This is an excerpt from the final report of the Creation Care Committee (2016-2018).
We are called, as people of God, to care for our sisters and brothers in many ways; by feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and building peace. The Church of the Brethren faithful have a long history of acting on biblical calls like these. When confronted with hunger, poverty, and injustice, we have never been content to simply wring our hands. Instead, agreeing with James (v. 26) we grab a shovel or a hammer or a heifer, and we get to work. We write letters, call Congress, and peacefully protest. We scrub our hands, grab a serving spoon, and open a soup kitchen.
While the directive to care for our neighbors is clear, some feel that caring for the rest of God’s creation is a lesser priority. As a study committee, we chose not to revisit this conversation. Instead, we focused closely on the charge given to us by Annual Conference by examining the impact of the use of fossil fuels and contributions to climate change on our brothers and sisters around the world, and how Brethren can take action to reduce that impact.
Poverty, health, fossil fuels, and climate change
Climate change is well documented to have the greatest negative effect on people who live in poverty1. Climate change also makes it more difficult to escape poverty2,3. Heat waves, floods, droughts, and other events attributed to climate change result in an annual global economic loss of $5 billion from the production of major commodity grains4. People living in poverty spend a larger proportion of their income on food5, and can ill afford the resulting rise in food prices. This concern is a reality even among our own Brethren communities. In 2015, one out of every four children in the areas of our denomination’s West Marva, Southern Ohio, and Missouri-Arkansas Districts was living without adequate food, clothing, and shelter6.
Both climate change and the burning of fossil fuels have direct health impacts. This holds especially true for people who are very young, very old, and living in poverty. Tens of thousands of Americans die prematurely each year from respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease due to air pollution. Globally, premature deaths number in the millions. Poor air quality also leads to infant mortality, low birth weights, asthma, and cancer7.
The truth of 1 John hangs heavily over the communities around our church buildings. Both the burning of fossil fuels and climate change have the heaviest impact on the people that scripture calls on us to aid, but our collective over-consumption of fossil fuels continues to feed a sinful inequity.
War, peace, and climate change
Human-caused climate change is contributing to violent conflict all over the world8. While it would be too simplistic to say that climate change causes violent conflict, its effects are widely accepted to contribute to political instability9, 10. Rising sea levels and increased frequency and severity of droughts, storms, floods, and wildfires are making vital resources scarcer in many parts of the world. In recent years, these conditions have caused a global crisis of forcibly displaced people (nearly 66 million in 201711). Conflict becomes more likely in these situations12, particularly when governments are already weak, wealth inequality is high, and infrastructure for distributing resources is inadequate.
The expansive effects of climate change have been described as “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”13
On many occasions the Church of the Brethren has stated or reaffirmed its commitment to peace, nonviolence, and reconciliation. As a Living Peace Church, we must come to fully acknowledge the damaging impact of climate change on peacemaking, and the ways climate change impairs our ability to nurture communities of faith14.
The Mind of the Spirit: Action
For nearly three decades the Brethren have, in resolutions and statements by Annual Conference and the denominational board, clearly stated the relationship between human suffering, fossil fuel consumption, and climate change (1991 Creation: Called to Care; 1991 Resolution on Global Warming and Atmospheric Degradation; 2000 Resolution on Clean Air Principles; 2001 Resolution on Global Warming/Climate Change). As followers of Christ, we are called to care for our neighbors and to act as peacemakers. To continue burning fossil fuels, now that we understand the ramifications, is irreconcilable with this call. Moving to new energy sources is a process that will take time, and is not the only priority of the church. However, there are many actions that can be taken by individuals and congregations that require minimal financial resources.
A new path forward
Poverty, peace, justice, and climate change are inexorably linked. There can be no hope for justice, no hope for an end to poverty, and no hope for peace if we continue on our present path. We must confront inequality while weaning ourselves from the very fossil fuels that built our economic wealth. We must work to build peace while reducing air pollution. This new path for us leads to God’s plan for a new creation.
To walk this path, we must first accept that climate change is a moral, spiritual, and human issue, and not a political debate. We must confess our role in the problem and be willing to reflect, pray, and have loving conversations about these complex challenges. We must seek and support solutions that restore dignity to the underprivileged, promote peace, and protect God’s earth.
To learn more about the relationship between faith and climate change, please read the Messenger magazine series.
1United Nations Report: World Economic and Social Survey 2016: Climate Change Resilience – an Opportunity for Reducing Inequalities. (2016, Oct 3) Retrieved from www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2016/10/report-inequalities-exacerbate-climate-impacts-on-poor
2Bullard, G. (2015, Dec 1) See What Climate Change Means for the Worlds Poor. National Geographic Retrieved from news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151201-datapoints-climate-change-poverty-agriculture
3Climate change complicates efforts to end poverty. (2015, Feb) The World Bank. Retrieved from news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151201-datapoints-climate-change-poverty-agriculture
4Stevanović, M., Popp, A., Lotze-Campen, H., Dietrich, J.P., Müller, C., Bonsch, M., Schmitz, C., Bodirsky, B.L., Humpenöder, F., Weindl, I. 2016. The impact of high-end climate change on agricultural welfare. Science Advances. Vol 2: e1501452
5Annual Income Spent on Food (2008) Washington State Magazine. Retrieved from wsm.wsu.edu/researcher/WSMaug11_billions.pdf
6Poverty Facts. Retrieved from www.povertyusa.org/the-state-of-poverty/poverty-facts
7Perera FP. 2017. Multiple threats to child health from fossil fuel combustion: impacts of air pollution and climate change. Environmental Health Perspectives 125:141–148; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/EHP299
8Barnett, J., Adger, W.N.. 2007. Climate change, human security and violent conflict. Political Geography. Vol 26, p 639-655.
9Testimony by Secretary of Defense James Mattis to the Senate Armed Services Committee Retrieved from https://climateandsecurity.org/2017/07/25/vice-chairman-of-the-joint-chiefs-on-climate-instability-and-political-instability
10Bipartisan letter to Congress on climate change and National security. (2018, Jan 11) Retrieved from https://langevin.house.gov/press-release/langevin-stefanik-lead-bipartisan-letter-urging-president-restore-climate-change
11Edwards, A. (2017, June) Forced displacement worldwide at its highest in decades. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/afr/news/stories/2017/6/5941561f4/forced-displacement-worldwide-its-highest-decades.html
12Gleick, P.H. 2014. Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Weather, Climate and Society. https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1
13U. S. Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review, 2014
14A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks. An independent report commissioned by G7 members. (2015) Retrieved from www.newclimateforpeace.org