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The G20, human health and sustainability: an interview with Jeffrey D Sachs

Jeffrey D Sachs and Stephen R Leeder
Med J Aust 2014; 201 (5): 253-254. || doi: 10.5694/mja14.01075
Published online: 11 August 2014

We must reinvigorate our sense of humanity, justice and foresight

Jeffrey Sachs is an American economist and Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is known as a commentator and advocate for the relief of poverty, the achievement of improved health in developing countries and for environmental sustainability. From 2000 to 2001, he chaired the World Health Organization Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, which made clear the linkage between health gain, relief of poverty and economic growth.

Sachs is author of The end of poverty: economic possibilities for our time (2005). His most recent book is To move the world: JFK's quest for peace (2013).

He was interviewed by the Editor-in-Chief of the Medical Journal of Australia, Stephen Leeder, who worked with Sachs in New York in 2003–2004, about the upcoming G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, in November.

What is your primary message as an economist interested in the relief of poverty about sustainability and its relation to both economics and human health?

It is not possible to consider ending poverty in the midst of human-induced climate change. Even if poor countries, such as those in Africa, make some short-term progress in the fight against poverty, this progress will be overtaken by climate disruption. Africa already is suffering from food price shocks, famine, heatwaves, droughts and other extreme climate shocks. We've got to get real: fighting poverty and environmental degradation go hand in hand.

How could the upcoming G20 meetings in Brisbane be an important forum for consideration of the economics of sustainability?

The G20 countries are the world's most important economies. They account for the lion's share of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the G20 gets its house in order, the world can be saved. If not, the G20 will wreck the world, pure and simple. So what will it be? Will the richest and most powerful countries also be the most short-sighted, or will they understand that they hold not only their fate but the fate of humanity in their grasp? Brisbane is therefore crucial. The prospects are not bright. The Australian Government claims it is driven by science, but it seems to us on the outside that it is driven by mining interests, or by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the world's number one anti-science propagandist.

The G20 should acknowledge that 2015 is the most important year of diplomacy on sustainable development in at least 15 years. We have three mega-summits next year. The first is on Financing for Development, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 2015. The next is on Sustainable Development Goals, at the UN headquarters in New York, in September 2015. The third is on climate change — the so-called COP21 [21st Conference of Parties] of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — in Paris in December 2015. The Brisbane G20 should help to prepare the world's leading countries to be true forward-looking problem solvers during these three crucial summits next year.

Can the world still prevent runaway climate disaster?

Yes, but we've almost run out of time. In 2009, and again, 2010, the world's governments agreed to fight to keep global warming below 2°C. Yet we are on a trajectory of 4–6°C by the end of this century. In fact, we could trigger runaway climate change, in which warming unleashes various feedback processes (such as the release of carbon dioxide from vegetation, soils and permafrost) that could lead to runaway climate disaster. That's why the 2°C limit is also called a “guardrail” for the world: one that keeps us from spinning completely out of control.

So, to be more specific, can we still keep warming below 2°C?

Yes, just barely, if all major economies of the world begin to take very strong and consistent actions to decarbonise their national energy systems in three main ways: shifting to low-carbon electricity, moving from fossil fuels to electricity in vehicles and buildings, and massive gains of energy efficiency. A fourth main global pillar is to shift from deforestation to reforestation and to reduce emissions from agriculture. These transformations are deep, but they are feasible. And they will not only protect the climate but also boost prosperity if we apply our efforts and ingenuity to the effort. We are running out of our planet's carbon budget — that is, the amount of carbon the world can burn and still remain below 2°C.

But do you see these transformations being achieved by economic reasoning alone?

No. A reinvigoration of a global moral code must also be a lifeline in the 21st century. Pope Francis is utterly correct and compelling when he speaks of the “globalisation of indifference”. We have lost our moral compass as a global society. The mass media, the cynicism of Murdoch and others, have crowded out decency, humanity, justice and foresight. Yet each of us wants our children and grandchildren to survive and to flourish. We each have an instinct, a moral fibre, to keep the world safe for the future and for each other. Yet we have to reinvigorate this morality, to overcome the immorality of greed and power that drive our societies today.

At a time when our societies have unprecedented technological capacity in hand to end extreme poverty, a billion people worldwide are chronically hungry and destitute; in a period when health care technology enjoys astounding advances, 6 million children under the age of 5 worldwide still die each year of utterly preventable causes; and in an era when sustainable technologies for energy, industry, buildings and transport could rein in climate change, the world rushes headlong towards climate catastrophe — our attitudes and moral judgements will be the most important determinants of our fate, not our resources or our capacities.

At this stage of history, humanity is at a crossroads, with the future course of our own choosing. We have the technical means to solve our national and global problems — to banish poverty, fight disease, protect the environment, and train the illiterate and unskilled. But we can and will do so only if we care enough to mount the effort.

President John F Kennedy made the point compellingly a half-century ago. In his inaugural address in January 1961, he noted: “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life”. Two years later, on the quest for peace with the Soviet Union, J F K made the most essential point, the key reason for hope in peaceful problem solving, on poverty, climate change and the end of war itself:

So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.


Provenance: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

  • Jeffrey D Sachs1
  • Stephen R Leeder2

  • 1 The Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.
  • 2 Medical Journal of Australia, Sydney, NSW.

Correspondence: sachs@columbia.edu

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

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