State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

6 Ways America Can Get Back on Track with the UN Sustainable Development Goals

book cover for A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism
A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism by professor Jeffrey D. Sachs goes on sale in October 2018.

Every year the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which I direct on behalf of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, collects data from around the world to assess where countries stand on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDG Index gives a global ranking, while the SDG Scorecard highlights the strengths and weaknesses of each of the 150 or so countries for which the requisite global data are available. The SDG Index and Dashboard together therefore offer an objective account of each country’s absolute progress toward the goals and its relative position among other nations.

The news is not good for the United States. According to the 2017 SDG Index, the U.S. ranked no better than 42nd out of 157 countries, and 30th out of the 35 high-income OECD countries. How could the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, rank so low? The reason is clear. The United States is strong on only one of the three pillars of sustainable development, the economy, but weak on social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Inequality is very high in U.S. society, with huge gaps in income and power between men and women, between races, and across educational levels. Environmental sustainability is weak because powerful corporate lobbies for the fossil-fuel and heavy industries have slowed America’s transition to low-carbon technologies and primary energy sources.

America pays a very heavy price for its failure to pursue sustainable development. U.S. life expectancy ranks 25th in the OECD and has actually been declining rather than rising in recent years. The prevalence of clinical depression is up, and the United States has one of the highest rates of depression in the world. Drug addiction and deaths from drug over-doses are soaring. A large part of the U.S. workforce has not gained from economic growth. Confidence in public institutions has plummeted, as has interpersonal trust in American society. For all of these reasons, the self-reported well-being of Americans has also waned.

Compared with other high-income societies, the United States also suffers from chronic violence, thereby falling desperately short of SDG 16, which calls for “peaceful and inclusive societies.” America’s violence is evident not only in its nonstop overseas wars, but also in its high homicide rates, astounding levels of gun violence, and off- the-chart rates of incarceration, especially of young African-American men. America’s violence is also captured by the 2017 Global Peace Index, which placed the United States at the shocking rank of 114th most peaceful country out of the 163 countries measured.

It would not be hard for the United States, with its wealth, skills, and technologies, to achieve the SDGs if it tried to do so. Success would require a change of policies, from corporate tax breaks and environmental deregulation to social programs for the poor and working class and investments in the green economy. Other countries are far ahead of the United States in those directions, and far happier as well.

American consumers have a role to play here. U.S. brand names need to be put on notice: If you cower to the Koch brothers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce, you will pay a price. General Electric, are you with us or against us on saving the planet? How about you, Pepsi, Walmart, IBM, Walt Disney, GM, and other companies whose CEOs have been part of Trump’s corporate advisory committees? Responsible consumers need to make clear that they will walk out on brands that are accomplices to Trump’s attempts to gut environmental regulations. The Koch brothers spend hundreds of millions of dollars to block action on global warming and pollution, and then have the remarkable audacity to ask Americans to buy consumer products such as Angel Soft and Dixie that they own (via Georgia Pacific Koch Industries). It’s time to say a resounding no!

We must also pressure Congress to act on climate change. Would Republican senators allow the corruption and greed of the Senate to gut the Paris Climate Agreement? It’s possible, but these senators have children and grandchildren too, and most are not as stupid as their party’s official position on climate change.

The SDGS and the World

Just as is true of the United States, the world as a whole has the human resources, skills, technologies, and wealth to achieve the SDGs. We are, after all, in the midst of one of the most productive and exciting scientific and technological revolutions in history. New digital technologies offer new and better ways to deliver universal health coverage, quality education, equitable finance, low-carbon energy, and improved governance in all parts of the world, even in the poorest and remotest places. What are the obstacles to surmount? There are several. Corporate lobbies, such as the oil and gas industry, use their power and money to hold back progress. Some of the world’s richest people use bribes and campaign contributions to keep their privileges and tax breaks, hoarding funds that should be directed to SDG investments. Irresponsible politicians stoke fear and even war to hold onto power. And governments are too often bereft of practical, workable plans.

There are six main actions we can take to get on track:

First, let us insist that the major companies, especially the fossil-fuel industries, align their business activities with the SDGs.

Second, let us insist that individuals with high net worth should contribute philanthropically to the SDGs, while asset managers should invest their funds according to SDG guidelines.

Third, let us mobilize urgent SDG funding for the world’s poorest nations, so that they can provide universal health coverage, universal quality education, and universal access to modern infrastructure.

Fourth, let us insist that war and peace issues be settled according to the UN Charter, especially by the UN Security Council.

Fifth, let us make polluters compensate those who suffer from the pollution, including having the fossil-fuel industries pay for part of the damage caused by global warming.

Sixth, let us deploy breakthroughs in science and technology to achieve more rapid progress toward the SDGs.

In this last regard, the world’s universities have an exceptional role to play. As centers of higher education, research, and policy design, universities everywhere should work with governments, businesses, and civil society to help accelerate progress toward the SDGs. The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network supports hundreds of universities around the world as they step up to support the SDGs.

These are the strategic steps we can take as a global community to achieve the SDGs. As for the United States, one of the most urgent actions is adopting a new foreign policy that will promote sustainable development.

Excerpted from A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism by Jeffrey D. Sachs Copyright (c) 2018 Jeffrey D. Sachs. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey Sachs is a professor of economics at Columbia University and director of the Center for Sustainable Development within Columbia’s Earth Institute

Please join us on October 3, 2018, as Jeffrey Sachs discusses this book at the official campus launch event. A Q&A will follow his talk. 

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