Climate Change and the 21st Century Famine

… I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat …

In recent months, a group in my church has been seriously asking the question: What if Jesus really meant the things he said?

We’re not particularly new at this. Christians in all ages have struggled with the hard sayings of Jesus, especially when we measure our conduct against his standards. But one teaching comes back to me again and again like a persistent nightmare: “The King will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat …’” Matthew 25:41-42.

If you’re like me, this warning of divine justice gnaws at you most when you’ve looked away from a homeless person on the sidewalk, or ignored one of those TV appeals from a children’s aid agency. But let’s assume that Jesus was not just trying to make us feel guilty; maybe he was revealing to us the heart of God when it comes to cosmic justice. Here were his priorities: thirsty people receive clean water; strangers and immigrants are welcomed; those exposed to the elements are wrapped in warm clothes; medical care is provided to the sick; and prisoners are looked after.

But before he mentioned any of those priorities, Jesus first addressed food insecurity. “I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat.” If Jesus meant anything at all by the order of his judgments, we must see feeding the hungry a matter of paramount importance to our faith.

And if that’s even remotely true, then Christians should pay close attention to a new report from the UN’s climate agency, warning of severe global hunger in the coming decades. Early last month a draft report, drawn up by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was leaked to the public. It’s the second of three reports, following the first that came out this September. The leaked IPCC draft report outlines the threats climate change poses to the global food supply, predicting a decrease of up to 2% each decade in yields of staple crops like corn, wheat, and rice. That projected decline is all the more alarming when we consider the parallel 14% increase per decade in the demand for food that scientists are expecting. And it puts to rest hopes that once flickered in the minds of some researchers and many “climate skeptics” that hotter weather and higher carbon levels might actually increase photosynthesis and food production.

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland

You got the numbers, right? Manmade climate change could depress global yields of staple foods by 2% per decade, at the same time that demand for food grows by 14% per decade. If you do the arithmetic, you’ll find that in four decades, there would be half as much food supplied as food demanded, on average, all over the whole world, absent other major changes in agriculture.

Now at first blush, that might seem like every person in the world would have about half as much food by 2050, which would be terrible. But, depending on your perspective, it’s probably much worse than that. That’s because food security varies greatly by country. The United States is the most food secure, and we spend only 13.9% of our incomes to feed ourselves. Even here, our farms are suffering climate stresses, as last year’s summer droughts drove corn yields 27% below forecasts, and shrunk our nation’s cattle herd to the lowest level since 1952.

But that’s almost nothing compared to threats afflicting many developing countries. For example, the 170 million people of Nigeria already suffer hunger about three times more severely than we Americans, and spend almost 65% of their incomes buying food. For Nigerians, the future of hunger is now, and they can hardly bear further increases in food costs or shortages due to extreme weather events. Traveling in Kenya earlier this year, we personally heard scores of stories of failed crops, unpredictable rains, shortened growing seasons and falling yields not seen in living memory. These aren’t just projections; hunger is growing right now.

And while the worst that we fear from climate-driven hunger may spare Americans for several decades, many countries can be expected to suffer famine in the very near future.

Of course, there will be changes in the global food system, some good and some bad. The tragic waste associated with ethanol fuel standards will eventually come to an end, returning roughly one-third of U.S. corn acreage to food production. That’s good. But rising food costs will also drive farmers everywhere to cut down woodlands for more farm acreage, and this will release even more carbon into the atmosphere, further accelerating the advance of climate change and related hunger. That’s bad.

So back to my nightmare. We can agree that relieving hunger is at or near the top of Jesus’ list when it comes to justice and mercy. But manmade climate change appears to be aggravating hunger now, and threatening widespread famine within decades.

So suppose we ask: “When, Lord, did we see you hungry and give you nothing to eat?”

What if He answers: “I was hungry, as were my Nigerian brothers and sisters. Your own experts gave you repeated warnings of my impending famine. But you did nothing to stop the rampant abuse that destroyed my harvests. Maybe you doubted the science. Maybe you worried that your job would be lost. Maybe you fretted over the cost of gasoline. Maybe you figured that technology might patch things up. Maybe you thought it was all politics. And maybe you were finally persuaded, but never asked what you could do.

“And I grew hungrier and hungrier. You didn’t just give me nothing to eat; you made my hunger so much worse.”

Of course, none of us knows the unsearchable mind of God, and it’s presumptuous for anyone to venture to quote Him, as though we knew his inscrutable thoughts. But what if Jesus really meant it when he said: “Depart from me… for I was hungry…”?

For the Christian, it’s a nightmare, don’t you think?

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