Lord Nicholas Stern, one of the world’s most influential voices on climate economics, does not mince his words when it comes to criticising those who take a narrow view of prosperity and highlighting the devastating consequences of global warming.
"You have to be a complete idiot to think that GDP sums up prosperity," says Stern, who believes we need to develop broader measures of success and combine this with a return to core values if we are to convince people to act to prevent runaway climate change.
Stern, who wrote the landmark 2006 Stern review of the economics of climate change, says if we fail to take heed of the danger signals, we risk temperatures rising this century to levels we haven’t seen for tens of millions of years.
"Hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions of people would have to move," he warns. "If we’ve learned anything from history that means severe and extended conflict.
"We couldn’t just turn it off. You can’t make a peace treaty with the planet, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics. You’re in there, you’re stuck. Those are the stakes we’re playing for and that’s why we have to make this second transformation, the climate transformation and move to low carbon economy."
Stern has co-authored the recently published New Climate Economy report, which argues that the world can head off the worst effects of climate change, and enjoy the fruits of continued economic expansion, if it moves quickly to invest in a low-carbon economy.
He says he hopes the study will influence key decision makers because it was written with the support of a coalition of respected politicians, economists, think tanks and institutions, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the International Energy Agency and the UN.
He dismisses the arguments of more radical economists who believe that we need to stop our fixation with growth, arguing that the economy needs to keep expanding if we are to have a hope of eradicating poverty.
"To those who want to knock out growth from objectives, I find they’re close to reprehensible because for me the two defining challenges of this century are overcoming poverty and managing climate change.
"We fail on one, we fail on the other. So I think to say that we should just switch off growth is to miss big aspects of what matters about poverty. And so it worries me. It’s also politically very naive. If you turn it into a pissing contest between growth on the one hand and climate and environment on the other and say you’ve got to choose, you’re setting yourself up for failure."
Stern says investments in renewable energy must be combined with a rethinking of our understanding of prosperity, which he believes will lead to what he terms better growth.
"It means thinking differently about health, about the way we live in our cities and about the strengths of our communities," he says. "It’s not that GDP is idiotic but it’s mostly about the use of labour resources and what it produces. But there are very important parts of this story about prosperity that get missed out."
How does Stern, who is president of the British Academy, believe we can start to measure prosperity that goes beyond GDP?
He says it is vital to start from the perspective of people understanding what they mean by wellbeing and what they value, whether it is family, community, arts or sport.
"You can be reasonably empirical about what moves people and then you go and try to collect data on that," he says. "Once you understand what it is it you’re trying to capture and create indicators, you can then start to talk about policy."
The 68-year-old peer says it’s vital we go back to recognising the importance of Aristotle’s belief in the need to understand what it means to be a virtuous person and to whom we owe a duty of care.
"I’ve been an academic all my life and I look at the evidence of what works and what doesn’t work," he says. "But if you ask yourself what you’re trying to do, that’s spurred by values, by what’s important to you."
For Stern, the heart of his values lies in the importance of family. Speaking immediately after introducing his two-week old granddaughter Rosa on stage at a TEDx talk in New York, he said: "I’m 68 and I am thinking what will Rosa be like when she’s 68? We’re talking about towards the end of this century and what we do now will determine whether the next 100 years is the best of centuries or the worst of centuries."
"Are we going to look our grandchildren in the eye and tell them that we understood the issues, that we recognised the dangers and the opportunities, and still we failed to act?"
Stern believes that it is time for religious leaders, politicians and the media to act more responsibly, pointing in particular to the importance of the Pope’s statement earlier this year that if we destroy creation, creation will destroy us.
Also key to changing hearts and minds is the field of arts, with Stern pointing to Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behaviour, which he says is not only wonderful in describing the human condition but also in questioning our relationship with the environment.
"It’s not just the policy wonks like me we need to try to assemble the evidence and set it out," he says. "You have to do that because emotional argument without rational evidence on cause and effect doesn’t get you all that far. But rational argument about cause and effect alone doesn’t get you there either." More