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Adapting to Change

As an experiment, mention climate change in your church and see what happens. Even in churches that are beginning to embrace environmental stewardship, it remains a controversial issue.

One common response reminds me of Hezekiah’s reaction in 2 Kings 20 to being told that his children would be taken into exile: “At least it won’t happen in my lifetime.” However, climate change is already having a huge impact on people around the world. Furthermore, the poor and vulnerable are most affected.

The preponderance of evidence suggests current changes in the climate are the result of human activity, caused by the build up of greenhouse gases such as CO2 in the atmosphere, which in turn trap heat. These gases are released by burning fossil fuels, although deforestation is also a major contributor. Once in the atmosphere, they remain there for decades. Thus, even if greenhouse gases were stabilized today, warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries. We can’t stop it, but choices we make today will have significant impact on the severity of climate change.

Not only is it important that we work to mitigate climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions but it is also absolutely necessary to adapt or prepare for change. Unfortunately the ability to adapt is directly related to social and economic development, putting the poor in the most vulnerable position. With our special charge to care for the poor, this is just one of many reasons why Christians should be particularly concerned about climate change.
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Specific impacts of warming are unevenly distributed, with poorer countries bearing the brunt of the negative affects. Most frightening for the very poorest is the fact that precipitation patterns are changing, with more drought and flooding predicted. Water availability is actually expected to increase in high latitudes, but to decrease by 10-30 percent in the dry tropics and dry mid-latitudes. In Africa, where access to water is already a critical issue, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to face increased water stress by the year 2020, barely 11 years from now. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent. In other words, those too poor to irrigate their land will face the worst suffering—essentially a death sentence for a huge number of people.

Crop production is predicted to fall in Africa, Latin America, and Central and South Asia as growing seasons shorten. Millions are expected to face severe flooding, especially in the poor and heavily populated river deltas of Asia and Africa. Disease and malnutrition are expected to increase, while significant percentages of plant and animal species will face extinction. In short, those of us working to improve nutrition, farming and human well-being will have much more work, but fewer remedies.

Some of the early symptoms are already being felt. Stan Doerr, Executive Director of ECHO, who works on the front lines in the fight against hunger, says, “it is clear to anyone working in small-scale agriculture that the rules have all changed.”

Indigenous knowledge that has been built up and treasured since time immemorial has become worthless. One of the most poignant stories comes from Dr. Paul Robinson of Wheaton College, who describes the elaborate calendar the nomadic Gabra people have used for generations to find pasture in the desert. The quintessential survivors, their knowledge of the environment had allowed them to weather countless droughts when all those around them were forced to rely on food aid. But the last time he visited them he was told by one of the elders, “we no longer see the patterns ... we have reached the end of counting.”

Dr. Robinson’s is not an isolated story. There is a veritable chorus of voices coming from those who are more in tune with the rhythms of their environment than we are. At Plant With Purpose, we recently heard the testimony of a farmer in Oaxaca who told us that droughts had become more frequent and severe. He had watched a nearby lake slowly drying over the last ten years. Then bark beetles killed the trees, and finally it was the forest fires that had become a constant threat. Of course in isolation, no individual story is evidence of climate change. But there is an eerie consistency to these accounts from around the world.

A moral response involves both adaptation and mitigation. Global warming is inevitable; climate change cannot be stopped. We must prepare for it, and, most importantly, help the poor and vulnerable to prepare with more resilient crops, better water storage, and stronger social services. At the same time, our lifestyle choices have significant impact on the magnitude and rate of climate change. We can reduce our own carbon footprint by changing our own habits, including driving less, living more frugally and working to stop deforestation.

It is easy to move from denial to despair, yet there is much we can do and our hope is undaunted. I was reminded recently of the old hymn, “This is my Father’s world. And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

Scott Sabin is the director of Plant with Purpose.

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