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A leading authority on international economics and sustainable development, Jeffrey Sachs has been an outspoken proponent for addressing the problem of human-induced climate change. He is the director of The Earth Institute and professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, as well as a special advisor to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Here, Sachs talks with FRONTLINE/World producer Martin Smith about what’s needed to address the urgent issue of global warming.
There was a meeting in July 2004 – the GE meeting. How did it come about?
At that meeting, Mike Morris of AEP [American Electrical Power Co.] stood up and asked you some pretty hard questions.
I realized, at least for some of them, they were getting a lot of their information from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has been wrong on climate for forever it seems. It was a bit odd and, for me, an eye-opener.
Did they ask you why you thought it was real?
Were they changed, convinced?
You know, there's another way to look at this, and [I] wonder what your thoughts are about it. That is, the business community has decided that perhaps climate change is real, perhaps it's not. But legislation is going to affect them. They're getting in line and asking for clarity, so they can move forward as businessmen, as investors.
Hurricane Katrina was really the decisive moment in American thinking. Whether or not the specific hurricane was a reflection of long-term climate change; it certainly was a wake-up call to the dangers of extreme events of the kind that will accompany long-term climate change.
In Australia, you have one of the largest droughts in that country's history and huge destruction of crops. This has turned politics upside down. You had an administration in Australia that was absolutely antagonistic to the climate change agenda, and [then climate change] became the centerpiece of national politics.
AFRICA AT THE EDGE OF SURVIVAL
You spend a lot of time in Africa. What kind of impacts of climate change are we seeing there?
[In] places like Darfur, Sudan, the Horn of Africa - those places are experiencing a significant, long-term decline in precipitation that's now stretched over the last quarter century. The effects have been devastating. They have led to war. They've contributed to the massive conflicts in Darfur. They've contributed to the instability in Somalia. They become security threats for the world, in fact.
I visited the Turkana people in northwest Kenya, who have been devastated by increasingly frequent droughts. Can you speak to that particular part of the world?
When the rains fail, [there’s] mass displacement of people. Often migration of these pastoralist communities [moves] into the sedentary farming communities, and that's where a lot of the clashes take place, in crisis zones like Darfur.
Many, many are dying, and when they die, it's either ignored by the world or attributed to something wrong with those societies. But the attribution to long-term climate change will show up in the scientific data over time.
BIGGEST BOOM IN ECONOMIC HISTORY
You've read the Stern Review [on the Economics of Climate Change, the 2006 study commissioned by the British government that marked a turning point in the climate debate. The chief of Britain's economic service, Sir Nicholas Stern] calls this the biggest market failure in history. What does that mean?
That's an interesting analogy. That we've turned the atmosphere into a free dump.
It's only when we've arrived with 6.6 billion people on the planet [and] a global economic activity of about $60 trillion, based on fossil fuels, that we make a global and highly consequential difference.
With the amount of growth that we're seeing, not just here, but certainly in India and China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, places where populations are coming out of poverty, joining a middle class, we're going to have, for certain, a lot more economic activity. So how do you turn around the carbon emissions problem?
[T]here are massive improvements of living standards in China and India, which were impoverished societies just a generation ago. They're experiencing major improvements of well-being and naturally want more of it. And it requires energy.
Is it fair to ask them to slow down?
What does that mean for carbon emissions?
We have to change the way we live. Change the way we produce. Have a new kind of energy system. The good news is that this seems eminently feasible if we get organized to cooperate and to actually get the job done. Probably not at a very high cost, in fact.
I don't want to be overly skeptical or negative about this, but I don't see us making those changes that you're saying are necessary.
“A SHOCKING DISREGARD FOR SCIENCE”
Big oil companies, the two biggest, at least in the Western world, Exxon Mobil and Shell, are not getting out of the oil business. They're not doing much at all. [Out] of $40 billion in profit last year, Exxon, I think, put $100 million into research. That's really nothing.
This will sound like a dumb question to a lot of viewers, but how do you understand the Bush administration's antagonism to climate change science?
So you're talking about a coal-mining state.
There also is, more generally, in the administration a rampant anti-environmentalism and a shocking disregard of science. That last point really is important for us to dwell on. To understand the climate change issue requires serious attention to the underlying science.
It's complex, and it requires thousands of scientists studying all aspects of earth systems: ancient climate, modern climate, satellite readings, complex computer models of our climate system. This administration has been outright hostile to science from the beginning. It aimed to politicize it. It aimed to muzzle scientists who took positions that were found to be politically contrary to the positions of the administration. Only at the very end of the administration, did the president say, "Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. It's serious. Maybe we should do something about it."
In fact, what's really happened in the last few years is that the business community and the public got it, and the business community went to the White House and said, "You’ve got to do something. This is real. It's serious. We have technologies. We need a framework to act."
REGULATION AND INCENTIVES
Well, again, what they want is clear signals, so they can make investments. To build a power plant, it's a 40-year investment. They want to know what kind of power plant they can build, so they don't start building a bunch of plants that in two years [are rejected].
…the Public Utility Commission wants to keep the prices the same.
We need a regulatory framework and incentive system. That's where public leadership is absolutely required. Business people are doing business. They're looking at the bottom line in the framework of the regulatory environment in which they operate. The regulators are looking in the framework of the legal system in which they operate. The laws need to change so that the [regulator] tells the business community, "Choose low-emission technologies because that's the least-cost approach, taking into account the social costs of climate change."
I've talked to some of these utility executives. They say that there's no technology available in the coal-fired power-plant model that would allow them to capture and sequester carbon. That's not going to come on line for another 15 years, at least. Should we believe these guys?
Some of them will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, too.
Is this discouraging?
HOW MUCH CARBON ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
The United Nations has a goal [t]o get to 10 billion tons of emissions by 2050. It says the United States needs to cut 6 billion tons down to, oh, around 2 billion tons. How are we going to get to a position of equity with the rest of the world, where we're really reducing our output to a fair and equitable level?
Now, there are lots of different suggestions of how to do this. And this is the essence of what international negotiations have to be about. One idea would be that there are basic standards that every country agrees to undertake.
Under the plans I've seen, we're still going to be allowed in the United States to emit well beyond our fair share of carbon dioxide.
How much can the world afford for people to emit?
As the world economy experiences a roughly six-fold increase of total economic activity, we'd arrive at a devastating level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, without question, by the end of this century.
That means we have to move to a sustainable energy system where we get energy at lower emissions. Drastically lower emissions. That means moving partly from fossil fuels to solar power, nuclear power, niche activities like wind power. Maybe some biofuels, though that also has major adverse implications for land
CAPITALISM GOT US INTO THIS; CAPITALISM WILL GET US OUT
So the fundamental question is, Can we derive enough energy to support a growing population?
Do we know the answer to that?
There are vast amounts of solar energy that we could indeed tap. The energy that falls on the Sahara Desert could be, in the end, the energy that provides the electricity for all of Europe and Africa, if some key technologies pan out. We have tremendous amounts of fossil fuel still left. At least for centuries. Especially in coal and in so-called unconventional hydrocarbons like tar sands. But we need new technologies to use that kind of energy in a safe manner. [T]here’s reason for optimism. What there is no reason for is complacency.
There's also reason for pessimism though, isn't there?
It's somewhat of an article of faith in technology. I mean, it's like we're going to pray to the God of technology to bail us out.
And you think markets are the answer? I had a conversation with Fred Krupp [president of the Environmental Defense Fund] yesterday. He essentially used the religious comparison because of the fervor with which he relayed his faith that capitalism got us into this; capitalism will get us out of this.