If You Had to Choose: Solve the Climate Crisis, Food Crisis or Financial Crisis?

the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." -- Dr. Carl Sagan (1934-1996), cosmologist{1}

In a recent New York Times article, environmental blogger and reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal wonders, "Where did global warming go?"

She points out that amid the economic crisis, the climate crisis has receded into the background. President Obama neglected to mention climate in his last State of the Union address. His administration is challenging the EU's plan to charge US airlines for carbon emissions when they land on European soil.

On the issue of global warming, Rosenthal says, "America has turned agnostic on the issue."{2} 


Perhaps the agnosticism is fueled by a bit of self-delusion. A new study by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of California, San Diego, has found that self-delusion is a successful survival strategy.

Published last month in the journal Nature, the study found that "the fact that overconfident populations are evolutionarily stable in a wide range of environments may help to explain why overconfidence remains prevalent today, even if it contributes to hubris, market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars."{3}

But there is one disaster that would be much more destabilizing that any of those: a rise in the Earth's surface temperature greater than 2 degress Celsius. What is definitely rising is self-delusion, particularly in the United States, and it is emerging as a primary contributing factor to the nation's lackadaisical approach to the climate change crisis; hubristic comparisons between the American and Roman empires continue apace.

The rest of world gets global warming. Americans, not so much. The 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the majority of consumers in China (91 percent), India (73 percent) and South Korea (71 percent) are willing to pay higher prices to address climate change. But a mere 38 percent of Americans would do the same.

"In this sentiment, people in the US are out of step with the world," according to the Pew survey. "In most of the countries surveyed people are more likely than Americans to be willing to pay for efforts to slow global warming."{4} 


A 2010 report by the National Research Council estimates that each single degree rise in Celsius would result in up to 10 percent less rainfall during the Mediterranean, southwest North America and southern Africa dry seasons; a similar rainfall increase in Alaska and other high latitudes in the northern hemisphere; up to 10 percent less streamflow in river basins like the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, up to 15 percent reduced yield of US and African corn and Indian wheat; up to 25 percent less Arctic sea ice; and up to 400 percent more area burned by wildfires in the western US.{5}

And that's just one degree. Beyond that, the nightmare expands into an environment that would not seem out of place in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. However, the end credits of this particular disaster flick will not feature Bruce Willis or Ben Affleck, but rather—in addition to President Obama—the likes of Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (Republican presidential candidates who, during the September 7th presidential debate, revealed their distrust in the science behind anthropogenic global warming.)

Only Jon Huntsman, Jr. stood on the side of science at the debate, saying, "When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science."{6} 


These crises are interconnected. And while the primary culprits reside in the rich world, it is the poor world that have and will continue to bear the brunt of the effects.

"Food, fuel and financial crises have tipped the equilibrium of global development toward the decline of human well-being among its poorest and most vulnerable," according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutrition.

"These crises combine with the growing threat and incidence of climate change-related disruptions to both food systems and livelihoods to synergistically interact with long-term inequities in food and health. Consequently, already-vulnerable populations worldwide find themselves fast-tracked along the downward spiral of malnutrition and poverty."{7}

"The challenges that we face are interrelated," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, "So, if we are smart about it, if we spot and utilize the interconnections among these problems, solutions to each problem can be solutions to all."{8}

One financial-based solution, offered by the UN, is to invest in the REDD+ forest conservation program, which needs the private sector to join world governments to pony up USD 17-40 billion per year to support efforts to halve carbon emissions from deforestation by 2030.{9}

Another finance-based solution is a carbon tax, which in Australia is set to raise the income tax threshold so that some 1 million Australians will no longer have to pay income tax. Perhaps this scheme is something that anti-income tax Bachmann can get behind.


Due to the effects of climate change and human encroachment, we are experiencing what scientists have dubbed the "Sixth Extinction." One-third of the 6,000 species of frogs face extinction. So too, one-third of the planet's coral reefs.

Almost 50 percent of forests and temperate grasslands are gone. Fisheries around the globe are on the edge of collapse. Tigers, rhinos, sharks and polar bears are rapidly disappearing.

The planet will survive these changes, which are relatively small compared to the changes that it has undergone during its 4.5-billion-year history. But the staggering numbers that tell the tale of today's global environmental degradation should keep other numbers like the Dow Jones and Consumer Confidence indices in some kind of perspective.

However, in America, they don't. Perhaps there should be a "Perspective Index," because the more we lack perspective, the worse things get. Jerry Bruckheimer's end-of-the-world movie "Armageddon" had a budget of USD 140 million and grossed over USD 500 million, more than the amount of emergency aid that the United States has provided to help combat the famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011.{11}.

Are we actually more concerned about a fictional asteroid colliding with Earth than the drought in Africa, which the Telegraph UK characterized as "a vision of hell"?{12}

Ultimately, we shouldn't have to choose between crises. Indeed, the belief that these issues are separate may lead to not solving any of them. Maddeningly, for America, being "smart about it" means first ending the self-delusion that, as former president Bill Clinton said in response to GOP climate skepticism, "makes us...look like a joke."{13}

Sadly, it's not a laughing matter.


1. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997, p. 12. 
2. Elisabeth Rosenthal. "Where Did Global Warming Go?" The New York Times. October 15, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/sunday-review/whatever-happened-to-glo.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
3. Dominic D. P. Johnson and James H. Fowler. The evolution of overconfidence. Nature. 477: 317-320. September 15, 2011. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v477/n7364/full/nature10384.html. Accessed October 24, 2011.
4. Pew Research. "Obama More Popular Abroad Than At Home, Global Image of U.S. Continues to Benefit." Global Attitudes Project. June 17, 2010. http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/06/17/obama-more-popular-abroad-than-at-ho.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
5. National Academy of Sciences. Warming World: Impacts by Degree. 2011. http://dels.nas.edu/resources/static-assets/materials-based-on-reports/b.... Accessed October 24, 2011. 
6. The Republican Debate at the Reagan Library. Transcript. September 7, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/us/politics/08republican-debate-text.html. Accessed October 24, 2011.
7. Martin W. Bloem et. al. "Castel Gandolfo Workshop: An Introduction to the Impact of Climate Change, the Economic Crisis, and the Increase in the Food Prices on Malnutrition." Journal of Nutrition. November 18, 2009. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/140/1/132S.full.pdf+html. Accessed October 24, 2011.
8. International Business Times. "Sustainability Equals Prosperity." May 14, 2009. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/20090514/sustainability-equals-prosperit.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
9. United Nations Environment Programme. "REDDy SET GROW." Part 2: Private sector suggestions for international climate change negotiators. September 2011. http://www.unepfi.org/fileadmin/documents/reddysetgrowII.pdf. Accessed October 24, 2011.
10. Brian Merchant. "New Carbon Tax Means 1 Million Australians Won't Have to Pay Income Taxes." October 13, 2011. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/10/new_carbon_tax_means_1_million_a.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
11. Joe Lauria. "Somalia Famine Threatens to Spread." July 21, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405311190355490457645772129783024.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
12. Ben Brown. "Horn of Africa drought: A vision of hell at the Dabaab refugee camp." July 9, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/862.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
13. Brown Johnson. "VIDEO: Bill Clinton on American Climate Denial: 'We Look Like a Joke.'" September 20, 2011. http://thinkprogress.org/green/2011/09/20/323687/bill-clinton-on-america.... Accessed October 24, 2011.
image: Earth as seen from Apollo 17, December 7, 1972 (NASA. Wikimedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg)