Climate Change and Poverty in the Household of God
by Brian E. Konkol
Brian Konkol served in South Africa as ELCA Country Coordinator of the Young Adults in Global Mission program.
Since the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) came into force in 1995, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNCCC has met annually to assess progress in dealing with global climate change. From November 28 until December 9 in Durban, South Africa, the Conference of the Parties will meet again, for the 17th time, thus the title “COP17”. Among other things, COP17 will bring together various world leaders in order to adopt decisions and resolutions, publish reports, and attempt to establish legally binding legislation for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. While some are skeptical as to how much progress may be achieved due to power politics and global economic stagnation, there is a growing sense of optimism surrounding COP17 and enthusiasm is expected to increase as the gathering draws closer.
While one could reflect upon a wide range of topics surrounding climate change and the complexity of multi-national negotiations, I find it necessary to offer a few observations from the perspective of a North American Christian residing within the borders of South Africa. In specifics, as I prepare for my own involvement surrounding COP17 in Durban through the local faith-based community, the following observations come to mind: 1) Climate Change skepticism seems to be a USA-based phenomenon, 2) Climate Change and Poverty are intimately linked, and 3) The Christian Church has much to offer surrounding resistance and responses to climate change and poverty.
Climate Change skepticism seems to be a USA-based phenomenon
According to the Pew Research Centre, a 2009 survey found that only 57% of USA citizens believed in global warming, which was a twenty-point drop from a similar survey taken in 2006. In addition, the study found that only 36% of the 1,500 adults questioned believed that human activities – such as pollution from power plants, industry, and vehicles – are behind an increase in global temperatures, which is down from 47% in 2006. While there are many reasons given for a decline in environmental emphasis, the numbers reveal that USA citizens tend to be more skeptical of climate change when compared to the majority of people from other nations. As a result, it is not surprising that the USA government has a reputation around the world as the primary roadblock to global legislation that would require more legally binding sustainable environmental standards.
In contrast to the ongoing public and political debate in the USA surrounding the legitimacy and urgency of climate change, the global scientific body of knowledge appears to be overwhelmingly clear, as highlighted in The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding:
- …every major grouping of qualified scientists that has analyzed the issue [of climate change] comes to the same conclusion and has done so consistently over time and around the world… The broad conclusion they all come to is that we face a significant risk of major change that undermines society’s prosperity and stability, we are a substantial contributor to the risk, and to reduce the level of risk we should dramatically reduce emissions of the pollution that causes the problem.
- The consensus position on climate change is reflected in the rigorously peer-reviewed journals in which research is presented and issues are debated. One study by Naomi Oreskes, published in the journal Science, demonstrated that of the papers whose abstract contained the keywords global climate change between 1993 and 2003, none questioned the consensus position – not one. Oreskes’s subsequent book, Merchants of Doubt, revealed how many who once fronted the tobacco industry’s anti-science campaign to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer are also now prominent and vocal climate change skeptics, and they are often funded to create doubt that has no credible scientific basis.
With the above thoughts in mind, it is clear that – from the basis of consensus scientific knowledge from credible specialists around the world – climate change is real, serious, and is growing worse due to human activity. While a number of skeptics will persist, and frequent streams of propaganda – often funded by energy companies and political lobbyists – will continue, humanity cannot continue to live in denial, for failing to take action will have dramatic and far-reaching implications. In many ways, the science reveals that climate change is merely not about politics, religion, money, or morality, but it is about the survival of the planet and the existence of life as we know it. In other words, climate change is an issue that impacts each and every living being that God has created.
Climate Change and Poverty are intimately linked
While some argue that an increased emphasis upon environmentalism is a hindrance to economic growth, the scientific body of knowledge reports to the contrary, for climate change actually increases poverty, especially within the developing world. Among other things, extreme weather has an impact upon productivity and can raise the price of staple foods, such as grains, that are important to households throughout the world. In addition, studies have shown that global warming will likely increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves and drought in many areas. These various and significant realities will have a deep and dramatic impact upon developing nations, and because of the growing inter-connectedness of globalization, they will also have a impact upon Europe and the USA. All together, the choice between environmental sustainability and economic growth is no choice at all, for one cannot exist in the long term without the other.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), climate change is a global concern, for it increases poverty and halts sustainable development in the following ways:
- There has been considerable research surrounding climate change and agriculture. Among other things, climate change impacts rainfall, temperature, and water availability in vulnerable areas, thus it has a strong influence upon productivity, agricultural practices, and distribution of rural land. In addition, climate change could worsen the prevalence of hunger through effects on production and purchasing power, thus some have predicted the number of people to be impacted by malnutrition may rise to 600 million by 2080.
- Of the 3 billion growth in population projected worldwide by 2050, the majority will be born in countries already experiencing water shortages. As the climate of the earth warms, changes in rainfall, evaporation, snow, and runoff flows will be impacted.
- As a result of accelerated ice sheet disintegration, rising sea levels could result in 330 million people being permanently or temporarily displaced through flooding. In addition, warming seas can also fuel the increase of more intense tropical storms.
- One of the direct effects of climate change is an increase in temperature-related illnesses and deaths related to prolonged heat waves and humidity. In specifics, climate change can alter the geographic range of mosquito-born diseases, such as malaria, thus exposing new populations to the disease. As a changing climate affects the essential ingredients of maintaining good health (clean air and water, sufficient food and adequate shelter), the effects could be widespread and massive.
- The report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health points out that disadvantaged communities are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change because of their increased exposure and vulnerability to health threats. More specifically, over 90 percent of malaria and diarrheal deaths are experienced by children aged 5 years or younger, mostly in developing countries.
With all the above thoughts in mind, it is clear that the world cannot afford to engage the false debate of having to choose between environmental sustainability and economic growth, for the two go hand in hand within an interconnected system of globalization. In many ways, the current global economic downturn and debt crisis within Europe and the USA proves how a failure to promote sustainability will drive economies into further crisis, not only in the developing world, but also within those countries that have enjoyed generations of prosperity. And so, as increases in climate change lead to dramatic rises of inequality and poverty, those who are most responsible for climate change are called to take responsibility in order to offer sustainable livelihoods for people and places throughout the world. The issue of climate change – and the resulting consequences of economic crisis, inequality, and poverty – has reached a breaking-point, and a lack of significant and far-reaching action will lead the world further down a dangerous path.
The Christian Church has much to offer surrounding resistance and responses
In order to resist and respond to climate change and poverty, a wide variety of world church companions are seeking innovative and respectful methods to accompany one another in God’s mission of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment. As stated by the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makogoba, during his sermon on creation and greed: “God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem – part of the coming of the kingdom, partners in his working of redemption and salvation.” And so, while many would argue that COP17 should be left to government leaders and scientists, the call of Jesus to seek life in its fullness for all people in all places draws people of faith toward prophetic action, for the common identity as Children of God takes precedence over national boundaries and political agendas. In other words, as people of faith who believe in a God that created the heavens and the earth, we are called to be faithful stewards of creation in a way that brings life, rather than takes life away.
With such thoughts in mind, the late South African theologian and activist Steve de Gruchy promoted “An Olive Agenda” that is of great importance for churches and people of faith around the world seeking ways to mobilize, for he provided a significant contribution toward the pursuit of resistance and responses to climate change and poverty. For example, de Gruchy offered a theological metaphor – the olive – that transcends the duality between the “green” environmental agenda and “brown” poverty agenda “that has disabled development discourse for the past twenty years”. As a result of de Gruchy’s work, instead of falling into the false debate between “green” environmental sustainability and “brown” poverty reduction, an Olive Agenda combines green and brown into olive, and thus provides a “remarkably rich metaphor” that “holds together that which religious and political discourse rends apart: earth, land, climate, labor, time, family, food, nutrition, health, hunger, poverty, power and violence”. Among other things, de Gruchy’s Olive Agenda is of exceptional value as churches and people of faith around the world seek to understand the mission of God within the context of climate change and its impact upon inequality and poverty.
According to de Gruchy, an Olive Agenda finds its theological foundation in the concept of “oikos”, translated as “the household of God”. As ecology (oikos-logos) concerns the wisdom of how a home functions, economy (oikos-nomos) is about the rules that should govern the home, and because there is only one “home” for humankind (the earth), economy and ecology are thus “both intimately concerned about the earth, about the way human beings live upon the earth, relate to the earth, make use of the earth’s bounty, and respect the integrity of the earth”. Therefore, the social implications of these theological affirmations are that while both brown and green agendas are “fundamentally right, taken in isolation each is tragically wrong – and thus we must integrate economy as oikos-nomos, and ecology as oikos-logos in search of sustainable life on earth, the oikos that is our only home.” As stated previously, this Olive Agenda has the potential to dramatically transform the ways that world church companionships and people of faith respond to economic and ecological exploitation and other factors that prevent fullness of life around the world.
One of the common metaphors of social development is “give someone fish and they eat for a day, but teach someone to fish and they eat for a lifetime”. In the 21st century this statement is not fully accurate, for one has to consider who has “access to the pond”, and of course, we need to recognize that climate change is causing “the pond” the shrink. When the pond, both literally and figuratively, is shrinking, it creates a global situation in which competition and warfare surrounding limited resources takes priority over cooperation, and survival of the fittest takes precedence over mutuality with humanity and creation. With such realities in mind, and in light of the Olive Agenda as first articulated by Steve de Gruchy, we recognize that environmental sustainability is not merely an option for the future, but it is the only option if a future is what we truly seek.
While climate change and poverty are global concerns, one recognizes that certain nations have additional responsibility for the challenges, and as a result, must take bold leadership in promoting solutions. For example, according to the WorldWatch Institute, the wealthiest 500 million people in the world (roughly 7% of the global population) are currently responsible for 50% of carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion are responsible for just 6%. In addition, from 1900-2004 the whole of Africa generated just 2.5% of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions while the USA accounted for 29.5%. Although these gaps have narrowed slightly in recent years, historical emissions are relevant because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere to exert a greenhouse effect for many decades, and thus the negative impact of emissions upon development persists long after the pollution is first created. And so, the scientific body of knowledge is clear in stating that those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change are those that carry the least historical responsibility for its existence. As a result, while the entire world must rally around answers for climate change, the primary responsibility to promote such resolutions and reverse environmental injustice falls most upon the wealthiest global citizens, for anything less would be unjust, short-sighted, selfish, and irresponsible.
With all the above in mind, the time has come to recognize that God’s mission is about the promotion of sustainable livelihoods, not merely for life after death, but also for life after birth. As a result, the time for silence on matters such as climate change and poverty is finished, for as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transformation was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people”. As a result of the crippling ecological and economic impact of climate change, the time has come for Christian Churches around the world – especially those within the USA – to seek responsible and respectful systems that reverse injustices and offer life for all that God has created. The time has come for churches to call upon wealthier countries to repay their climate debt by undertaking severe cuts in emissions. In addition, it is time for people of faith to model environmental values and advocate for the increased financial support of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. In other words, it is time for churches to insist that all countries involved in COP17 support legally binding legislation that values the entirety and integrity of God’s creation.
The scientific evidence surrounding climate change is clear, and the implications for both the environment and humankind are many, thus the response to such global challenges needs to be persistent, organized, and significant. As Jesus calls upon humankind to “love they neighbor”, and as the Old Testament prophets remind us to strive for justice, we recognize that within a deeply connected world “neighbor” implies all that God has created, and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And so, an implication of Jesus’ words and actions is to share and receive the Good News not only on Sunday mornings, but through daily acts of long-term advocacy that promotes sustainable livelihoods. With COP17 in South Africa on the horizon, the time has come to mobilize around an Olive Agenda, as silence or neutrality on such matters will allow climate change and poverty to continue and grow worse. The time has come when humanity can no longer afford to fight over the limited resources remaining in our shrinking pond, and the moment is upon us to pass legally binding legislation that values the gifts of creation that God has entrusted us to manage. The time is now. God has allowed humankind to serve as stewards of creation, and the time has come to embrace this sacred responsibility, value the resources that God has so graciously offered, and ensure that all of God’s creation – in this generation and the next – receives the fullness of life that God has promised.