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Jeffrey Sachs: Global Reality in Climate Action

“There are clearly three dominant players right now and then the rest of the world that cares a lot about this. There’s the U.S., there’s the European Union and there’s China. Copenhagen was essentially the U.S. and China saying ‘ we’re not going to do very much’. Europe was left on the sidelines.” ( Jeffrey Sachs, Economics Professor and Director of the “Earth Institute”) – A synthesis by Cristina Mircea.


In a world that unanimously faces a dire reality due to climate changes and environment degradation and an even more gloomy future ahead, the global responsibility and involvement regarding climate action is unequally divided. Jeffrey Sachs, Economics Professor and Director of the “Earth Institute” makes an assessment of the global position concerning this issue.

The United States barrier in Climate Action

Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York. Photo: public domain

The U.S. remain trapped and essentially paralyzed as they have been on any national scale policy since 1994 and will be allergic to any global agreements in the future too. The only thing on which the American movement might be possible within the U.S. is the “alternative energy sources”, mainly around the theme of energy security and reduced oil dependence, from which the climate will benefit due to some of the steps taken. A large part of the U.S. is most likely to face a rapid development of natural gas deposits, because there are very big economic interests behind this action and a lot of public relations and lobbying efforts will be devoted to tremendous expansion of natural gas development under the pretext of clean energy, even though cleaner than coal doesn’t mean less CO2 ahead.

Even in the midst of the oil spill disasters in the Gulf that the American public opinion was against the cap and tended to favor the continuously deep ocean oil drilling, even within the region of the Gulf itself, which was the environmentally impacted region.

U.S. is also very allergic to helping other countries or giving money to the most disadvantaged ones.

U. S. is very allergic to giving money to other countries, except for wars, especially when it comes for purposes of development or environment the U.S. people see no use to give money to poor people or to other countries, so when we try to assemble climate financing, the U.S. remains pretty much against any clear action. It was not so hard for secretary of state Clinton to endorse a hundred billion dollars from somewhere, somehow, by some mechanism in 2020 but getting a penny out of that today would be pretty much impossible.  So big numbers in the future that are fairly empty and meaningless are not so hard, but anything that has a specific mechanism attached to it it’s probably impossible”, asserts Sachs.

Media also has a significant influence on the American people. The opinion surveys show that about half of the U.S. population believes that there is no such thing as human induced climate change. The American people are confused and they relentlessly face an antiscientific propaganda from major fossil fuel industries such as Koch Industries, who spend millions of dollars in that direction. The odd media has reached a level of irresponsibility almost beyond belief in its only purpose of making more money. The most impactful newspaper in the United States is “The Wall Street Journal”, which has a disgraceful, antiscientific, propagandistic editorial page.

„Its editorial page is nothing short of disgraceful. It is absolutely a stupendously, propagandistic, antiscientific load of crap and sometimes I feel that the only purpose of it it’s to get my blood boiling in the morning“, says Sachs. The most watched cable network is Fox Television, also owned by the same owner as the Wall Street Journal, who is creating a mass and is very successful in his attempt to make money.

Even though the U.S. has a modest progress in solar power with new projects announced and approved in the Mojave Desert, some investments in electric vehicles, it is generally paralyzed in taking major steps, developing major plans or strategic actions. The status quo is very powerful, congressmen devoted for the cap and trade are going to lose their job subsequently to the elections, the political balance swings against president Obama and the administration will come to Cancun with very little.

“The United States is the outliner country, it is the least common denominator, even more than China, and I believe it poses the most significant barrier to effective action in the whole world at this issue right now and I think the world should say it very clearly. I am very skeptical of my own country and waiting on the United States to participate would mean waiting for a long long time. In the end the U.S. will come along, just like Winston Churchill said:  ‘The United States will always come to the right answer after it’s tried everything else’  and I have a feeling that’s going to be true once again, concludes Sachs.

China, Mexico and Cancun expectations

The global reality follows quite a bit the U.S.’s position and China is a good example in this context. It has major investments in low carbon sources and expansion of nuclear, solar, wind and other renewable sources on one hand and major investments in carbon energy, expansion of gasoline use and therefore petroleum import, on the other hand.

Mexico is fighting a bold and honorable effort to make the most of Cancun and president Calderón is very well determined to host a worthwhile conference but he faces long odds and it’s very hard to stay enthusiastic about the Cancun meeting when looking at the big picture. There is a hope to decide on a few practical matters on Cancun, such as creating a series of technology centers, finding finance, even though there are a lot of doubts about who’s coming to the table, except for maybe Japan or the E.U. Also one of the most important goals for Cancun is trying to bring the business community more into the process, because the normal climate processes are led by diplomats who are not operational nor business people, management or technology experts, thus making the whole intergovernmental negotiating process flawed.

Europe‘s leadership in fighting climate change. Cap & trade flaws

Europe has without question the most serious climate policy of any region in the world. Its enormous vulnerability to global climate change puts at stake the quality of life in Spain, Italy, Greece, France and so forth, thus Europe is very serious concerning this matter. But the deep economic crisis and the insufficient cooperation from states outside Europe are not helping.

Also it made one mistake and that is to suppose that the Europe Trading System will become a World Trading System and that was never a realistic plan. The best thing for Europe right now would be to try and simplify matters by quitting the trading system, because not a lot more is gained through it, and move to carbon taxation and feed-in tariffs, which can accomplish just as much with lower transaction costs, more predictability and more public understanding. Europe has ended up with a mix of them.

Personally I am not a fan of the cap and trade, I believe it’s a process designed for two main reasons: one is to avoid using the word tax and second to facilitate the trading activities by Wallstreet and by banks. I would never have gone down that road myself and I would have recommended carbon taxation and technology regulation and feed-in tariff system”, says Sachs.

Europe should also be urged to continue taking the lead regarding climate actions, because it has the capacity to do it but it just needs to understand the politics very clearly and to get used to the two most important facts: that there’s not going to be a World Trading System for carbon and that it’s hopeless to see a partner in the U.S., because there isn’t one and it’s not going to be for some years. The chance of U.S. joining the trading system, especially over the next two years, is almost zero and also very small in general, because U.S. has declined it for the last 13 years and Obama didn’t come any close.

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