Top economist Jeffrey Sachs says we're on the verge of the "sixth wave" of technological transformation

18 September 2014

NEW YORK: Around 400 sustainable development experts gathered at Columbia University in NYC over the past two days, to hear popular economist Jeffrey Sachs' views on the state of our climate, and humankind's responsibility to drive change.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia Universityspoke at the second annual International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice, hosted by the Global Association of Master's in Development Practice Programs (MDP) in collaboration with the SDSN, which set out to find practical, 'evidence-based solutions' to address the complex challenges of sustainable development at local, regional and global levels.

The event is an affiliate of Climate Week NYC, the sixth annual international summit on low carbon leadership, convened by The Climate Group.

Participants received a vibrant and persuasive talk from Jeffrey Sachs, which covered both his current concerns and key priorities for change, as he called for a drastic acceleration of climate action.

Despite 22 years of climate change acknowledgement since the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change was born, this past year still saw the greatest increase in greenhouse gas emissions and this past month has seen record-breaking highs in temperature.

In light of rapidly worsening global warming, Professor Sachs explained humans cannot afford not to act, especially so over the next 15 months in the lead up to Paris, 2015. He said we have a “remarkable year ahead where we have a chance to really change the direction of the planet. And if we don’t do so, we will regret it”. 

Climate goals 

Jeffrey Sachs' allegiance to his childhood idol, John F. Kennedy is well known, and this came across in his talk as he frequently quoted the US president to illustrate his message. He explained that during the height of the Cold War when in 1963 Kennedy was pursuing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban, the President had said: “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it and draw hope from it and move irresistibly toward it”.

Sachs suggested the same can be said for how we face the threats of climate change over the next 15 months: “Defining global goals clearly, by showing that they are manageable, by showing how they can be achieved through manageable objectives, and in doing so, changing the course of the world”.

He said this can be achieved, "by helping show people around the world what this is about, take hope that there is a better course, and by being hopeful realistically to move towards these objectives.”

This positive philosophy of leadership is the backdrop of his thinking that “goal-based sustainable development can be a powerful lever in the world in the same way that goal-based poverty reduction has helped, but not alleviated poverty. We are therefore in a transition from the millennium goals that helped but not succeeded, to a new generation of sustainable generation goals."

A collective effort

But Jeffrey Sachs was keen to point out that while strong leadership is required to drive goal-based change, there can be no single leader and warned there must be a consolidated force from all levels of government, business and society. He remarked: “Who will lead this effort? Nobody. Because it has to be a collective effort. I compare it to conductorless orchestras that play wonderful music. There is no conductor of the world, but we can all play from the same sheet music.” 

Looking again to the Kennedy, Sachs said: “He stood in congress as a new president in 1961 and urged America to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth by the end of the decade. They did it in eight years. In eight years we could not even achieve building one power station with carbon capture technology. We have forgotten how to do great things. 

"John F. Kenedy, when asked why he said in 1962: 'We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.' So let’s win sustainable development."

Driving the clean revolution

Sachs urged a deep technological transformation, calling clean technology growth the 'sixth wave' of economic and industrial development. “All of the economic progress over the past century has been driven by basic economic waves, from steam, to rail, to electrification, the internal combustion engine, to computing. We are on the verge of the sixth wave; sustainable technological development that leads the next round of global development”.

The powerful speech set the scene for the conference that followed, with over 100 plenary and panel presentations ranging across 12 thematic areas, from the role of business in sustainable development, to the low carbon energy industry.

If this event was anything to go by, Climate Week NYC is set to be an incredibly diverse, inspiring and impactful step toward climate action.

By Mary Davies

For a full list of Climate Week NYC events, please visit ClimateWeekNYC.org and follow the conversation on Twitter using #CWNYC.

You can also see our Climate Week NYC media resources for press releases, contacts and more info.

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