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Jeffrey Sachs: It's 'More Important Than Ever' For World To Act On Poverty, Climate

"It wouldn’t take a lot from us, even in these difficult times, to make a profound difference in the world," says Jeffrey Sachs.
Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent U.S. economist and former director of the UN Millennium Project for poverty reduction, was in Prague this week to attend a conference of European socialists. He sat down with RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash to discuss expectations for the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and the global battle against poverty in a time of recession.

RFE/RL: Professor Sachs, what are your hopes for the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference?

Jeffrey Sachs:
Of course, I would hope for an agreement that is strong in terms of commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also strong in terms of helping the poor countries to adapt to the climate change that they didn’t cause but from which they’re suffering right now. And so there are many things on the agenda, both what the major emitters do and how they help the rest of the world.

Jeffrey Sachs
RFE/RL: What would be the best possible result that you could hope could be achieved at Copenhagen? What are numbers would you like to see?

The numbers would be a cut of emissions strong enough to ensure a trajectory that gives the world hope of avoiding the 2 degrees Centigrade increase of warming. That’s the standard that the scientists have set. It makes sense, and it would also be a very strong commitment -- much more financing than [what] is on the table right now -- to help the poor countries.

So it’s the combination of a strong target on reducing emissions and adequate financing for the poor countries.

RFE/RL: Is it mainly the United States that has to take the initiative in Copenhagen?

Well, of course, the United States is still one of the most important actors in this whole global drama. It’s the No. 2 emitter in the world behind China now. But since China has so many more people than the U.S., the U.S. still emits much more greenhouse gas per person than any other major economy, so the United States bears a major global responsibility.

President [Barack] Obama is trying to move that forward, but the U.S. Senate is very dilatory in this. In fact, it has really delayed action for 17 years, since 1992, when the framework convention on climate change was first signed. The U.S. Congress to this moment still has not acted.

RFE/RL: Is there any country right now that has a good model for tackling global warming and fighting poverty at the same time?

I think, in general, the Scandinavian countries -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark -- are models in terms of their own environmental commitment, their attention to their own poor -- because they have very few of them because they really look after them -- and the attention to the world’s poor, because those countries give nearly 1 percent of their national income to fight global poverty, roughly five times the share of their incomes [more] than the [what] the United States allocates, for example.

So I regard the countries of Northern Europe as exemplary in combining economic growth and efficiency with environmental sustainability [and] attention to the poor.

RFE/RL: How would you say the global financial crisis has affected the fight against poverty?

The poor countries have been hard-hit in many ways, without question. They have the least buffer, the least reserve. So whether it’s the loss of jobs, the loss of remittances, the loss of export earnings, the decline in foreign aid which was cut by some of the countries, it’s been a very tough process.

And we are now entering the 10th year of the Millennium Development Goal 15-year effort, so as we come into 2010, because of this crisis and because of coming close to the end of that effort to cut poverty, it’s more important than ever that the world takes the actions that it has promised to take to help reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger.

RFE/RL: And what about the will to fight poverty? Has the financial crisis affected that will?

The fight against poverty is always complicated because even during good times, the rich and the powerful have a tendency to neglect the poor. So it’s a constant effort, whether we’re in a boom or a downturn, as we are right now, to rally the world’s attention to the billion people who struggle for daily survival.

It wouldn’t take a lot from us, even in these difficult times, to make a profound difference in the world. So this crisis is actually not at all a reason to shirk the commitments that we’ve made to the poor. It’s rather a reason to reinforce them.