Jeffrey Sachs on Framing the Environmental Challenge

In his appearance last week on NPR Science Friday (audio), Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs framed the climate challenge not in terms of regulating pollution but rather as an energy and technology problem. Sachs brings an important moderating voice to the climate debate, offering a message that goes beyond the polarized rhetoric of conservatives and many environmentalists.

Sachs appeared on the show to talk about his new book "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." Early in the interview, he was asked by host Ira Flatow about the common argument against taking action on climate change.

As I detail here, Sachs' focus on clean energy development and diffusion represents an important new framing of how to deal with the climate problem, an interpretation that is likely to stir support among many Americans and policymakers currently tuning out the dominant environmental message on the issue. Indeed, polling by Pew and other survey organizations finds that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats rate energy as a political priority, whereas deep partisan divisions remain when asked about climate change specifically.

Below is the exchange.


FLATOW: But how do you - I'm talking with Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." How do you tell people who don't have what you have, hey, I want what you have? You can't keep me from saying, you know, you can't keep me from getting what you have. Well, you have to give up something.

Mr. SACHS: Of course, I'm a development economist first, so I spend a lot of my time trying to help poor countries get richer. I know that for them, this is a life-and-death issue. It's not a whim. A place that has no electricity right now, that has no access to an automobile, it means that a child dies before the child can get to a clinic for one dollar medicine. And we have millions of children dying of extreme poverty right now. So I don't tell them that at all. And I find the idea of somehow balancing the environment on the backs of the poor a horrendous idea that also won't work.

What we need to do, Ira, is find ways to combine the legitimate desire for improving material life with the realities of the physical environment, and what we've had often is an unfruitful debate between those who deny the environmental harms, that's basically the Wall Street Journal editorial page, it's basically the Oval Office until very, very recently, and those who deny the value of economic development.

Some environmentalists say, well, let's just stop, or let's go back to a bucolic past, which is impossible because the bucolic past had one tenth the world's population that we have now, and I think we have a real interest in helping everybody have enough to eat, and everybody being able to meet their needs. And so my view is we have to combine economic development and the environmental realities. Now, how can you do that when it doesn't add up? We have to find technologies that meet the material needs, but don't impact the environment the way our current technologies do. I put the core of the problem in technological development of sustainable technologies.


Sachs says that we need to invest in clean energy just like we have invested in medical research using the NIH budget as an example.

We need to take this issue seriously. Then we need to invest in it. For example, we spend about 30 billion dollars a year of federal funds for the National Institutes of Health for medical advances.

We get good value for that money. But we're only spending one-tenth of that amount for energy research. We've just been asleep at the switch as we've been going over the cliff in climate and energy scarcity. We've got to invest in our future.


Later Sachs was asked about nuclear energy and his response reflects the emerging "middle way" frame on the topic, emphasizing the technology as an important option when faced with the greater and more likely risks of climate change.

FLATOW: Talking with Jeffrey Sachs, author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." 1-800-989-8255. In about five minutes that we have remaining, let's talk about something that you do see a role for, and that is for nuclear power. You believe in nuclear power.

Dr. SACHS: I think we are so much up against the wall in terms of peak oil, in terms of the difficulties of coal and the fossil fuels, in terms of the rising world demand, that nuclear has to be part of the mix. Of course, it's got to be safe. We have to be able to police it against proliferation. And I think it's notable that, when the public sector of the government, in fact, of France, said, we take this on for security, they built an efficient and safe nuclear industry with Electricite de France.

Whereas in the United States, so we kind of had the market running around, lost public confidence, had the Three Mile Island and stopped building nuclear plants. And so I think we have to bring back the question of reviving a safe nuclear industry with enough governmental scrutiny, transparency, and control to make it possible to do.

But whether I say it or not, China is going to go ahead with nuclear. India is going ahead with nuclear. Korea is going ahead with nuclear. Japan is going ahead with nuclear. This will be a major part if the global energy scene. It doesn't produce greenhouse gas emissions. There are technologies, I believe, that can make it safe, but we also need a cooperative global system.

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