Recipe for Disaster

For many Christians—who have cared for “the least of these” by supporting Christian relief and development organizations in their efforts to fight hunger, disease, natural disasters, and poverty—it is disconcerting to discover that these efforts may be insidiously reversed by the climate-changing pollution coming out of our vehicles, factories, and power plants. Most of us have grown up thinking of pollution as a local or perhaps regional problem, not a global one. We haven’t seen a connection between emissions coming out of cars in Kansas City and, for example, hunger in Africa.

But climate change is a natural disaster intensifier. It makes floods fiercer, hurricanes harsher, and droughts dryer. The world certainly doesn’t need more natural-disaster victims such as the father who, during the 2005 Niger famine, was found with his family hundreds of miles from the nearest feeding station: “I’m wandering like a madman. I’m afraid we’ll all starve.”

According to recent scientific studies, here are some of the possible consequences of global warming in the forthcoming decades:

  • 40 million to 170 million people could be put at increased risk of hunger and malnutrition.
  • 1 billion to 2 billion people already in a water-stressed situation could see further reduction in water availability.
  • 100 million people could be impacted by coastal flooding, and millions more by inland flooding.
  • 200 million could become more vulnerable to malaria.
  • Billions of people could be put at increased risk of dengue fever.
  • The number of children vulnerable to diarrheal diseases—the number two killer of young children in poor countries—could increase significantly.
  • 200 million people may become “climate refugees” by 2050.
  • Nearly 3 billion could be at increased risk for violent conflicts.

Clearly, contributing to climate change is the opposite of caring for “the least of these.”

Some might think, “But this is a long-term problem whose major consequences are a long way off.” There are two reasons why we must begin to act now.

First, time is already starting to run out to change the way the economies of the world are powered. Catastrophic consequences even worse than those described above could occur in the second half of this century if emissions do not start declining by 2015 to 2020. Waiting to get serious means much higher costs.

Second, climate change has already started to have an impact, and significant consequences for the poor will happen within a decade. For example, in Africa 75 million to 250 million people will face water scarcity by 2020, and crop yields could be cut in half in some areas.

Overcoming global warming requires that we deal now with both the causes and the consequences. We have to adapt—and help the poor adapt—to the impacts already in the pipeline, while we simultaneously reduce or mitigate the pollution causing the problem so that we avoid even worse consequences.

The good news is that, for an investment of about 1 to 2 percent of global gross domestic product, we can set the world on the path to overcoming the causes of global warming. For comparison’s sake, in 2005 the world spent 3.3 percent of global GDP on insurance (not including life insurance). We must also overcome the effects of global warming: Poor countries will need a projected $28 billion to $86 billion a year to adapt. If we assume the lower figure, the U.S. contribution should be about $7 billion a year. For “the least of these,” it’s the least we can do.

Jim Ball is president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network (

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