This post was co-authored by TEC authors Kevin Vora and Niall Mangan. We are both graduate students in Harvard University’s Graduate Consortium on Energy and the Environment.
Sachs began by observing that in the 20 years since the signing of the UN framework convention in Rio, which committed the world to stop ‘anthropogenic interference with the climate system’, “we have found it completely impossible to get our heads around doing anything.” While the UN framework convention created only a backdrop and gave no plan for implementation or teeth for enforcement, it did dictate that wealthier countries be required to take the most responsibility for their share in the history of the problem, while developing countries must also act to avoid contributing further. He attributes a tiny amount of progress to the Kyoto signing and the efforts of Europe and Japan.
Initiatives to create a path towards a low-carbon economy have multiplied in recent years. However, according to Sachs, these efforts have been undermined by public relations. In his opinion, events like ‘Climate Gate’ and the portrayal of climate change as a “debate” by Fox News are so ridiculous they can only be “making a joke” at the expense of scientists. Instead of “[hitting] back with the truth,” the scientific community has responded with review boards and inquiries into the practices and methodologies of its members. Sachs believes that scientists are being “gamed” by people with vested interests in oil, such as Rupert Murdoch. Unfortunately, according to Sachs, these vested interests and the ongoing media circus have created a disconnect between the American people and Washington. He went as far as blaming the past few Presidents with a “failure to lead.” Sachs believes the President could have overcome many of the hurdles by using his pulpit to talk to the people; polls show that the public could easily get behind a good policy. The President should charge the EPA to come up with a plan of what technologies we will need, where the energy will come from, how the actual transformation of our energy system will work and what knowledge we need to finalize this plan. Sachs says we require “a plan and not a tactic, not a gimmick.” The gimmick referring to the cap and trade system Congress tried to push rather than a tax system, which, he has argued previously, is better suited to the problem at hand. Further notes on Sachs’ explanation of political failures and invested interests are detailed in a recent post by Christopher Williams.
At various points in Sachs lecture, it was possible to gather a small feeling of hope (if one really listened). According to him, this is the most important issue in the world next to war, and he claims this is the hardest public policy problem the world has ever faced. It’s not surprising then that most efforts to move towards a low-carbon economy have failed; it’s almost expected. Why? The current energy system is the beating heart of the economy. Particularly, the modern economy was built on fossil fuels. Replacing the core engine of our economy is much more difficult than doing away with a less central element such as CFCs. Next, the relationship between Earth’s climate system and human activity is highly complex and nonlinear, making it a difficult scientific problem. According to Sachs, economists do not spend as much time integrating the physical world into their models as they should. To complicate things further, the problem is a global one and obtaining cooperation between nations is even more difficult than obtaining cooperation within a nation. Sachs likened the UN meetings to a 192 person poker game where everyone is staring at blank cards, bluffing and has no idea what the game is. Most of the delegates at the negotiation table have little to no knowledge of the real problems. Finally, in the US, there are too many incumbent interests; oil, coal and gas resources in the US are roadblocks to climate legislation. So, in the end, it really isn’t surprising that the world has not solved the carbon problem yet.
Sachs’ concluding message was that there is a way out. What we need is leadership. Leadership from those who have the most understanding of the problem. Leadership from an epistemic community, an international community of knowledge-based experts. Sachs has charged the academic community with engaging companies and other research communities to fill the gap in action and create a quantified plan. There are serious points of uncertainty in the science and technology but no forum to discuss these in a global way. The goal is a global 50 year plan. It should be adaptive, and include the capacity for learning. Rich and poor countries need to be involved in producing an operational plan. So far, the closest thing to such a plan that Sachs could think of was China’s 5 year domestic plan.
Although Sachs’ did not mention it, many organizations, states, and companies have begun making plans of their own. The Union of Concerned Scientists just came out with “A National Blue Print to a Clean Energy Economy.” Many states in the Northeast US have regional plans. Even the Navy has some discussion on reducing their carbon footprint. Many of these plans focus more on policy implementation and less on the actual technologies that we will need to reach our goals. David MacKay, in his book “Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air,” begins to evaluate the magnitude of the technologies needed– in terms of real numbers– to achieve sustainable energy in the UK. There are multitudes of papers written on how we could use entirely renewable technologies, or how we need nuclear energy or carbon capture and sequestration. As Sachs would argue, we need a synthesis of all of these often conflicting, disconnected plans. We need to evaluate each technology for every country or region. This kind of detailed and ongoing evaluation and discussion could certainly benefit from a more well defined forum in an epistemic community.
As Sachs says, “No more complaints, don’t expect solutions in Washington, don’t look to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, lets keep our focus on what counts and what counts is taking our futures and our children’s futures seriously.”
Photo by Maureen Lynch.