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The Human Face of Climate Change

Date:21 July 2014
Author:Religion Factor
South Tarawa, Kiribati. Source: Government of Kiribati, available from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0
South Tarawa, Kiribati. Source: Government of Kiribati, available from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0

Climate change continues to be one of the most controversial global issues of our time, with debates ranging from the best ways to respond to the challenges of climate change, especially for those who are most vulnerable to its effects, to whether it is even happening at all and who is responsible. In today’s post, Elizabeth Fernandez describes how climate change is affecting people’s daily realities now and explores what the world’s religions can potentially offer to address some of these challenges.

A boat lies moored thirty meters from the sandy beach, surrounded by light turquoise waters.  Nearby, a thin beach, populated with palm trees, makes this island look like a paradise.  But the town that used to be here is now abandoned.  The boat that lies calmly in the still water is located over the spot where the center of this village used to be.  Many buildings, such as the city meeting hall, several houses, and the petrol station, have long since gone under the waves. [1] Palm trees, reduced to headless trunks, stand like a skeletal forest in the seas.  The town of Tebunginako is the first village of the island nation of Kiribati to be abandoned, but it won’t be the last.  If ocean levels continue to rise, this small island nation will be the first country in the world to disappear under the water due to rising sea levels.

Climate change.  It’s still often debated among scientists, politicians, and the public alike.  Is humankind causing it?  How much should we really limit carbon emissions?  Is it even happening? 

Residents of Kiribati can tell you that climate change is happening.  Kiribati is made of 32 atolls and one raised coral island.  Many of these islands are just thin strips of land, streaked through the Pacific.  The main island of Tarawa is 35 km long, but only 450 m wide.  This island, along with many of the islands of this nation, is less than 10 meters above sea level.  As the sea levels rise, the oceans begin to lap farther and farther inland, forcing the people to higher ground.  But when these islands are so narrow, there is only so far inland that they can go.  For these people, climate change is not some abstract concept.  It is real.  And it is killing their homeland.  It is predicted that the nation of Kiribati might not survive the century [1].

Some of the country’s islands, such as Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, have already been completely swallowed by the sea. [2] As the amount of available land shrinks, more and more people are forced onto less and less land, or migrate to the main atoll Tarawa.  Currently, Tarawa has 13,000 people per square mile, which is five times the population density of Bangladesh. [3] The imminent problem is clear: there is not enough room for so many people, and soon, there will be no islands left for these people to live on.

The irony is somber – these islands make up one of the world’s poorest countries.  The residents have the second smallest CO2 footprint per capita than any country in the world [4], yet they are some of the first to feel the effects of climate change.

Life on Kiribati is very different from that in the Western world.  Community is extremely important, and ancestral history is essential to their identity. Religion is fully integrated into their lives.  At first, the residents of Kiribati had a hard time accepting the fact that the oceans really were rising as a result of climate change.  But education, along with firsthand experience, has changed the outlook of pastors on the island, and with them, their congregations.  On Sundays, the residents of Kiribati gather in their church, singing hymns together.  They pray that Jesus will save them from the rising oceans.   Reverend Maerere leads his congregation, saying, “God, you are higher than any tides, stronger than any winds.” [3] In Kiribati, the environment is not separate from every day life.  The land and sea around them are intrinsic parts of their life, inseparable from economics or religion. Climate change is not a political issue; it is a very personal one that affects everyday life.

This integration stands in stark contrast to the Western view of the separation of religion from environmental issues.  To the industrialized world, climate change is mainly a political problem, a far-off consequence of an ill-defined problem.  Even today, there is considerable debate over whether climate change is real.  It doesn’t affect us directly, and we don’t see the consequences in everyday life.  We turn to scientists to give us data on the rising of the oceans and the melting of the polar caps.  Businesses and governments ask themselves if it is economically feasible to enact environmentally friendly policies.  But rarely do we look upon climate change as a personal or religious issue.  Even though many religions and ethical imperatives dictate care for our Earth, an increase in concern over the environment has often not been reflected in the religious populace – in fact, one study illustrated that Christians often show a lower level of consideration for the environment than the general population. [5]

Professor Laurel Kearns, who specializes in the interface between religion and climate change, said that some groups interpret Genesis in such a way that humans have dominion over the Earth. [6] This sentiment was echoed in the recent US election, where presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said, “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit.” [7] Others have demonized environmentalists, claiming that they are a “new religion” that hold nature above all else.  [8, 9]

Such an unmitigated disregard for the environment for economic or political gain is now not only harming future generations.   It is no longer just harming rare animals or distant forests.  It is harming the poorest of people today.

As the sea-level rises, residents of Kiribati crowd onto less and less land.  Increasing overpopulation, partially caused by the rising sea levels, is compounding the problems of this already poor nation.  Diseases such as cholera, leprosy, and tuberculosis are endemic. [3] Infant mortality is the second highest in the Pacific.  This is painfully evident in the fact that births are not celebrated, rather, parents celebrate the first birthday, indicating that it is all too common for a child to die in his or her first year of life. [1,3] Walking to the hospital often involves wading through the increasingly higher tides.  [4]

Losing all of their country’s land is only the beginning of the problem.  In reality, the problem is deeper and more insidious.  The most imminent problem is the fresh water supply.  The atoll of Tarawa, the most populous island in the country, depends on a single fresh water lens under their island for the majority of their fresh water needs.  However, as the seas rise, this lens is pushed upwards and diminishes in size.  In addition, as the population density increases, more and more people are forced to live directly above the lens, and the lack of a wide-spread, reliable septic system is causing this remaining fresh water to be polluted. [1] It is predicted that the islands of Kiribati will become uninhabitable because of lack of fresh water long before the last of the islands disappear under the sea, possibly in as soon as 20 years from now. [3]

Soil salination, a contamination of the soil from salt water, is also a major problem.  Main crops such as coconut and taro are particularly susceptible to soil salination, and are dying off in greater numbers as the sea encroaches on the fertile land.  Climate change also affects the amount of rainfall, threatening crops such as copra. [4] An increase in ocean acidification, salinity, and temperature is causing a decrease in the number of fish and death of the coral reefs. [4,10,11]

Climate change is also causing an increase in the extreme weather of this nation.   As the tides become stronger, weak seawalls often collapse under the pressure. [3] More hot days mean more drought, which leads to less productive crops.  Many of the inhabitants live in shacks of coconut trees, tin, or chain link fence. [2,3] As the weather becomes more extreme, locals find that their modest homes are little match for the increasingly frequent and increasingly strong waves, which can wash away their homes and villages during a storm or even during a particularly strong high tide. [11] Climate change also signals an increase in the number and severity of “king tides” – massive tides where waves can reach nearly three meters high.  When the entire country has an elevation of less than three meters, these tides can devastate entire villages. [4]

Within the Western world, the Netherlands serves as a good example of a society that has to live with the reality of rising sea levels.  Because a good majority of the country is below sea level, as the seas rise, they are also at risk.  But there is an important difference.  The Dutch countryside lies behind the Delta Works, a complex network of dams, levees, and storm surge barriers that cost upwards of five billion euros.  Similarly, a seawall to protect the islands of Kiribati would cost around 1.5 billion euros. [4] While the GDP of the Netherlands is over 550 billion euros, the GDP of Kiribati is only 130 million euros, far short of what is needed to build a sufficient sea wall.  The income of this nation will continue to fall as residents lose access to their main sources of income – crops and fish.

As the seas rise, the people of Kiribati will be forced to migrate, and it is still an unanswered question where they will go.   Zambia had offered the residents of Kiribati a home, but when the president of Zambia died, the offer fell through. [3] Fiji offered to accept them, however, the assimilation of that many new people into an already small nation could prove difficult. [12] Australia offered to take some skilled workers and offer training for others, while New Zealand offers a mere 75 places for immigrants a year.  [1] Recently, Kiribati native Ioane Teitiota, who had been living in New Zealand, was deported back to Kiribati after his work visa expired.  He was not allowed to stay, since right now, there is no such thing as a refugee from climate change. [13]

Kiribati is not alone, and it will not be the last nation to be lost.  If the sea continues to rise and if weather continues to intensify, the first to feel the effects will be the poorest countries.  Bangladesh.  Maldives.  Palau.  Micronesia.  Overall, 156 million people from Bangladesh and 1 million people from other low lying island countries will be displaced. [14,15,16]

Thankfully, there are now several groups where the religious of many denominations and traditions come together to combat climate change, from the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC) [17] to the Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change [18] to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation [19].

The US Bishops released a statement to this effect: “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family.”  [20]

It has come time to accept that climate change is no longer solely a political and economic issue.  It is a deeply personal one, one that is affecting the poorest of the world right now.  If religious and ethical imperatives to protect the Earth alone are not enough, perhaps the suffering of the poor is – those whose homes are swept away in the waves, those whose fields are growing infertile from contamination from salt water, those whose ancestral graves are being washed away to the sea.  Many of the world’s religions were established before we believed it was possible that humanity could affect the environment on a global scale, and hence may not have clear directives on how to care for the Earth.  [6] But world religions  do  have ethical directives to take care of the poor.  We now live in a world where the two are linked – continuing to ignore the protection of our environment directly harms the poorest of the poor.

Religion can play an important role in the upcoming battle to save the environment.  Now, it is clear – this is no longer only a problem to save the Earth for our future grandchildren.  The problem is real.  The effects are happening now.  The residents of Kirabati can tell you this.

Elizabeth Fernandez  is a Fellow and Co-Convenor of the Science, Religion and Philosophy Cluster.  She has a PhD in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin, and currently works at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute.  As a fellow of the Centre, she analyzes philosophical and ethical consequences of scientific discoveries.  In addition to her research, she has participated in interfaith dialog, including appearing on the radio and television to discuss interfaith relations and participating in an trip to Turkey to create bridges between the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.





[5] Clements, Xiao, & McCright, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 53, Issue 2, Page 373-391

















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