Why Obama Can't Wait on Climate

As Obama addresses the U.N. climate summit, Jeffrey Sachs warns that dangerous changes are happening much faster than politicians have even begun to grasp.

Green Giants: Conversations with Global Environmental Leaders

As Obama addresses the U.N. climate summit, Jeffrey Sachs warns that dangerous changes are happening much faster than politicians have even begun to grasp.

Xtra Insight: Read more of Sachs’ talk with The Daily Beast about world hunger, the development models he hopes to see included when President Obama meets with African leaders Tuesday—and why everyone should quit criticizing Madonna for her Malawi adoptions.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is often referred to as the most influential economic adviser of his generation. The author of two bestselling books, The End of Poverty and Common Wealth, Sachs spoke with The Daily Beast about President Obama’s actions on the environment and the prospects for international solutions to the climate crisis.

What grade would you give President Obama on climate and energy?

A for effort and A for the portfolio of policies that have been put on the table. But no more than a B for national strategy. I don’t believe this is going to get done by leaving it to the various committees of Congress. What I would like to see from the administration is a blueprint, a timeline, and a more integrated strategy. And that’s considered politically dangerous because it seems right now in America, putting any plan on the table is politically dangerous.


You’ve advocated for a carbon tax as opposed to cap and trade, so what’s your take on the House climate and energy bill?

It’s progress compared to the past, but it’s nowhere up to the intensity, speed, and coherence that this crisis requires. It will satisfy getting a foot in the door, but it won’t make a rapid and scaled breakthrough. A politician might say the latter is impossible anyway. The climatologists would say that may be the political reality, but it’s not the climate reality.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) recently told The Hill, “As news comes in that Arctic sea ice is at an eight-year record high and the trend of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere extends, it would appear the climate for the Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill isn’t very good.” Is there any truth to this?

No. Everything that we’ve learned in the last nine years tells us the situation is very serious and potentially already spinning out of control. There are short-term variations around long-term trends, and no one is claiming there’s a precisely known timetable or magnitude of effects. But events are taking course much faster and more dangerously than the politicians even begin to contemplate. The early stages of warming change the nature of the planet in such a way that it leads to an accelerated path of natural forces that amplify the human effects. The melting of sea ice, which changes the reflectivity of the planet, is an example of that.

So your bottom line message is we can’t do too much too soon?

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Yes. And we don’t have to crush the economy.

And on that economic note, China recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest car market and emitter of carbon dioxide. What should our negotiating strategy be with them going into the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen?

We are doing a lot of negotiating and very little joint problem solving. I’m not so naïve as to think that it’s all a happy party where we sit down together, but it’s not all negotiation either. China is a coal-based economy, so carbon capture and sequestration (or CCS) is not just an important issue, it’s the important issue right now, and it’s a critical issue for the U.S. since we have 22 coal-producing states. We may be able to get some kind of announcement in Copenhagen. But if we do, it’s going to be a pretty empty one because it’s not going to be based on real strategies.

As special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, what are you telling him the new treaty needs to look like? Or are you resigned to the fact that nothing substantial will be accomplished?

We’re facing the most complex set of technological and societal adaptation and underlying scientific modeling the world has ever taken on. And we don’t have enough good policy science under way or technological know-how mobilized. What we have are small negotiating teams, each one trying to get the other side to commit to a higher number, a faster timetable, or more payments, while doing somewhat less on one’s own. I don’t see the international institutions up to the task right now. We have a remarkable process for the basic climate science and its impacts through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a little bit on the economics, but not very much.

“We’re facing the most complex set of technological and societal adaptation and underlying scientific modeling the world has ever taken on.”

Have you talked to Ban Ki-moon about solutions?

I’ve talked to everybody about it, and so far my ideas have not taken hold because the basic answer is “We’re negotiating, we’ve got to reach an agreement in Copenhagen.” It’s not insignificant. I like targets, I believe in using them as motivators. But I know how thin the foundations are. Most governments, including our own, do not have clear pathways to achieve any targets they might set. So when we negotiate, whether it’s 15 percent [reduction in emissions] by 2020 or 25 percent to 40 percent relative to 1990 levels and all the other numbers being thrown around, there’s very little underpinning them.

Much of the discussion surrounds the U.S. and China, because together we produce 40 percent of all emissions. But Prince Charles has been sounding the rainforest alarm, as roughly 17 percent of all CO 2 comes from tropical deforestation. What role do countries like Brazil play?

There has been a big advance in the last year with the deforestation agenda. The notion is coming into focus that biological carbon sequestration serves many important functions, both on climate-change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. The idea of financing avoided deforestation and reforestation has really moved forward. But this area—like all others—is hampered by the lack of a real technical secretariat working around the clock, which is how I would envision global problem solving.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently announced the likely revival of FutureGen. Assuming this demonstration project moves forward and works, many talk about America one day selling this CO 2 capture and storage technology to the Chinese as if it’s inevitable. But isn’t that presumptive, given we’re at such an early stage?

Some of the leading companies have pieces of what will end up being proprietary technologies, and a lot will end up being in the public domain. But this is so important, complicated, expensive, and large-scale that it’s putting the cart before the horse to be thinking in terms of intellectual property when what we have is one of the largest-scale industrial efforts that would ever be made. If this thing works, we’re talking mega investments for decades to come. They’ll be enough to go around.

But you must be encouraged that it’s moving forward now.

I want to see the ground broken and not another two years of debate. But yes, the fact that FutureGen has been announced again is good news. And now Europe has announced that it’s going to do a number of CCS projects, China has some on paper, and Australia has launched a new center on CCS. But all of this requires significant financing and bold timetables because if this doesn’t work we’re in a heap of a mess much greater than we realize.

So the critical point is all of these projects must be pursued simultaneously and collaboratively because we’re on a serious timetable here.

Yes. This should be the content of our discussions leading up to Copenhagen. What are the projects, what’s the timetable, who’s going to monitor it, what are the obstacles, what’s the rollout, how do we get India engaged? So far India is at square zero on this. So we ought to be jointly talking about coal capture, the future of the nuclear power, and automobile industries, and so on. Everyone’s overwhelmed by all of these issues, but that’s all the more reason why viewing this as a cards-to-the-chest negotiation is just to misconceive the nature of the problem.

Speaking of the auto industry, last November, you argued in The Washington Post, “…any restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy rules would be a death knell.” Chrysler and GM have since done just that. So two questions: Has President Obama made the right decisions thus far and what are the chances we’ll see competitive, profitable automakers producing super-efficient cars coming out of this?

The way that they’ve done it is much better than what would have happened last fall, so I’m cautiously optimistic. Last fall there was no basis for going into a bankruptcy, it would have been chaotic. At least this time there was forethought on how the two firms could be restructured. So there’s definitely a fighting chance. But the real question is whether we get not only companies that are surviving, but also companies that are producing cars that consumers want and that are environmentally advanced. Each is a big step, but this whole effort is worthless unless these criteria are met.

Do you see the industry embracing the technology and product development required?

The one that has to embrace it more than the industry is the public and the political system. As a society we’re going to have to embrace the idea of electric vehicles as a major new direction for this country because it’s the one that makes sense for the environment and energy security. And then think about the whole range of public policies needed to do that—a lot of them are coming into place. We need a strategy for subsidizing the early purchases of this new generation of vehicles because there’s going to be a learning curve.

Through tax incentives?

Yes, it could be through tax incentives or something comparable. But there’s going to have to be a lot of product development, especially around the batteries, the infrastructure for recharging, and the power grid. A lot of public and private financing and joint strategy between industry and government will be needed. And it’s no secret the price of gas is going to be a big determinant of the underpinnings of all of this.

So do we need to establish a floor on the price of gas to create a viable market for next generation cars like the Volt? And is that politically feasible?

Yes, we need to combine the tough efficiency standards we’re introducing with the pricing of the vehicles and their operation, probably through subsidies combined with higher gas prices. That could be partly implicit in the cap-and-trade system or implicit in gasoline taxes. And is it politically possible? I think so, if it phases in over a number of years as part of a strategy to produce automobiles that are less costly to use over the long-term and are a lot safer from an import dependency and climate point of view. This has to be explained better to the public. President Obama is doing it step by step.

Xtra Insight: Eight hundred fifty scientists, postdoctoral fellows and students are working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute to address interrelated global issues such as climate, water, food, energy, poverty, health and ecosystems. Learn more and support their efforts.

Matthew Dakotah is conducting a series of interviews with global environmental leaders for The Daily Beast. An award-winning journalist, he has directed 14 magazine and Web site redesigns and worked at Hearst and Emap. As vice president, group editorial director of Homes & Lifestyles Publishing, he initiated coverage of sustainable development. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewdakotah.