a cost to those industries who can't comply," he said.
Lest anyone criticize Sir Nicholas over his high-polluting air travel, he is quick to add that he's buying carbon offsets for these trips.
Sir Nicholas, who plans later this year to return to the London School of Economics as a professor, tries to live a life of low carbon emissions. He seldom drives his car, preferring to take transit to work or ride his bike.
If nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, he says there is a good chance that by the end of the century average global temperatures could rise as much as five degrees, with unpredictable consequences given that a cooling of this magnitude prompted the last ice age.
His prescription is that both developing countries and advanced cut emissions of greenhouse gases at least 30 per cent by 2050, with most of the burden falling on rich countries like Canada.
Sir Nicholas has an upbeat assessment that these kind of reductions can be achieved. "In the last six months I've been very optimistic actually about where the debates are going in different countries around the world," he says.
Unlikely environmental hero
Sir Nicholas Stern, photographed yesterday with David Suzuki, is an unlikely environmental hero. He's an academic economist who has written books about the green revolution and Kenya, and taught at several universities. He shuns his car, which he usually leaves parked in front of his London home, and rides transit or his bike. He likes teaching, and has announced that as of June, he'll leave the public limelight behind to return to a professorship at the London School of Economics.
Work as an economist
Sir Nicholas began to attract public attention as chief economist of the Washington-based World Bank, a major lender to developing countries. In 2003, he was recruited from the bank by the U.K. government, and in 2005, well before the current concern over global warming, was given the task of analyzing the likely economic impact of climate change.
The Stern Report
The report, which runs for 700 pages and was issued last year, has been called the most in-depth review on the economic cost and opportunities presented by climate change. The report says global warming could have a disruption "on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century."
TEXT: MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL