Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and a leading expert on sustainable economic development around the world, put it in sobering terms at a recent event in New York: Without comprehensive legislative policies to fundamentally transform the energy system in the next 30 years, there will be “catastrophic” declines in the world’s ability to grow food, and a steep increase in extreme climate events.
“We have no plans in this country that add up to anything,” said Sachs during a candid keynote address at the 2013 Columbia University Energy Symposium. “I find it stunning that we have been unable to take this [problem] seriously so far.”
According to Sachs, energy policy in the U.S. is currently nonexistent, and legislators have fallen victim to lobbying by the fossil fuel sector. Those issues, combined with the complexity of the climate issues facing the country, a lack of clear alternatives and inertia mean people are in for weather crises, pain and conflict.
“Not only is the consequence of getting this wrong really beyond our imagining in the literal sense, but delaying is not merely losing time, but losing the chance to get it right,” said Sachs.
During his remarks, Sachs pointed to evidence presented by one of the world’s leading climate scientists, James Hansen, who is also a professor at Columbia.
In a paper Hansen published in September, he wrote that based on the available scientific evidence, digging up and burning all fossil fuels over the next few centuries is likely to cause the sea level to rise by tens of meters and could potentially cause conditions on Earth to resemble those on Venus, which is uninhabitable for humans.
“The picture that emerges for Earth sometime in the distant future, if we should dig up and burn every fossil fuel, is… an ice-free Antarctica and a desolate planet without human inhabitants,” writes Hansen in his paper, “An Old Story, but Useful Lessons.” “Although temperatures in the Himalayas may have become seductive, it is doubtful that the many would allow the wealthy few to appropriate this territory to themselves or that humans would survive with the extermination of most other species on the planet.”
Hansen also writes that humans can offset the carbon emissions that would lead to the ocean warming and the planet eventually becoming unlivable, by capturing and sequestering carbon. However, he estimates the cost just to the U.S. at $2.6 trillion per year, although he notes that “technology development might be able to lower that cost.”
Indeed, Sachs pointed out in his remarks that the American public isn’t even opposed to tackling climate change. In addition to the other factors he mentioned, what makes this such a crisis is that there is no clear solution, he said.
“You can’t beat something with nothing,” said Sachs. “You can’t beat climate change just by saying it’s alarming.”
But that doesn’t mean nothing should be done. Sachs took the U.S. government to task for doing little if anything in the area of climate policy. He lamented the fact that the U.S. has no decarbonization strategy, and he also said former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner who prioritized climate change, was hidden away for political reasons during his time in the position.
One bright spot, said Sachs, is that there is much to be learned from California, which has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. From the work done in California, Sachs said that decarbonization depends on “deep systems transformation of transportation, buildings, industry, power generation and distribution.” Power production must be decarbonized, massive energy efficiency must be pushed and electricity has to be prioritized in vehicles and residential and commercial buildings. Plus, phasing out coal is “probably one of the key steps for the world to save itself,” said Sachs.
“In terms of decarbonizing the power sector, it’s quite clear what’s needed. Most of our energy has to be produced by hydro, solar, wind, nuclear or carbon capture and sequestration,” said Sachs. “There’s no alternative. That’s it.”