SAN FRANCISCO, CA, DECEMBER 15, 2014 – In the seemingly endless ocean of great scientific information that annually flows from experts addressing the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the really big fish are those invited to deliver a “union” lecture.

Despite stiff competition from a broad panoply of the nation’s and world’s leading climate scientists, those so honored stand somewhat apart. They’re celebrities for many in the usually standing-room-only audiences in part because of their personal reputations — not just what is said, but who is saying it. They command the largest ballrooms, etc., etc., etc.

And the pecking order is such that the earlier in the meeting one’s “Union Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture” is scheduled, the larger the fish.

So it was that the opening day of the AGU meeting featured economist and author Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a senior U.N. advisor and top-selling book author.

Sachs, as is his wont, pulled no punches in his presentation, at times wandering painfully close to, and perhaps beyond, what some might consider the appropriate science/politics/policy “comfort level.”

The ‘Anthropocene’…’It’s All About Scale’

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Columbia University.

Sachs provided data to support his views that Earth’s natural systems are teetering painfully close to a tipping point of widespread societal distress, economic collapse, continued widespread hunger and disease, and much more.

“It’s all about scale,” Sachs said in referring to the term “Anthropocene” credited first to Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen. “It’s not just a wonderful metaphor, it’s a literal fact of geography,” he said, pointing to “our vital need to learn to live effectively in a world of finite resources and increasing population.”

Using graphics that looked very much like the carbon dioxide “hockey stick” images familiar in the climate context, Sachs pointed to sky-rocketing increases in population, economic development, human impacts on the planet, and more. Throughout most of human history, people had worked as farmers in rural areas and at the edge of subsistence. “Basically, not much changed for almost 2,000 years,” he said.

‘A World in Flux’ and Needing a Better Economic System

With the start of the industrial revolution and the repeated doubling of energy consumption, things have changed radically, Sachs continued. Along with the widely recognized societal and economic benefits, there came also the “present state of affairs,” including income disparity, environmental stresses, and other problems.

He characterized the current global economic realities as “not a successful economic system” in terms of preserving biological and planetary boundaries.

“A world in flux” and at a time when societal, economic, political, and other institutions have not evolved at a pace adequate to compete.

Sachs characterized current environmental crises, and in particular global climate change, as “imminent, dramatic, and hugely pressed” by countervailing economic and political pressures. He said it’s untenable that a full one-sixth of the world’s total population “struggles every day to avoid death…one mosquito bite away.”

Palpable Unrest around the Globe

“The unrest is palpable around the world,” Sachs said, pointing to a growing series of images depicting rebelling youths and protesters in major cities around the world.

“We really are the generation that reached the limits,” Sachs said, pointing to his having read “Limits to Growth” in 1972 with a then-professor’s suggestion that he not take it seriously. “It took me a long time to overcome my education,” Sachs quipped.

Sachs, even before prodding by an audience member about how to “get rid” of science-bashing politicians in Washington, D.C., took rhetorical jabs at incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell (R-Ky) and at Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, likely the incoming Environment Committee chair. His characterization of McConnell as “a friend” of the earth sciences was greeted with sardonic laughter throughout the room. “I know that Senator Inhofe wants a course in climate science, and we need to give it to him,” he said, only belatedly adding “and the other 99 senators.”

But not to give up, Sachs concluded. He held out hope that workable solutions to global climate and other environmental and social problems still are possible. He pointed to three important international meetings involving national leaders in 2015. And he said the recent U.S./China carbon dioxide emissions reduction agreement, and the just-concluded international negotiations in Lima, Peru, offer “some insights” into what yet could be important breakthroughs in Paris in December 2015 on greenhouse gas emission reductions.

On the effort to cap global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees C, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, Sachs said, “It’s slipping beyond our reach, but, again, we have one more chance.”

Not that the societal changes Sachs deems essential will come easily, he conceded. Among the challenges he listed as needing early and deep attention and progress: global-scale production systems; rapid technological changes; rapid growth in population in Africa and in south Asia; a worldwide decline in middle-skilled jobs; and the full set of “extreme environmental crises.”

In the end, however, and notwithstanding what he described as a broken political system in the U.S., Sachs said he takes some comfort in what he described as “general anxiety” about the future among many international leaders. “That’s not a bad starting point,” he told his audience.

But he described the current political reality in the U.S. as one that in his opinion “does not represent the views of the American public” on issues such as renewable energy and other sustainable development approaches. He said the kind of political response that gave birth to, for instance, the New Deal and other “progressive” initiatives is long overdue…but, he hopes, coming.

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Bud Ward

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...