“17.2 million people leaving their homes because of climate disasters is not a change.”
I read this sign as I first stepped off the metro in Madrid, Spain, in early December. I had just arrived for the COP25 (Conference of the Parties), the global climate negotiations conference hosted by the United Nations. As I walked out of the metro to the conference center, more signs lined the hallway with startling statistics, many of which I had heard before. In the week ahead, these statistics would become real people with real stories.
The purpose of COP is to foster ambition among the earth’s countries to act upon the climate crisis. Currently, the less powerful, less developed nations that did very little to contribute to the problem are those who are suffering the effects of climate change most severely. They are the nations which are crying out and urging others—such as the United States—to take this work seriously. The purpose of my presence at the COP, bearing my Christian identity, was to acknowledge passivity toward the environment caused this crisis, and to meet with others hoping to drive ambition for action. I worshipped, prayed, and engaged with fellow Christians from many nations as the universal Church of Christ bore witness to the suffering of those affected, mourned the inability of leaders to move forward with justice, and prayed urgently for wisdom, positive change, and effective solutions.
I attended a seminar where I heard testimony from a man named Maina from the Pacific Island Nation of Tuvalu. His people have lived on Tuvalu for countless generations. The land is integral to their culture, their way of life, their identity. Their native word for life, “placenta” also means “land;” for them, life is the attachment to the land. They are now being forced to relocate to a foreign land because their nation will be uninhabitable within 10 years due to the rising sea level. They desperately do not want to move, and as Maina shared his peoples’ story his eyes held so much sorrow that my heart broke. He was crying out for people to realize that human beings are affected by our actions. I also heard from women farmers in Uganda who have relied upon consistent weather patterns for generations to produce a harvest. They and their families now face starvation as intense rains come early and all at once, followed by six months of drought. In order to save their families, many women have been forced into prostitution.
Maina’s story and so many others cannot be left as a poignant, momentary imploration. These stories must compel comprehensive, urgent action to solve the climate crisis and provide justice for those who are losing everything. As Christians, personal and behavioral action is an integral aspect of our faith. By making sustainable choices, we are choosing to fulfill the Genesis 2:15 mandate to steward creation by working it and caring for it. To work suggests that we should use the earth to produce what we need for our survival, and for the fulfillment of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Then, we are told to “care for it.” The Hebrew word used here is “shamar,” which means to protect, preserve, or guard. We are also living out the command to love our Creator and our neighbor (Matthew 22: 37-39). We love our Creator by obeying His commands and by loving what He loves. We have evidence that God is deeply concerned with the created world through the gift of His son, who took on earthly form and then died on its behalf rather than see it succumb to the consequences of sin and death. We also know from Genesis that all of creation is good and pleasing to God. Therefore, by participating in faithful stewardship of all that God has entrusted to us, we are returning thanks, praise, and love to our Creator.
While stewardship on a personal level is an essential part of our relationship with Christ, Maina, the Ugandan farmers, and so many others need us to advocate for systemic level policy change. Countries such as Tuvalu and Uganda do not debate the realities of climate change. Most do not even know the phrase “climate change”—for them it is a new, unpredictable reality which they did little to contribute to. Consequently, we have a serious global injustice issue. Those that did the least to contribute to climate change are those who are suffering under the effects to greatest degree. The United States economy was built on the use of fossil fuels and is the largest carbon polluter in history. Globally, 75% of emissions are shared by just 12 counties. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the United States, in tandem with other top polluters, to enact legislation that swiftly curbs carbon emissions and promotes a sustainable future.
Uganda already has in place a robust climate change policy, reducing their already low carbon outputs by 22% before 2030. They are using innovative, nature-based solutions to achieve these goals. However, as a Least Developed Country, and as they are already facing serious climate-induced setbacks, Uganda needs financing and capacity building support. The just response is for the rich, polluting countries to financially pay reparations to developing countries for loss and damage. As Christians in the United States, we must advocate that our government enact bold policies, rejoin the Paris Agreement, and return to COP26 as a leader for justice.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, may we take time to celebrate creation, engage in the obedience of working and caring for it, and advocate for just policy solutions. The climate crisis is not only a moral and justice issue, but is a faith issue, as well as an obedience, sacrifice, and love issue. My hope and prayer coming out of COP25 is that the global church will take seriously the call to love God, love our neighbor, and act on climate.