Q&A with climate expert Bill McKibben on climate change and hunger

May 15, 2017

Editor’s note: Today, The Hunger Reports kicks off our coverage of the 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, with a new video, blog series, and infographics. Blog posts offer glimpses into why hunger persists and what we can do about it.

Q. In one or two sentences, how would you explain climate change?

A. Climate change is simple math. The more coal and gas and oil we burn, the more CO2 we put in the atmosphere and the more the temperature goes up.

Q. How long have you been studying climate change?

A. Well, I wrote the first book about climate change back in 1989, so a long time. In 1989, back in the late 1980s, which is when we first started learning about climate change, we knew there was a serious problem coming. There was no doubt about that. But it remained theoretical and somewhat abstracted, and we couldn't see it yet. That's of course changed completely by now. Now we're no longer in the rapids above the waterfall. We're over the edge of the cascade and now see daily the effects of what was once a mere warning.

Q. So what’s changed since you wrote that first book?

A. Well, one of the things to realize is that change is now coming much faster than we thought it would. Scientists turned out to be very conservative in the things that they predicted. The things that they predicted would happen at the end of the century are now happening at the beginning. That means we can expect some really extreme results as the decades roll on. The hottest possible weather we can imagine now becomes the norm by the middle of this century.

Q. People in the United States don’t seem to be convinced that climate change will affect them. What do you say to that?

A. Let's just look at what's happened in 2017 so far. We had a remarkable run of record hot weather in February across most of the country. That did a couple of things. One, it brought everything to flower weeks earlier than it was supposed to. Then when normal weather resumed in March, we got back down below freezing temperatures and lost what looks like most of the peach crop and the blueberry crop in places like Georgia. Meanwhile, hot weather dried out the southern plains in very rapid fashion, putting them into drought conditions that fostered wildfires that spread across Kansas and Oklahoma in the first part of March. People who live in that region are now calling it the Katrina of the Southern Plains. A lot of people died. These are the largest wildfires in Kansas history.

Q. So what will climate change mean for farmers around the world?

A. Think of the problems [climate change] poses above all for farmers, who are the most important people on the planet, since, "What's for dinner?" is the most important question humans ever ask. If your grandfather could grow wheat or corn in a particular field, it's always been a good bet that your grandson or granddaughter would be able to grow wheat or corn in the same field. That's a sucker's bet now.

Q. Can you explain why people who want to end hunger should care about climate change?

A. If you worry about injustice, if you worry about loving one's neighbor, we've never figured out a better way to impoverish, sicken, and starve one's neighbor, than raising the temperature, than changing the very basic fundamentals of where everybody lives and makes their living. The one thing that people never figured out how to take away from people with colonialism and racism and imperialism etc., was the physical stability of the places they lived. They never figured out how to take away the monsoon or how to take away the sun that provided bountifully for growing food. That we've now figured out how to take away. We're making it too hot and too dry and too wet for people to live in the places where they've lived since the beginning of history. We’ve never figured out a better way to screw people than that.

Q. You know the current rhetoric surrounding refugees and immigrants in the United States. How will climate change impact immigration?

A. For those people who sit around the United States worrying about being overrun by immigrants, well, there's not any way to stop people who are desperately hungry from trying to reach places where they can feed their families. We're making it very, very hot and very, very dry in places like Mexico. That's a horrible thing to do to those countries. Its consequences for the rest of the world are obvious.

Climate refugees will be, sadly, a prominent feature of this century. They already are. People don't leave home lightly. People like where they were born and where they understand and know. But people leave when they have to. If war makes it too dangerous to live there, or if drought or flood makes it impossible to grow food there to feed your family, then people will move. When people move, then follows all the devils of instability. This is the reason that the Pentagon has begun warning about climate change as one of the chief destabilizing factors facing the planet.

Q. Can you give an example of where climate-driven immigration is already happening?

A. Look at a country like India along its border with Bangladesh. Bangladesh is exquisitely vulnerable to climate change. The average place in the country is only a few meters above the Bay of Bengal. Already people are being driven off their land as salt water intrudes onto farms. Well, the Indians know what's coming, and they've built a wall, just like the one that Donald Trump's talking about, between Bangladesh and India, because there's no vacant real estate in India for 20-30-40-50 million Bangladeshis to go flow into. These are the kind of crises that are entirely foreseeable.

Q. Bread for the World believes in, and is working to achieve the goal to end hunger by 2030 outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals. How much difficult will climate change make it to achieve that goal?

A. You know, the millennial development goals, which have now become the sustainable development goals, are the most important aspirations that humans have set out for ourselves on this planet. There's no way that we can meet them on a degrading planet. It's hard enough to get there, even if everything was held equal, because there's a lot of people living in poverty. But the way to think about it is that climate change, it's as if the poor countries of the world were walking on a treadmill and trying to get somewhere, and climate change, it's as if someone walked to the front of the treadmill and doubled its speed and put it up at a 7 degree angle. Now all-of-a-sudden people are going to have to struggle just to keep from getting spit out the back of the machine. That's what's happening in Syria, in Sudan, in the Somaliland. That's what's happening increasingly in parts of North America as it just gets too hot and too dry to grow the food we need.

Bill McKibben is a leading author, environmental activist, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT.  He is the founder of 350.org.

The hottest possible weather we can imagine now becomes the norm by the middle of this century.

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