Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, N. Y. Photo: Gary Wagner

The world is facing an extreme environmental crisis, and Earth scientists have a unique and crucial role to play in helping to reduce the impact of climate change and other threats.

That’s the message that Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, presented at the Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture on 15 December at AGU’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. His talk focused on Earth sciences in the age of sustainable development.

Sachs, who is special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, said that dramatic increases in population over the past several centuries, along with a world economy that continues to grow at a rate of 3%–4% per year, have significant side effects that include a dramatic and unprecedented rise of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.

An Imminent and Dramatic Environmental Crisis

“We have an extreme environmental crisis that has come from this scale change,” Sachs said. “The crisis is imminent, dramatic, and hugely pressed by the continuing dynamic of the world economy.”

Sachs said that the “global capitalist integrated world system” has been successful in increasing economic output and raising average living standards. However, he said, “it is not a successful economic system in the sense of ensuring either economic fairness, the ability to draw limits, or the ability to respect fundamental biological and planetary boundaries.”

He said that climate change “is by far the most dangerous human driver for the 21st century.” Sachs noted that other environmental threats related to the concept of planetary boundaries include ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, changes in land use, and global freshwater use.

“We really are the generation that reached the limits,” he said.

The Role of Earth Scientists

Sachs outlined five fundamental and unique roles that AGU and Earth scientists can play in helping to alleviate environmental threats. These roles include understanding the mechanisms driving climate, biodiversity, and economic dynamics.

“Without understanding climate science, without understanding ozone depletion—without understanding the deep science, we don’t stand a chance. So obviously we need the science enterprise in its most fundamental sense. Without it, we are lost, we have nothing, and we don’t even know what we are doing on the planet.”

Other roles Sachs listed are monitoring and mapping Earth system states, developing integrated physical-human systems for the green economy in conjunction with the policy sciences, assisting directed technological change, and leading public and classroom education to build a shared global framework for action.

Sachs expressed disappointment in the U.S. Congress’s approach to dealing with climate change, stating that “this is an enormously complicated political moment at a time of unprecedented human challenge.”

However, a series of activities in 2015 could have a positive impact on the environment, he said. They include negotiations on climate and on financing for sustainable development, as well as the potential adoption by the United Nations of sustainable development goals as a framework for future action.

Those activities “can be critical for helping the next generation of young people to have, in a coherent way, a holistic approach to human well-being that puts economic, social, and environmental considerations into equal power and an integrated framework.”

Concerns About Congress

In an interview with Eos following the lecture, Sachs elaborated on his concerns about Congress. “The 2014 election was won by money, basically oil money and lots of it. But the American people know that the climate is changing, that the changes are dangerous and that renewable energy and alternative energy sources are key to the solution,” he said.

“The problem is not the American public. The problem is vested interests of big oil, big coal that basically succeeded in electing this incoming congress,” Sachs told Eos. “It means we have a lot of education to do, it means there is a lot of truth-telling that is crucial for the American people to understand this.” Recent global negotiations to curb emissions are showing the American people that other governments in the world “are on the side of doing something. And I hope that that also pushes us to be part of a whole global shared effort,” he said.

Sachs singled out several politicians who have opposed initiatives regarding climate change. Sachs said he hopes that incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “learns in the course of this year something more than what his friends in the fossil fuel industry have told him, but learns about the truth, about the state of the planet and the state of America’s needs.”

Sachs also elaborated on the role for Earth scientists, stating that they “are the only ones that can explain the basic processes that work on the planet that are threatening us.”

Earth scientists “are fundamental for helping the rest of us understand what’s happening and telling us about the safe operating conditions—what should we be doing, what do we need to avoid. And the Earth scientists are speaking very clearly on that. Of course, the din of the special interest groups is very loud, because they buy media, they buy propaganda, they buy advertising, they buy doubt,” he said.

Responding to a question about whether he is optimistic about halting or minimizing environmental threats, Sachs said, “We have to do everything to succeed. Success is within reach. It’s by no means guaranteed. I don’t think we have too much time to even decide: are we optimists or pessimists. We just have to work towards success. The stakes are so high that we have to succeed.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

For a video of the Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture delivered by Jeffrey Sachs and to watch other recorded sessions, sign up for AGU’s Virtual Options content.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2014), Geoscientists are key to reducing climate threats, expert says, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(51), 487, doi:10.1002/2014EO510003.

Text © 2014. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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