Obama’s failed climate strategy

By Bryan Walker 30/07/2010

Obama must take a different tack, says economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, writing in the Guardian. The President has been pursuing a failed strategy of negotiating with senators and key industries to try to forge an agreement, making no headway in the back rooms of the White House and Congress. What he should have done, and still should do, is to present a coherent plan to the American people.

’He should propose a sound strategy over the next 20 years for reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuels, converting to electric vehicles, and expanding non-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind power. He could then present an estimated price tag for phasing in these changes over time, and demonstrate that the costs would be modest compared to the enormous benefits.’

The candidate of change has not presented real plans of action for change. Sachs charges that the administration is in the paralysing grip of special-interest groups. He’s not sure whether this is an intended outcome to secure large campaign donations or just the result of poor decision-making, or maybe a bit of both.

Sachs has several things to say leading up to his urging a presidential plan. He opens with a blunt statement. ’All signs suggest that the planet is still hurtling headlong toward climatic disaster.’ Yet we still fail to act.

He identifies three major challenges which make action difficult.  First, energy and agriculture (including deforestation to create new farmland) are the two principal sources of emissions, and they are two economic sectors which stand at the centre of the global economy and involve the whole world’s population. It’s no small matter to change those systems.

The second challenge is the complexity of the science, involving many thousands of scientists in all parts of the world. Uncertainties attend the precise magnitude, timing, and dangers of climate change. The general public has difficulty grappling with this complexity and uncertainty, especially as changes occur over a timetable of decades and centuries rather than months and years, and are intermixed with natural variations.

The third problem arises from a combination of the economic implications and the uncertainties of the science. It is the ’brutal, destructive campaign’ against climate science by powerful vested interests and ideologues, aimed at creating an atmosphere of ignorance and confusion. Major oil companies and other corporates have financed disreputable PR campaigns, exaggerating the uncertainties and absurdly charging that climate scientists are engaged in some kind of conspiracy to frighten the public.

Sachs attacks the Wall Street Journal’s aggressive editorial campaign against climate science, which has been running for decades:

’The individuals involved in this campaign are not only scientifically uninformed, but show absolutely no interest in becoming better informed. They have turned down repeated offers by climate scientists to meet and conduct serious discussions about the issues.’

There is a fourth over-arching problem — the unwillingness or inability of US politicians to formulate a sensible climate-change policy, despite America’s central role in global emissions. When Obama was elected he clearly wanted to move forward on this issue, but will not be able to do so on the path so far chosen.

Sachs’ comment seemed to me to say all the important things with clarity and precision. And he’s in no doubt about what is at stake. We are courting disaster.

’Nature doesn’t care about our political machinations. And nature is telling us that our current economic model is dangerous and self-defeating. Unless we find some real global leadership in the next few years, we will learn that lesson in the hardest ways possible.’

Sachs is no intellectual lightweight. His books The End of Poverty and Common Wealth have been widely read.  He has twice been named as one of Time magazine’s ’100 Most Influential People in the World’ in 2004 and 2005. The clear perception he displays of the central issues of climate change for the US must surely represent a substantial body of educated American opinion. Alas, not yet substantial enough. For the present the babble of denial and delay prevails.