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Lessons From the Field: Jeff Sachs Tells Universities To Take Leadership on Climate Change

Last week, I had the fortune to listen to hear American economist Jeffrey Sachs discuss the topic “Hurrying History: Can the World Adopt a Fast Path to Low Carbon Energy?” as part of the Harvard Center for the Environment The Future of Energy series. While the topic goes beyond the scope of this blog on marketing and the public good, much of the discussion was about staring the climate change crisis in the face and taking responsibility since it’s clear that Washington cannot be trusted for leadership.

Jeff Sachs has been interested tangentially on energy and climate for a long time; he’s been a leading spokeperson on why understanding energy is important to understand a path to ending poverty and reducing climate change impacts. He’s been particularly interested in how climate change affects the poor in developing countries. The following is a loose transcript on Dr. Sach’s presentation (note that I am not using direct quotes because it’s all more or less quoted):


  • There are three key components to effectively addressing climate change: a) rich countries must live up to the UN framework convention on climate change to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions; b) rich countries must provide financial assistance to poor countries; and c) rich countries must invest more in climate science.
  • Here as a frustrated member of the human species watching this planet hurtling towards ever increasing danger due to anthropogenic affects on the climate system and the environment more generally, and with our seeming inability our country and the world in general to respond.
  • There has been essentially no progress made since signing of UN framework convention (though there has been some progress in Europe). The world has more or less gone on its way without making any serious changes over the past 20 years. And I can say in confidence that the US Senate has done nothing since then. The US is no longer the greatest emitter, but still outpaces China 4 to 1 per capita. The US has found it completely impossible to get our heads around doing absolutely anything.
  • The current political scenario is frightening; moreso than any time in the past half century. The Ryan budget proposed today essentially cuts everything aside from war, social security, medicare and interest payments by 50%. Even Medicare and Medicaid would take major cuts. This is an assault on the poor and Americans as a whole. The GOP budget doesn’t offer a glimmer of insight or innovation on how to competently and responsible reduce the deficit. It’s a poorly disguised plan to cut the government’s role entirely.
  • It’s the responsibility of centers of knowledge, such as universities, to take leadership in lieu of failed political leadership.
  • In 1992, the world signed UN framework convention on climate change in Rio. They noted that the big problem was accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions due to humans. It put responsibility first on rich countries, but that all countries have responsibility. Kyoto was the one that was adopted then and remains without a real legal successor as it expires.
  • My official role with the UN is to work on solutions to alleviate poverty. But Iknow that any changes on alleviating poverty will be wiped away in a few years or decades if we don’t address climate change.
  • To be fair, climate change is a complicated problem. It’s the hardest public policy problem the world has ever faced. Here’s what makes it so difficult:
    • The answer goes to the heart of all economics. Energy system is the beating heart. Fossil fuels are the creator of the modern world (i.e. coal). So solving climate change challenges modern economics.
    • We’re talking about an enormously complex system: earth’s climate system and its integration with human systems. While we know a lot about it, there is a lot to learn. It’s nonlinear, so it’s hard to demonstrate what changes in the climate will result in. The physical world is not normally part of economics. Economics don’t want to understand how things work; they simply want to know what to do with them.
    • It’s a global problem. We’re very bad at global problems, because global problems invoke all the problems of cooperation. Most of the world’s problems until 50 years ago were not global problems. Now we’re much smarter, so we can destroy the whole world.
    • It’s a problem of incumbent interests: If Texas were still part of Mexico, we would have a climate policy. If it weren’t for oil, we’d have a different society in this country. Oil and coal are extremely powerful. We’ve had probably the most powerful sector in our society dead set against climate policy. No President since George HW Bush signed the UN framework convention has honestly taken on this issue, because they’re scared of the interests, and they won’t talk to the American people about the issue. They’re very good about running games (i.e. ClimateGate). The results of the investigation, by the way, mounted to absolutely nothing. Then it’s the fodder for Murdock’s empire (e.g. Wall Street Journal and Fox News), which is the lead voice for anti climate change. They said that climate scientists are engaging on a global conspiracy to get rich on NSF grants. How anyone can invent this stuff without a smirk of their face is unbelievable. We didn’t hit back with the troop; we hit back with the anguish.
  • We’re being gamed rather than having these issues addressed. Those in favor of doing something are a solid majority in the US. More believe should do something even though they don’t necessarily believe in climate change. There is a strong majority of Americans that want the US to get out of oil, to move into renewables and efficiency. This is constant year after year. Even activists on our side have gotten it seriously wrong on PR tactics. Call PR for what it is – a bunch of nonsense. A joke that needs to be ridiculed. What we haven’t done effectively is come up with a strategy. And here, to get around these interests, our President’s have basically been cowardly and unwilling to lead.
  • From our side of the debate there has been political naivete, lack of leadership, and the most miserable strategy. The worst among them all is cap and trade. Environmentalists believed that without saying tax we’d be able to move it forward. It was a poorly designed policy tool designed to ultimately slowed carbon emissions and not transparent in it’s interests. We never clearly articulated to the American people what a transition to a low carbon economy looks like. What are the tradeoffs, incremental changes, scientific unknowns, ancillary benefits, less security from oil imports. We never discussed the actual transformation on the substance of the energy system and how that would influence the lives, the taxes, the bills, and so force, of the American people.
  • The way the Waxman Markey Climate Bill was done was a dishonest way to get a policy through. That’s why they came up against a brick wall. They were tactics, not strategy, and ignored the enormous complexities of this issue. This is a 40 or 50 year problem.  It’s got to be about a transformational scale over a coupon of generations. The government has never made a real climate change plan. When the President doesn’t use the bully pulpit, we don’t get anything done. They don’t take leadership it because of campaign finance and vested corporate interests.
  • But the way you lead in a democracy is to speak to the people. It comes down to the money and it comes down to a failure of leadership. But I am a firm believer that we can make progress even given the amount of money we’re up against. The American people are a strong voice.

And in case you want more reading material, Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday on the topic “The Truth, Still Inconvenient.”

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