The richest people in the world, who own almost half of the global wealth, should be using their money to solve poverty, provide education, help cover healthcare, and bear the disproportionate amount of funding required to fight the climate crisis, says Jeffrey Sachs, university professor and director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University. As the world battles climate crisis and inequality, he says, the rich should deliver on the promises they have made in terms of philanthropy and should be held accountable for those.
Sachs spoke to Fortune India on the sidelines of The Energy and Resources Institute’s (TERI) World Sustainable Development Summit, which is being held in New Delhi between January 29-31. Edited excerpts:
The global economy is undergoing a slowdown. The World Bank projects global growth at 2.5% in 2020, just above the post-crisis low registered last year. How do you see the economic slowdown affecting the fight on climate crisis?
The slowdown reflects two main factors: one is a general uncertainty about the future direction of the world economy or the crossroads where the old economic models of oil and gas don’t work anymore. We have to go in a new direction, but because the political change has not occurred even though the economic need is clear, businesses are holding back, they don’t know where to invest and how to invest. Second, is the United States’ action against China which created a great deal of uncertainty, now we have the Coronavirus which is adding to the uncertainty; so one can say that the crisis is a crisis of investment. Private investors are holding back because there is such a lack of direction and we need a change of politics that says we are moving to sustainable development, the growth sectors are renewable energy, electric vehicles, battery production, photovoltaics...there should also be a public investment budget that helps to guide this transformation. Then the private sector would come back in, in a big way. Also, the world should say no to the U.S. attempt to divide the world between the China camp and the U.S. camp—this is just imperialist thinking of the U.S. imperialistic mindset in the foreign policy establishment. It is very detrimental because we need global cooperation.
I hope that within Asia, India and China, and the European Union, and Russia can collaborate effectively, and then we will get somewhere.
According to Morgan Stanley, the world needs to spend $50 trillion on five areas of technology by 2050 to cut emissions and meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of halting global warming. Do you see the inclination from governments and the private sector actually put together that kind of money?
Most of that is private sector financing, and it is over 30-40 years. I don’t know whether I even believe the specific number, but even if we take it as a given, it is $1 trillion-$2 trillion a year and we are a $100 trillion global economy, so it is 1%-2% of the world economy, that is not such a big number. I don’t think we should let these numbers scare us, we should think practically about the plans of action and we should have cooperation between government and business, and across governments of the world. If we did that we would find out that $1 trillion -$2 trillion a year of investment is perfectly manageable.
You spoke about U.S. President Donald Trump and geopolitics in relation to sustainable development. If we look at Trump or Brazilian president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, or other leaders around the world, some of them deny climate change and related phenomena. Also, in India, which has seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, the government is doing little to fight climate change. How does government apathy around the world make the climate change fight difficult?
Just to clarify Trump is not a climate denier, he is a conman and he is corrupt, this is about money and politics… not about his beliefs. He is evidently a man without any beliefs except in himself. I wouldn’t say that it has anything to do with science or doubts, it just has to do with Trump, power, and greed, and we should be clear about that. In the Indian situation, every day when people wake up and take a breath of toxic air, it should be enough to remember that this is a matter of urgency. A country where the thermometer is hitting 50°C, it should be completely alarmed. A country where you have floods and droughts of extreme intensity in the same year is a country that should be alarmed. This should not be a second-order consideration for a government that says we want (higher) GDP, and these (environment issues) are just nuisances. GDP is an artificial construct, what we want is the well-being for people and; if the air is too polluted to breathe, the temperatures are too hot to survive, if the storms are too extreme to bear, that is not well-being. The government’s responsibility first and foremost is the well-being of people, that’s real economics, not the economics of some artificial indicator.
I have been coming to India for more than 40 years and I love this country, and I see how extremely vulnerable it is to the environmental crisis, that’s why I am speaking out. The most urgent need is for the world to get its act together so that 1.4 billion people in this country don’t suffer as a consequence of global inaction.
What do you think of the Greta Thunberg phenomenon?
I think she has done a wonderful job of bringing this issue to her generation. Young people will be world leaders soon enough, and second, young people will be the ones who are inheriting the mess from older people so what she is saying is very important. What I want young people to do next is to make plans of action, I want them to come up with a decarbonisation plan for India, to come up with a decarbonisation plan for the European Union, for South America and so on. Protest is very important, but action is even more important. What to do next is a path to climate safety and that requires decarbonising the energy system and that requires a framework of a public and private set of actions, and young people should demand such actions and understand what needs to be done and even develop the plans to do it.
You have also done a lot of work on poverty. Where do the fight against poverty and the fight against climate change merge? The most vulnerable people to climate change are the less privileged people.
We have to stop climate change to save humanity but the first ones to suffer will be the poor. There are already suffering mass dislocations, dying of extreme storms, and being pushed into forced migration because crops fail, so in this sense, this is part of the battle for fairness in the world and sense. When it comes to paying for the changes that need to be made... it’s the rich within a country, the rich of the world that should bear the disproportionate amount of funding. Look at Mr. Bezos (Jeff Bezos) for example. He has a $110 billion in his bank account. That’s a shame of American society that anybody would have $110 billion in the bank, it’s a shame that he hasn’t given most of it away for the betterment of humanity. His money should be directed towards solving poverty, helping children in school, helping cover healthcare, and helping to solve the climate crisis. That is true of the other billionaires of the world whose combined net worth now is about $10 trillion or even more. We need action and I believe in wealth taxation, I also believe that the promises that these rich have made in terms of philanthropy need to be realised, they need to be held accountable for those promises.