Jeffrey Sachs on Fighting Global Warming and Fighting Global Poverty

When I invited Jeffrey Sachs to be the dinner speaker for our annual 
board meeting, I wasn't expecting him to stand up and cheer about the 
wonderful job the environmental community is doing on climate change. 
He didn't.

Instead, Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, laid down a challenge and issued a call to action around two themes he regards as imperative.

First, he said, we'll never curb climate change simply be capping carbon. We must transform the way we produce and consume food, energy, petrochemicals, cement, iron and steel. We must think anew about transportation and we must re-imagine the way we build and use homes and offices. 

Changing the large scale technological systems we rely on for all of that, he said, must be part of any climate change solution.

"We need a cap, or a price, and we need systems transformation," 
Sachs told us. "These are complementary parts of a national strategy."

That strategy, he said, must include long-range planning and targeted public assistance to help private industry overcome the huge costs and risks that go into developing new technologies that ultimately provide public benefits.

So far, he said, "We're not yet thinking about these things in an organized way." On that point, Sachs was compelling.

But when he turned to his life's calling - combating global poverty -- Sachs fused knowledge with passion. The result was the force of hard truth.

As leaders gather in Copenhagen, he said, the ravages of climate change already mean hardscrabble poverty and early death for millions of the world's poorest people. Drought, famine, pestilence, disease and a chronic shortage of clean water and fresh food have imposed the violence of scarcity upon those living along the craggy frontier of environmental devastation around the world.

From parts of Kenya, Mali, Somalia and Sudan, he said, comes a message for the rest of the world: "Don't play with climate change. We're already seeing what's happening, and it's devastating."

Drought in Kenya this year has put one-tenth of the population at serious threat of malnutrition. Fighting in Darfur, said Sachs, is ultimately being fueled by a scarcity of water and arable farmland, with a similar situation in Somalia and even Afghanistan.

Sachs had sharp criticism for the way the Copenhagen process has short-changed the world's poor, millions of whom are bearing the brunt of climate change when they had little to do with emitting the carbon emissions creating the problem.

"Two years went by without any serious discussion of how to help the poor countries," he said. "These countries are being marginalized once again and being pressed to the wall."

He said for wealthy countries to put up $30 billion over three years to help poor countries cope with climate change - an idea gaining currency in Copenhagen - was "pretty disappointing."

"This should be tens of billions of dollars," he said, "if you start from the odd premise that these people have a right to live."

I'm not sure we yet know the answer, but Sachs is helping us to at least pose the question. What will it take for us to define the global challenge of sustainability in a way that enables us to address, as a world community, issues like resource depletion, water supplies and climate change.

These are questions we grapple with every single day at the NRDC. Clearly we've got a long way to go.

"They will be the defining issues for, not only this generation, but for the next generation," said Sachs. "We are not on a path right now that is remotely sustainable - or remotely right."