Any one of the problems that economist Jeffrey Sachs takes on would be daunting by itself: finding sustainable energy sources to avoid environmental...

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Any one of the problems that economist Jeffrey Sachs takes on would be daunting by itself: finding sustainable energy sources to avoid environmental destruction; stabilizing world population; ending extreme poverty and creating a new system for global cooperation.

Yet Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, tackles all four in his new book, called “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.”

He argues that finding solutions to these interconnected problems is not only possible, it’s inexpensive, and would take just 2 to 3 percent of the world’s annual income. He talked about a few of his ideas during a visit to Seattle. Below is an edited transcript.

Q: How dangerous a point has the world reached?

A: We’re unprepared for the changes that are taking place in the world; the soaring energy prices and food prices are an example of this. We have economic systems and strategies inconsistent with how fast the global economy is changing, how interconnected food and energy systems are. We’re way behind the curve in terms of the sustainable development challenge. The chances for crises are very high because we haven’t been thinking ahead.

The odd thing is the Bush administration says we need to wean ourselves off oil dependence, but they’ve done absolutely nothing to get the technologies in place. The amount we’re spending, $200 billion a year on the Iraq war, dwarfs the $3 billion a year we’re spending on alternative energy. It’s not a question of money but how we’re allocating it.

Q: Is the appetite for fixing global problems diminished when people in the U.S. see our own systems failing?

A: I think when you think about energy and food prices soaring, those are things that can’t be fixed by ourselves. Food prices reflect a worldwide imbalance of supply and demand. We’re going to have to do this globally.

Q: The more successful developing countries such as China, India and Brazil will have a greater impact on climate change than we will. Even if the U.S. changes its policies as you suggest, these countries play a deciding role.

A: It’s like a chicken-and-egg problem. The Chinese say they’re waiting for us. On the first day of the next administration, I think the president ought to send an envoy around the world to say we’re back at the negotiating table on climate change. There’s no solution for any of us unless we’re solving it all together.

I think the key is, start with the goals we’ve already agreed to. We’re already signatories to a lot of international agreements, like the Millennium Development Goals, like the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. They’re unknown to American people but very much in the minds of other people around the world. We’ll find leverage if we say, “We will work together with you on the goals the world has agreed on.” There’s a lot of hunger in the world to cooperate.

Q: In bringing about global cooperation, is the U.S. still in a position to lead?

A: We haven’t even tried. They see us as doing the preponderance of harm so far. They’re saying they will get started when we get started. China has 22 percent of the world’s population and only 6 percent of its safe water supply. They are enormously vulnerable to environmental stresses; therefore they take this problem very seriously. They don’t know what to do about it, but there’s no lack of interest.

The prime minister of India wants help to develop carbon capture sequestration. I’ve been talking with China on water issues. My feeling is there’s absolute receptivity to serious approaches.

Q: What will motivate the public to push leaders into action?

A: $110-a-barrel oil, food prices at an all-time high and a trillion dollars and 4,000 lives down the drain in Iraq.

American people want a different course. More than 80 percent say the country is on the wrong course. We need to turn the demand for change into a broad strategy of innovation, investing in our peace, security and economic future by focusing on sustainable development.

There are huge reasons why we need to make that investment. We will hit barriers of energy and food and so forth if we don’t invest. Whoever invests most effectively and becomes the technological leader will have the advantage in the global marketplace. That’s what GE is doing as a company and we should be doing as a country. The big markets ahead are in the developing countries. We ought to be selling automobiles to China, but our automobiles can’t meet their standards right now. China’s automobile-efficiency standards are more demanding than the U.S.

Q: In your talk, you urge the next president to create a Cabinet-level Department of Sustainable Development. Would that replace the U.S. Agency for International Development?

A: It would eliminate USAID and subsume it. USAID is deeply flawed for many reasons. It’s been a neglected agency, gutted of a lot of expertise. Its mandate is defined far too narrowly, an economic development unit at best, with some health care. It’s been bypassed on issues of climate, energy, water, and we need a Cabinet-level position that pulls together these interconnected challenges.

Q: How can institutions like the Gates Foundation, other nongovernmental organizations and the private sector work with government to make those efforts more effective?

A: What the Gates Foundation is doing, needs to do and uniquely can do is to innovate. It can create innovation in new kinds of medicines and vaccines, innovate in the way that public health is delivered and poverty alleviation. Even though it spends billions of dollars per year, solving problems requires hundreds of billions per year. It can only be a piece of the puzzle. It can identify directions for change and technological solutions and work with the U.S. government, which needs to provide scaling up of funding.

Q: How do you stay so optimistic?

A: The more you learn about [the problems], the more you see practical solutions. Knowing people are reasonable, the more you realize it’s possible to find common ground. My optimism is based on understanding of the technological know-how we have and how much goodwill we could tap into if we chose to take that approach.