The most frail link between accelerating climate change and major catastrophe is not forest fires or more vehement hurricanes but a diminished food supply. If the world’s food system fails to produce enough food, hundreds of millions of people, mostly in Asia and Africa, will be condemned to hunger. For millions of children, malnutrition will result in stunting, brain damage, disease, and premature death. Food shortages will set off riots and cause unstable states to collapse, giving demogogues the chance to seize power. Migration will increase from poor countries to more affluent ones, triggering resentment among settled residents and perhaps unleashing more waves of terrorism.
The changes needed to avert climate catastrophe must be made both in the external domain of public policy and in the internal domain of consciousness. Changes in policy to mitigate climate change are imperative, particularly in the two critical areas of energy production and agriculture. We must make a rapid transition from carbon-based energy systems to renewable sources of energy. Population growth must also be controlled, since an expanding population exacerbates the problem of food scarcity. But changes in agriculture are needed as well. Despite its productive power, modern industrial agriculture has been one of the major drivers of environmental damage. In a recent report, Olivier De Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, advocates a conversion from the industrial agricultural model to “agroecology,” a range of techniques that align agricultural production with natural processes, maximizing resource efficiency while reducing dependence on external inputs.
As the climate warms, such periodic phenomena as long droughts, blistering heat waves, and torrential floods become more frequent, reducing harvests and pushing up food prices. In the years ahead, violent fluctuations in the weather are expected to become “the new normal,” further lowering yields and increasing world hunger. But gradual climate change, the slow warming of the planet, may be even more insidious, the more so because it occurs beneath the threshold of perception. On current projections, virtually all of Africa, Latin America, and southern Asia will witness reductions in fecundity. Large swaths of the US grain belt and the California fruit-and-vegetable belt will become less fertile, increasing hunger at home.
The crisis of climate disruption not only poses an imminent danger but also offers an opportunity—a call for us to reappraise the template of values that guide policy decisions and shape our major institutions. Though we veer ever closer to calamity, collapse is not inevitable. We can still pull back from the brink—if we act promptly and decisively. The climate crisis represents a juncture where the inner and the outer meet, where transformations in consciousness and a radical revisioning of public policy converge on a common center. Using the categories of classical Buddhism, we might describe the inner change needed as an endeavor to restrain the influence on human behavior of the three “root defilements”—greed, hatred, and delusion.
However, while the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion may arise from within our minds, they do not stop there but spread beyond and assume concrete embodiments with political, economic, and ideological ramifications. Any effective remedy to our climate crisis must therefore seek to rectify the malignancies in our economic and political systems and the toxic ideologies that reinforce them. To effectively mitigate the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion requires a global ethic that valorizes generosity, human empathy, and social justice. These values should serve not only as guides to individual conduct but as the scaffolding for a new paradigm that can reshape policies and institutions. The new paradigm must affirm the intrinsic value of the person and the primacy of human solidarity. It must elevate mutual understanding and compassion over ruthless competition. The kind of compassion we need is not just personal kindness but a conscientious compassion wedded to a sense of global responsibility. Such compassion, bold and fearless, must inspire a willingness to act, even to take the radical political action needed to create a world that provides for everyone.
The threat of climate chaos has emerged as the overarching issue of our time. The risk that climate disruption poses to the world’s food system requires us to make fundamental changes in agricultural technologies and modes of energy production. But we must also make changes in consciousness, collective as well as individual. The question we face is whether we will make the necessary changes in time, or like the moths circling the lamps, fly straight into our own conflagration. To avoid that fate we need above all an ethic that empowers us to take responsibility for the flourishing of humanity and the planet as a whole. The world’s food system—our food system—is at stake, and that is an asset we cannot lose. In seeking to preserve a viable climate, our own best interests and the welfare of the world coincide.