Why aren't we doing that already?
Although the Bush administration says that technology offers the biggest promise of a way out of our environmental problems, the lassitude of the administration is shocking and shameful, because there is a complete disconnect between the importance of the issue and the casualness with which it's treated—not to mention deliberate obfuscation as well. The president is deliberately running from this issue, so there's no leadership whatsoever.
It's not just the president, of course. Much of the American public is still skeptical about climate change too.
The public needs to understand that we are contributing to grave danger worldwide. Climate change is not just an issue for the future. We're in the middle of it right now. That signal is translating into all sorts of events—droughts, intense rainfall, more intense tropical cyclone activity, crop stress, heat waves, and so on.
But it's not easy to demonstrate cause and effect—for instance, that a particular storm is the result of global warming.
It is absolutely true that climate scientists are extremely cautious about attributing any event to anthropogenic climate change, but an increasing number of such attributions are being made with high confidence in the scientific literature now. One breakthrough paper was about the European heat wave of 2003, where modeling showed that under the hypothesis of unchanged climate, the frequency of such a heat wave occurring was something like once in 5,000 years. The conclusion of the authors was: If this would normally happen only once in every 5,000 years, yet this event is consistent with the model of anthropogenic climate change, then there's really a good, logical reason to attribute this heat wave to man-made change.
At the same time, many people both here and abroad worry that addressing global warming will kill the economy.
We have a lot of screaming that, in my best guess, is really powered by vested interests. There is a lot of fear. But what Klaus Lackner and I showed in the paper we published last year is that the cost of deflecting our trajectory away from a doubling of carbon emissions, using optimistic but plausible technological projections, looks to be significantly below 1 percent of gross world product. If carbon emissions doubled, the risks to millions of species, to ecosystems, to farming, to sea levels, and to all the rest would be huge. Now, if the world were told this clearly and asked, "Should we head this off at a cost of between 0.1 percent and 0.3 percent of gross world product?" the answer would, in my opinion, be overwhelmingly yes.
In your role as director of the U.N.'s Millennium Project, a lot of your work concerns Africa. Why have so many countries in Asia been able to develop while Africa has not?
Poorer countries have benefited from the diffusion of technologies developed elsewhere. Certain kinds of technology, like cell phones or the Internet, can work essentially anywhere. But when you think about health, agriculture, or construction, there is an ecologically specific challenge. In the case of Africa, conditions are tougher, and diffusion has been weaker. Take malaria. Malaria is an absolutely devastating disease for Africa. Africa's ecology is uniquely suited to malaria transmission. But it's a disease that Americans hardly care about. Our biggest research on malaria has come when American soldiers have been fighting in tropical countries, like the Pacific Islands in World War II or in Vietnam. When we're not in the middle of a tropical war, malaria concerns in this country disappear. So there's Africa, which has holoendemic malaria—it's everywhere—and it's an incredible burden on the society and on the economy, but almost no work gets done on it. This has been recognized for years but not particularly acted upon until the Gates Foundation came along and restarted or energized a lot of research for diseases of the poor. Agriculture is another area where Africa has it tougher.
You've noted that the green revolution passed Africa by. Why?
The green revolution in the 1960s was a package of technologies that included high-yield variety seeds combined with fertilizer and small-scale water management. That package was the critical step out of extreme poverty for Asia. But it did not apply in Africa. The first high-yield seed varieties were wheat, which is a temperate-zone crop, and paddy rice, which is an irrigation-based technology. Wheat and rice being improved was good for India and China, but it was largely irrelevant for the staple cassava or maize crops in Africa. Now, by the 1980s African high-yield seed varieties were becoming available. But at that point you had a technology that was too expensive for impoverished farmers to use, and the philosophy of the United States and the World Bank was, "If they can't buy it, it must not be useful to them." The vast majority of African farmers are still planting low-yield seeds without even the benefit of fertilizer, and the harvests that they're getting are a third or a fourth or a fifth of what they ought to be getting, and the result is mass hunger.
How are the Millennium Project and the U.N. helping?
We are operating a partnership with villages across Africa called Millennium Villages. We're testing easily deployed technologies: bed nets to combat malaria, high-yield seeds, fertilizer. We hypothesize that at a low cost one can have an enormous effect on the quality of life. We're in the second year of a five-year project, and the results are astounding. Each harvest that we've had, first in Kenya, then in Ethiopia, and recently in Malawi and in Rwanda, has tripled or quadrupled the amount of food produced. We believe the villages will earn enough income so that after five years they'll be able to take on the expense of these technologies. The idea is not only to show that you can grow more food but that you can make an economic transformation that's self-sustaining. We see increased food production as the entry point into the breakout from extreme poverty. This is, in essence, how India's escape from extreme poverty got started.
What else is the Millennium Project doing?
World leaders have agreed on goals for the project: to fight poverty, hunger, disease, and the deprivation of basic needs like safe drinking water and sanitation. Such goals are often adopted with the tacit understanding that they are good for a speech or a headline, but the view is, "Oh, don't take them seriously, they're just words." My assignment is to take them seriously and remind the world not only that we've agreed to do these things but that they are achievable and vitally important. I am trying to mobilize scientists, technologists, the corporate sector, and civil society all to say that practical things can be done that will make a difference in the fight against suffering and instability. Last year, all the European donor countries committed to spend 0.7 percent of their GNP in foreign aid. If they actually honor those commitments, that's a phenomenal breakthrough.