Issue II: Generations in Dialogue
II-02 | Jeffrey Sachs: “We are at a critical juncture”
An interview by Alexander Görlach
"We are at a critical juncture"
Jeffrey Sachs takes the old generations to task: those who are now in power must act. Read also why a decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court should set a precedent worldwide.
Görlach: This year’s Religions for Peace conference deals with generational justice – a timely topic?
Sachs: Generational justice is about moral stewardship: protecting the planet, the world’s cultures, good governance, and quality education for all, so that each generation can support the next generation and the generations that will follow, to achieve thriving lives, or as the Greek’s called put it, eudaimonia.
Görlach: Especially in regard to combating climate change generational justice is a key issue: how can the younger and older generations come to terms here?
Sachs: Most importantly, the older generation – those in power today – need to take actions urgently to ensure the Earth’s viability and habitability in the future. We are at a critical juncture. If we fail to act decisively, we will not only exceed the 1.5°C upper limit on warming targeted by the Paris Climate Agreement, but we will risk devastating runaway climate change, as the Earth hits various dangerous amplifying feedback processes (such as melting of the permafrost, drying of the rainforests, destruction of the ice sheets, and halt of the ocean circulation).
„The model of constitutional protection of the environment and of intergenerational justice is very important. ”
Görlach: The German Supreme Court ruled last April that law making has to take in account and balance out the interest of the generations now, using natural resources, and the ones to come who will have to deal with the consequences. The freedom of the older generation now ends where it inflicts on the younger one’s the court says – has this ruling being noticed in the US?
Sachs: Not yet. The US constitutional process on environmental justice is far behind other countries, and the US Supreme Court is dominated by right-wing justices appointed by right-wing presidents who cared little about climate change.
Görlach: Would this be a model for other countries to be followed?
Sachs: Yes. The model of constitutional protection of the environment and of intergenerational justice is very important. The Supreme Court in Colombia recognized the constitutional obligation to protect the Amazon, and a court in the Hague recently recognized the obligation of Shell Oil to slash emissions.
Görlach: Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future have started a global rally for climate protection. It seems that in many places her parent’s generation and beyond are not happy with the movement. Why is the movement and its demands downplayed and the kids being ridiculed to simply go to school and not to bother the grown ups? And more specifically: Greta Thunberg as a person has been degraded by Donald Trump as much as the state media in China. What is she triggering in her opponents?
Sachs: The “Fridays for Future” movement has had a huge and positive impact. The fact that Trump denigrated Greta Thunberg is evidence of her impact. We should also remember that Trump is a dangerous psychopath. Even the top generals in the US were afraid of an attempted coup by Trump.
„Very rich older people, who have vast fortunes in the trillions of dollars should have their wealth taxed in order to help fund sustainable investments for younger people. ”
Görlach: In the US there is a broad movement that denies climate change altogether. Is this also due to a generational divide or are other reasons prevalent?
Sachs: There are many causes of America’s anti-science culture. Part is propaganda by the oil industry and its media allies (such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal). Part is biblical fundamentalism that denies climate change because it’s not mentioned in the scriptures. Most leading religions combine faith and science, but some American-style fundamentalist religions deny science altogether. And in general, most Americans want climate action but the fossil-fuel lobbies (coal, oil, and gas enterprises) fight against climate-change action.
Görlach: How could the generations together reach the sustainability goals that keep the earth and habitable planet for the generations to come?
Sachs: We need to adopt pathways to achieve what we have promised: the Paris Climate Agreement and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Very rich older people, who have vast fortunes in the trillions of dollars should have their wealth taxed in order to help fund sustainable investments for younger people. Of course, the older and richer individuals, who hold most of the financial wealth, should make philanthropic gifts to promote global sustainable development.
Görlach: You worked most of your career with or for the United Nations. What role does this international body have or could obtain in order to tackle climate change and promote generational justice?
Sachs: The UN is the global organization that promotes sustainable development, peace, and human dignity for all. It is strongly focused on inter-generational justice and the wellbeing of future generations, through healthcare, nutrition, end of poverty, quality education, and sustainable management and stewardship of nature. The moral charter is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which declares that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” That is a universal message that we should take to heart, and should rededicate ourselves globally to that message as we reach the 75th anniversary of the UDHR in 2023.
Jeffrey David Sachs is an American economist, academic, public policy analyst and former director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he holds the title of University Professor. He is known as one of the world's leading experts on sustainable development, economic development, and the fight against poverty.
Sachs is Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He is an SDG Advocate for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals adopted at a UN summit meeting in September 2015.