Climate Change | April 1, 2015

Creating a climate for justice

Oxfam International CC

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:17-18).

For centuries, the Church of the Brethren faithful have taken biblical calls like these to heart. When confronted with hunger, poverty, and injustice, we have never been content simply to sit on the sidelines and wring our hands. Instead, agreeing with James that ‘faith without works is dead’ (2:26), we jump up and grab a shovel or a hammer or a heifer, and we get our hands dirty. Or we scrub our hands, grab a paring knife and a serving spoon, and we open a soup kitchen.

As powerful and important as such concrete actions are for meeting pressing needs, Brethren also recognize that they usually are not enough in and of themselves. The 2000 Annual Conference Statement on Caring for the Poor acknowledged this in recommending “that congregations use their experience in ministry with the poor to inform themselves of the legislative and political issues having impact on the poor and speak to those issues with their legislators at local, state, and national levels. The biblical witness and our own experiences as a community of faith suggest that there is a corporate or societal responsibility to deal with the problems of the poor, [. . . which] extends beyond personal, hands-on responses and includes advocacy on behalf of the poor.”

In this spirit of seeking to “inform [our]selves of legislative and political issues having impact on the poor,” the two of us have been exploring the question, “What does a changing global climate mean for the poor, both now and if we stay on the current path?” The answer, not surprisingly, varies from place to place. In some locations, the effects are already becoming distressingly evident. In the Horn of Africa, relentless drought has brought crop failures and turned once-productive grazing land into desert. Famine is widespread and safe drinking water is hard to come by. In Pakistan, torrential rains have caused massive flooding that killed more than 1,700 people and turned millions into refugees, while scorching temperatures above 120° F (50°C) have caused numerous heat-related deaths. In the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan, packing 195-mph winds, claimed thousands of lives and displaced 4.1 million people, as it leveled more than half a million houses.

What would a 3.6°F global-average temperature increase look like?

A few degrees of warming doesn’t seem all that important, especially against the backdrop of the daily, monthly, and seasonal temperature swings we experience. But now imagine the difference between having a fever of 100°F and 103.6°F; that’s a big difference! The earth’s climate system, like our bodies, is sensitive to small changes in global-average temperature. According to the American Natural Resource Council, here’s what we can expect in the US:

    • 10-19% change in precipitation in many regions
    • 6-19 % increase in the amount of rain during the heaviest precipitation events
    • 0-19% change in streamflow in many places (droughts in the Southwest, floods in other regions)
    • 10-28% decrease in yields of crops as currently grown
    • 200-400% increase in areas burned by wildfires across the western US
    • 6-23% increase in hurricane destructive power

At temperature increases above 3.6°F, the risk of reaching a “tipping point” that triggers massive, irreversible change goes up. An example of a tipping point is the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, projected to raise sea levels 23 feet, create several billion refugees, and cause catastrophic economic damage. While it is hard to predict when these tipping points might occur, it is clear that the higher the temperature, the greater the risk. This is similar to driving too fast on a winding road; while that doesn’t guarantee you will crash, it certainly increases the risk. And the costs of these climate risks are very high indeed.

While it’s not possible to pin all of the blame for these disasters on human-caused climate change, experts agree that climate change is contributing to making such events more common and more extreme. Meanwhile, in the rapidly-warming Arctic, melting sea ice, and permafrost are jeopardizing native peoples’ traditional ways of hunting, herding, and traveling. On small, low-lying island nations such as Kiribati, in the Pacific, warming and rising seas are flooding homes, contaminating drinking-water wells and cropland, killing coral reefs that fish depend on, and threatening to drive entire populations from their homelands. In short, our current climate path is proving disastrous for the poor in many parts of the world. There is little doubt that staying on it will lead to dramatically more hunger, deeper and wider poverty, and massive refugee crises.

Obviously, a changing climate affects wealthy nations and individuals, too—not just the poor. The wealthy, however (for the time being, at least), have options that the poor lack: sitting out heatwaves in air-conditioned comfort; building sea walls against rising tides and storm surges; relocating temporarily before floods, fires, or hurricanes hit; using insurance pay-outs to replace destroyed property; receiving medical care when tropical diseases spread to new regions; purchasing food from far away when local crops fail or fish populations nosedive; trucking or piping in drinking water when local supplies dry up; training for new careers when old ways of making a living no longer work; and tapping savings to move to greener pastures.

Not surprisingly, the wealthy also have options that the poor lack when it comes to charting a new course for the global climate. In general, the richest nations and individuals are the ones that are buying the most, driving the most, flying the most, eating the most, wasting the most—in short, contributing the most to the problem of climate change. This means that these nations and individuals have the most opportunity to address the problem of climate change, as well—not to mention the greatest moral obligation to do so, in our opinion.

Re-stabilizing the global climate will require a combination of commitments and actions on the part of both individuals and nations. The good news, which comes as a surprise to many, is that plenty of information and tools for charting a better climate course are already at hand. We simply need to decide as individuals and as societies which tools are the most attractive to us and are most likely to produce the outcomes we desire, including increasing jobs and strengthening the economy. Then we need to muster the personal and political will to grab the tools and get to work. (We will explore several particular tools in a future article.)

The urgent need to chart a better course for the global climate presents us simultaneously with a rare opportunity to chart a better course for the poor and increase justice. Lord Deben, a British conservative politician, states it bluntly: “We can’t talk about climate change without talking about the disgraceful injustice in our nations and in the world, because you cannot achieve climate stabilization unless you achieve greater social justice. . . . Social justice is at the heart of this.”

Scientists agree that the sooner a new climate course is charted, the less severe and extreme the effects of global climate change will be. There is hope that we can limit worldwide average warming to 3.6° F (2°C), which will likely minimize the worst impacts. To reach that goal, however, greenhouse gas emissions must start decreasing in the next decade and reach near zero by 2100. The message that we hear over and over again is clear: the time to act is now.

We are at a critical moment in history. We face a decision that will affect not just us or our children, but generations to come. We face a decision that can propel millions into or out of miserable scarcity. We face a decision that will move us toward social justice or will make it nearly impossible to achieve. We can choose to stay on the business-as-usual path—leading to greater poverty, hunger, and social injustice—or we can help our brothers and sisters in need by speaking truth and taking action.

Sharon Yohn is assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Laura (Ranck) White is a small business owner and serves as the financial manager of the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market. She is especially involved in expanding access to the market for low-income community members. See all Climate Change articles in this series.