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No Hiding From Sustainable Development

Jeffrey Sachs


One year ago, I was in Brazil to launch the Brazilian chapter of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The main message I heard that day was that São Paulo was suffering from a mega-drought, but that state and local politicians were keeping it quiet. This is a reality around the world: too many political leaders are ignoring a growing environmental crisis, imperiling their own countries and others.

In the case of Brazil, state and local officials had other things on their mind in 2014: hosting the World Cup soccer tournament in June and July and winning elections later in the year. So they relied on a time-tested political tactic: hide the bad news behind a “feel-good" message.

Some places have been even more foolish than simply ignoring the risks. North Carolina's coastlands, like coastal areas around the world, are threatened by rising sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. Yet in 2012, land developers convinced the state legislature to bar the use of scientific evidence on rising sea levels in the state's coastal management policies, at least until 2016. The issue is equally flagrant at the federal level: US Congress members, on the take from Big Oil, simply deny the reality of climate change.

But growing environmental threats are forcing their way into the headlines whether politicians and land developers like it or not. The bad news about mega-droughts and freshwater scarcity stretches from Brazil to California to conflict-ridden countries in the Middle East.

São Paulo's metropolitan region of 20 million people is now on the verge of water rationing, an unprecedented threat for one of the world's leading cities. In California, this winter has been another dry season in a bitter four-year drought, one of the most severe in the region's history. In Pakistan, the minister of water and energy recently declared that, “Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years Pakistan can be a water-starved country." In Iran, the Hamoun wetlands bordering Afghanistan are disappearing, posing a grave threat to the local population.

Looking back, it is also clear that a decade-long drought in neighboring Syria helped to trigger the unrest that escalated into a catastrophic civil war, with at least 200,000 Syrians dead and no end to the violence in sight. The drought had displaced an estimated 1.5 million people and caused food prices to soar, leading to a spiral of protest, crackdown, and eventually war. Though drought does not explain all of the ensuing violence, it certainly played a role.

Each of these droughts reflects a complex mix of factors: long-term climate change, short-term or decade-long weather patterns, growing populations' rising demand for freshwater, mismanagement of local resources, and, of course, a lack of political attention and will. Every drought must therefore be confronted locally, addressing local realities.

Yet the global message is also clear: the world's growing population (now at 7.3 billion, but likely to reach eight billion by 2024 and nine billion by around 2040), human-induced climate change, and the overuse of freshwater for irrigation and urban needs (especially when cities are built up in dry regions) are all fueling the potential for catastrophe.

The article’s full-text is available on the website of Project Syndicate

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