Climate Change Kills: An Interview with Nicholas Kristof

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently traveled to Madagascar to cover southern Africa’s drought and food crisis. In a powerful video and article, Kristof explains the link between climate change and starvation, while highlighting the important work being done by organizations like Catholic Relief Services. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his article and this issue:

Climate change has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and other environmental issues like pollution kill millions of people each year, but many seem to only think about polar bears or people hugging trees when they think about these issues. Your powerful video and article link starvation and climate change, showing the impact on real, vulnerable people. Do you think this type of storytelling can wake people up and shift some of these narratives and perceptions?

I hope so—that’s why I go to places like Madagascar, and bring video journalists. But it really is difficult to get people to engage in these issues far away, and I think images and real people’s stories are the best strategy to build that engagement.

What would you say to those who are skeptical that a direct link can made between climate change and dire humanitarian situations like the one you covered this week?

It’s true that it’s difficult to link any one event to climate change. Mostly we know that climate change causes more severe weather, including droughts, and makes extreme weather more likely, but it can be difficult to know that any one episode is the result of carbon emissions. In this case, we have meteorologists in a professional journal that I linked to who conclude that this drought is likely linked to climate change. But in general I’d emphasize that climate change increases risks of disasters, and we should try to reduce such risks.

Conservative parties in Europe and elsewhere accept the scientific consensus on climate change and favor action to combat it, while the Republican Party is a global outlier in terms of the strength of denialism among its elected officials. Part of the explanation may be that many conservative parties in Europe have been influenced by Catholic social teaching and the notions of responsibility toward creation that are integral to Christian Democracy, while American conservatism lacks that influence and tradition, having stronger philosophical roots in Social Darwinism, for instance. Given the interests of those who oppose action on climate change, along with these strong libertarian and extreme individualist currents in American conservatism, is there any reason to believe that Republicans might become more responsible like conservative parties in many other countries?

Attitudes can change, as we’ve seen with same-sex marriage, and I think the same will happen with climate change. As the evidence accumulates, as beach homes watch out to sea and catastrophes are reported abroad, I think political pressure will mount on the denialists.

As a pro-life progressive (who identifies as whole life), I consider food security and environmental issues to be profoundly important pro-life issues, as they involve injustices that kill millions of people of all ages each year. But many other people in the pro-life movement prefer to focus exclusively on unborn children. Do you think that the impact of climate change and malnutrition on children in utero, something you discuss in the article, can serve as a bridge to the pro-life movement, perhaps finding new ways to reach people who identify as pro-life and helping to build broader coalitions to tackle issues like poverty, food insecurity, and environmental degradation?

That’s an excellent idea, although it’s one that secular liberals are wary of, for fear of advancing a traditional pro-life agenda. But the evidence is overwhelming, from the Dutch Hunger and other episodes, that prenatal conditions have lifelong effects. My own view is that we should avoid climate disasters largely because of the effects on the living, but the impact on the unborn is real and will affect future generations.

You talked a little bit about the work you saw Catholic Relief Services doing. Could you describe the impact of some of their programs? Should Catholics be proud of the work this organization is doing in Madagascar?

CRS does excellent work in Madagascar, alleviating famine and also trying to help people adjust to a new climate—such as training farmers to try fishing. I’ve also seen CRS in other parts of the world and have always been impressed with its work. It has been a pioneer, for example, in promoting microsavings programs for women. So Catholics should definitely be proud of the work of CRS and of its sister organization, Caritas.