Climate change, population growth could lead to human catastrophe – UN adviser

16 September 2009

A senior United Nations adviser has called on world governments to reduce population growth and work together to keep climate change from causing an immense human catastrophe, starkly warning: “We’re on a trajectory that is absolutely unsustainable and profoundly dangerous.”

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Special Adviser to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that seek to slash a host of social ills by 2015, said the rich world should pay for much of the necessary mitigating steps.

“We’re in the age of this planet where human activity dominates the earth's processes. Humanity has become so large in absolute number and in economic activity that we have overtaken earth processes in vital ways to the point of changing the climate, the hydrologic cycle,” he told the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva yesterday.

Mr. Sachs was giving the 14th annual Prebisch lecture, named after Raul Prebisch, the first Secretary-General of UNCTAD, which was established in 1964 to promote the development-friendly integration of developing countries into the world economy.

Current international attempts to respond are off track, he said. “We don't need global negotiations right now as much as we need global brainstorming, global problem solving,” according to Mr. Sachs, who likened the approach to a high-stakes poker game in which negotiators hold their cards close to their chests. “The climate change problem is not a trade negotiation. It is simply the most complex engineering, economic, and social problem humanity has ever faced.”

He called for a massive, coordinated public-private effort with a great deal of input by experts to determine what can be done to allow substantial economic growth to raise living standards for hundreds of millions of poor while coping with environmental problems that already are unsustainable, highlighted by but not limited to climate change.

“We don't necessarily need diplomats around the table. We need engineers around the table, scientists around the table. We need to put the cards down and have a new kind of process,” he said.

On the current state of climate negotiations he said the issue of whether a national goal is binding or not is one of the least interesting questions. “What’s binding if you can't achieve it?” he asked. “It's silly. We should be talking about what can we do, not what's binding – what can we do now, in five years, 10 years. Once we analyze those options we can talk about what to do…

“And no doubt the rich world can and should pay for much of the response,” he added, warning that the immense progress required, especially in terms of energy use, will not be achieved by free markets alone.

No private company “will profitably develop these technologies on their own. Large scale technical systems require clever policies and public-private partnerships,” he said. “Over time, there are so many wonderful things we can do. We can achieve economic growth at much lower impact if we think clearly, systematically, in systems terms, with a new kind of public-private approach based on shared global goals.”


♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.