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A Plea for Empathy, Meaningful Action During Climate Crisis

Columns 2023-02-09, 12:33am

Danielle Nierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg

Tragedy struck Turkey and Syria this week, as a massive earthquake struck the region. More than 11,000 people have died, and countless others displaced.

This devastation hits especially hard since many in Turkey and Syria are already vulnerable — Turkey is home to the world’s largest refugee population, and after more than a decade of civil war, about a quarter of Syria’s population relies on food aid from the World Food Programme.

International aid organizations are rushing to provide much-needed medical care and food relief to those affected. As of today, the World Food Programme had delivered food to nearly 70,000 people, with plans to reach half a million people in the region. You can donate HERE.

As the climate crisis worsens, the impact of natural disasters is becoming greater and greater, and it’s creating a refugee crisis of its own. As changing weather patterns cause resources to become more scarce, coastlines to erode, and hurricanes to become more intense, people are being forced to move. In 2022 in just the United States alone, a Census Bureau survey found 3 million people were displaced due to natural disasters—not all permanently, but it’s still a concerning reminder of how vulnerable we are to a deteriorating climate.

And we’re not doing enough.

Let's take a look at the Colorado River. It’s a vital source of water for the entire American Southwest, including farms in California that provide food for millions of people across the country and world. And it’s drying up.

This is not new. For several decades, we’ve been seeing shrinking water resources in that region of the country for several decades due to both overuse and drought caused in part by climate change. But we haven’t made significant enough changes to preserve our water resources, and now we’re at a crisis point.

This jeopardizes not only the rising population of the Southwest but also its food and agriculture systems. Farms in California alone produce 80% of the world’s almonds, nearly all the country’s broccoli, a fifth of all U.S. milk, and billions of dollars in vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes. Each of these is also particularly water- and resource-intensive to produce.

It’s time to ask: How long will our current agricultural system be sustainable? Are the crops we’re growing the right ones?

We need to start growing crops suited to a changing climate.

We need to re-center our diets around local, sustainable, seasonal crops that grow close to where we live.

We need to be willing to radically re-imagine our food systems.

It’s easy to imagine these crises as taking place at some point in the future, long after we’re gone. It’s easy to forget that the climate crisis is not looming. The climate crisis is here. And it’s having real costs—costs to our health, livelihoods, food security, biodiversity, and more. If we don’t act, we know exactly who’ll end up paying the price: Our children.

I’m optimistic, and I truly don’t think we’re staring down a future that’s dystopian or entirely awful. At the end of the day, people are resilient, and I have faith in human ingenuity. But I also know it’s not enough to simply hope it’ll all work out in the end—we need to put in work.

Our business leaders and politicians, too, need to step up. As President Joe Biden said in his annual State of the Union speech last night:

"Let’s face reality," he told the country. "The climate crisis doesn’t care if your state is red or blue. It is an existential threat. We have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it. I’m proud of how America is at last stepping up to the challenge."

I want to commend the bipartisan leaders in Congress who have come together to form the Colorado River Caucus, an across-the-aisle group dedicated to using the power of the federal government to help preserve water resources in the U.S. Southwest.

As the climate crisis challenges our crops and communities, we need collective action, empathy, genuine care for our fellow human beings. Supporting climate refugees. Being willing to adjust our diets for the good of the planet. Enacting policies that uphold our efforts to nourish the world in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources.

This week on the "Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg" podcast, you’ll get to hear my conversation with the Rev. Eugene Cho, the president of Bread for the World. Many religious traditions talk about loving your neighbor—simply taking care of one another—and Eugene passionately ties these values to the necessity of food assistance and nourishment.

Whether you adhere to a faith tradition or are, like me, not particularly religious, we would all do well to understand the values Rev. Cho and other food advocates are instilling. Otherwise—and I know this sounds dramatic, but it’s 100% true—we won’t have water, we won’t have food, and we won’t have the future we want to pass down to the next generation.

Tell me about the ways you’re making sure your lifestyle aligns with your values. Email me at to talk about contacting legislators, faith leaders, farmers, and more to express your support for an equitable and sustainable approach to natural resources.

(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank and can be reached at