It’s hard to imagine the weather changing. It’s big. Too big. In Oregon, the weather has been dependably rainy as long as I can remember. Everyone knows it rains in the Northwest. It’s what it does.
That doesn’t happen so much anymore. Sure it still rains but the rain is different. During the rainy season growing up it drizzled from sun up to sun down. It was like walking thru an intense mist booth at a county fair. Now when it rains, it rains with conviction. The drops are bigger, the bursts more intense. As a result, I bought an umbrella for the first time of my life.
For those of us in America, climate change has always been a far off thing. It’s hard to believe in something that isn’t seen, even for those of us who believe in an unseen God. Concern about climate change began back in the 70s but the changes climates scientists warned of were far off both in space and time. Melting ice and vanishing forests meant nothing to a people who saw little of either. They promised an unseen and unlivable landscape in the years to come. We listened politely before turning our attention elsewhere because the rain still came when it was supposed to, the snow stayed snowy, and it didn’t get much hotter.
But that was just here in the States. The rest of the world has known a very different climate story. A professor of mine from seminary told me that his homeland of Senegal has known about climate change for years. They didn’t call it climate change, of course. They simply called it change. The rains came less frequently and the crops grew less robustly. This happened during French colonization, a time when the Senegalese farmers were told to uproot their crops and replace them with ones for trade in Europe. Years after the French left, the Senegalese have returned to farming traditional crops. The weather is different, though, and so too is the land. It is harder, traumatized in a way. People’s grain-houses are now less full, their communities less vibrant, their economies less dependable.
Pacific Island nations have an intimate relationship with the sea. The water brings them life and so too brings them death. Typhoons are like the tides — coming in and out with the seasons. Every 100 years or so there’d be a big one but it was a degree of destruction that they could live with. But then Typhoon Haiyan happened. 6000 dead. Thousands more displaced. Unfathomable destruction. Another Haiyan hasn’t yet been seen but scientists predict one isn’t too far off. Warmer seas and air temperatures breed stronger and more intense storms. Our 10 year storms are becoming more like 100 year storms, and yearly storms more like 10 year storms.
It’s not only storms that island nations have begun to fear. Tides and water level are creeping further and further up the shore. Structures that were once 100m from the sea are suddenly 80m away. Try as we might, the ocean will not be held back. Sea walls are minor irritations to be overcome. Islands that have been inhabited since the time of Christ birth will soon be swallowed, their inhabitants forced to leave their ancestral homes for unwelcoming foreign lands.
The predictions made by climate scientists 40 years ago have come to pass. We see impacts to nature or we see the suffering of humans, but rarely do we see them as interconnected. Too often we allow ourselves the illusion that we are disconnected from each other — or from nature — due to space or time. But if any lesson from nature is to be learned is that all things are connected, and that all things depend on the health of the other to survive. The tragedy of dying coral is intimately tied to the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan. What causes one causes the other. To save the whales means saving Senegalese farmers. Globalism teaches us these lessons too. When Russian frontier lands were devastated by wildfires in 2010, they banned wheat exports to ensure they could feed their own people. The ban brought instability to an already fraught market, and the market dipped accordingly. Our lives, our nations, and our markets our inexorably bound to one another.
These are not the lessons we are taught, though. The adage “no [wo]man is an island” is muted by nationalism and unhinged notions of exceptionalism. We prefer the idea that we can pull up our bootstraps and do it on our own. It’s sexier. It’s more American. It allows the myth that those on top deserve to be there, and the insidious belief that those on the bottom deserve the hell thrown at them everyday.
So too with climate change. We prefer to believe that the changes are unique and isolated to the regions they directly impact. The bleaching coral in the Maldives is tragic but the tragedy is theirs, not mine. Droughts in Senegal or rising tides for Pacific Island nations get to remain a world away. The drought in Syria that destroyed the crops of 1000s of farmers was an isolated tragedy for a awhile as well. It was until it morphed into a protracted war perpetuated by desperate farmers who wanted basic services their government didn’t want to provide. That war — whose beginning has been forgotten — has created a steady stream of immigrants to a now fractured and unbalanced European Union. It’s much easier to just blame the war on radical Islam. It’s a convenient, approachable narrative that doesn’t disrupt our pre-conceived notions about the Middle East. The reality, though, is that an otherwise peaceful region was struck by an overwhelming drought that completely destabilized the region.
For those of us who seek to love our neighbor as ourselves should be the most affronted by the nationalistic and isolationist trends in american politics right now. Because we know that Senegalese farmers struggling to yield crops, island dwellers fleeing their ancestral homes, and Syrian communities fighting not only for water but now for their very lives are exactly the neighbors Christ commanded us to love.
Change has come, that much is true. Climate scientists tell us that the weather patterns we are now experiencing are here to stay. Our task isn’t getting the weather back to normal. Our task is making sure it doesn’t get worse. The weather is big, yes, but it isn’t too big. It can’t be. It mustn’t be. Change is here but change doesn’t have to be bad. As we work to create solutions to mitigate climate change, we are given the opportunity to make them just solutions that raise people out of poverty rather than condemn them to it. We can create new systems of energy generation that don’t poison the air and blot out the sun. We are in crisis, yes, but as the saying goes crisis often is the thing that precipitates change. Let’s use this crisis to create the change we need to see rather than the change we fear the most.
with contributions from Jason Fileta, Executive Director, Micah Challenge USA