Jeffrey Sachs, American economist and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Photo by: International Transport Forum / CC BY-NC-ND

Economist Jeffrey Sachs is well known for his optimistic take on the possibilities of development progress. Sachs’ biography is titled, “The Idealist.” His own book is called “The End of Poverty.”

But with development professionals uncertain about what a coming Donald Trump presidency will mean for their organizations and the goals they pursue — such as taking action on climate change — optimism has seemed in short supply.

Devex spoke to Sachs on the sidelines of the Marrakech climate conference, to hear what he thinks the future holds for climate action, development progress, and U.S. cooperation in the fight against global warming.

Here’s what he said:

Obviously there’s a lot of anxiety here after the results of the election. People are wondering what role the United States is going to continue to play in these negotiations. Do you see any reason for optimism? Where do you see the path forward at this point?

I think there’s going to be a political brawl in the United States, because it certainly seems like candidate Trump and a lot of people around him don’t want to abide by the international responsibility of the Paris climate agreement. I don’t think they thought very hard about any of this and I don’t think that they’re aware of what it means for the other 95 percent of the world’s population to be determined to make our planet safe.

So I don’t think it’s the end of the story to say, “Oh, the United States is going to get out of this,” but I think it’s going to be a tough political battle ahead.

Via YouTube

Some are suggesting there may be an opportunity to educate the new administration on issues such as development and climate change — to make the case more strongly than Trump would have heard during the campaign. Do you see potential there? And how do you think development organizations, organizations involved in climate change can effectively communicate with an incoming administration like this one to put these issues on the table?

Trump will have a number of opportunities to meet with other world leaders, and he’s going to receive an earful from them. We went through an episode like this of course in 2001 when George W. Bush came in and he pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. That is the closest analogy, but I don’t think it’s the same because with the Kyoto Protocol, first the understanding of the whole situation was less and the Kyoto Protocol was an agreement among the so-called Annex One countries.

Now we have a global agreement. It’s universal — China has signed on, India has signed on, the G-20 countries, all of them — by definition everybody’s there. And the situation’s quite dire and we see that the world is absolutely careening out of control in terms of climate. So I believe that it’s going to be tough. There will be a lot of ugly rhetoric. There could be confirmation battles. But at the end of the day, nobody walks out of this agreement because we’re all on the same planet.

One area of concern is short term climate finance, particularly for adaptation — that’s been a huge topic of discussion here at the COP so far. What’s your take on where the opportunities will still be to engage in supporting adaptation? How do you think that conversation changes after Trump’s election?

I think that finance will be really a hard battle with the U.S. because the U.S. is stingy in general and really resistant to playing its role, which is why the U.S. has lost so much favor around the world in the last generation. But other countries will step forward. I think China will do a lot more, I think other countries will do more. The U.S. will lose diplomatically and geopolitically if it tries to take this complete unilateral approach. Because that’s what it would entail at this point.

This is really a question of whether the U.S. says “We stand alone,” or with the rest of the world. And I will remind my fellow Americans that we are one out of 196 signatories and we are about 4.4 percent of the world’s population. We don’t run the show and we’re not going to determine the future — the planetary fate. We will have to be part of the solution.

What is your message to colleagues in the global development community who are perhaps taking this in a very personal way — even as a threat to the programs they’re working on? Any words of encouragement?

Well, if you’re in development — if you’re fighting poverty, if you’re fighting climate change — you’re in a battle every single day. If you let up, bad things will happen because making a change of the world’s system is not easy. So people that are in this battle have to be prepared for a long, tough, difficult battle of public education, of awareness, and of politics and power. Because we’re up against very powerful interests. Those interests are weakening, and sense is stepping in in a lot of ways. But we’re still facing a lot of powerful interests that paid for a lot of candidates, that buy a lot of candidates. And so this is not a simple battle. So keep with it, but don’t expect an easy road.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the authors

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.
  • Julie Espinosa

    Julie Espinosa is the Associate Director of Creative at Devex. She leads a team of visual storytellers who work with reporters all over the globe to cover the topics of humanitarian aid, sustainable development and global health. Prior to joining Devex, Julie worked in documentary film production in Austin, Texas. She holds a master’s degree in communications and cultural studies from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s in visual arts from Harvard University.