Climate change is hurting the world’s poor – and the Church must respond
Tearfund Australia’s CEO Matthew Maury talks Bible, theology and church
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth …
Through the Beatitudes we glean something of God’s heart for justice and care for the vulnerable – an insight into God’s vision for a flourishing creation that encompasses all people, and the whole of creation.
At Tearfund, we have been considering for many years how the Gospel speaks to one of the biggest justice issues of our time: the disproportionately negative impact climate change is having on our global brothers and sisters and, in many places, entrenching the challenges of poverty.
What does it mean for us, as Christians, as the Church in Australia, to wrestle honestly with this reality and the ways in which we are contributing to the problem?
For some Christians there’s a disconnect between climate change and core issues of Christian discipleship.
What is the right response?
At Tearfund, we believe that the time is right for a new conversation about climate change and what it means for the Church, a conversation in which the voices of the poor and marginalised – their pleas for urgent and substantive action on climate change – are heard loud and clear.
To inform and resource this conversation, we have undertaken the most comprehensive study to date of Australian Christians’ attitudes towards climate change. Our report, They Shall Inherit the Earth, details the findings of a seven-part study conducted by leading research agency NCLS Research, examining the views of Millennial and adult Gen Z Christians and also of church leaders in Australia towards climate change and the role of the Church in taking action to address it.
Two-thirds of the church leaders surveyed agreed that care for creation should be an essential part of the mission of the Church. But our research also shows that for some Christians there’s a disconnect between climate change and core issues of Christian discipleship.
In the view of some of the church leaders who took part, stewardship of creation is a separate issue from that of climate change, and climate change is not the Church’s concern.
A mandate for Christians to take climate change seriously
However, a growing movement of Christians and theologians believe there is a clear and compelling theological basis for approaching climate change through the lenses of the gospel, Christian stewardship and love for the poor.
This is based on a belief that it is, in fact, a mandate as Christians to take climate change seriously. Some theologians would argue that care for creation, which includes addressing climate change, is love for neighbour put into tangible action.
Why is a Christian development organisation such as Tearfund making discussions with the Church about climate change a priority?
[It is] very sobering when I come face to face with the pain and injustice that exists in our world.
It is because of that very command to love our neighbour and its practical implications for the church. Leading an organisation such as Tearfund affords me the opportunity to hear of the experiences of people in the countries where our partners are working.
Often these are encouraging accounts of how followers of Jesus are being salt and light, planting seeds of hope and transformation. But it is also at times very sobering when I come face to face with the pain and injustice that exist in our world.
More and more I am seeing and hearing such realities expressed through the impact of climate change on the people who contribute least to the problem but are the most vulnerable to its effects – and, in turn, are the least resourced to adapt to it.
Climate-related natural disasters are our growing reality
One example of this impact can be seen in the work of our Christian partner Oasis, which operates in cyclone-affected Mozambique. The growing reality of climate-related natural disasters has meant Oasis staff have had to start incorporating trauma intervention into their standard program work in order to help people deal with the distress caused by cyclones.
A 2021 report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that southern Africa (like most of the places we work) is likely to experience more tropical storms as a result of climate change.
Another example comes from a man named Dhulji Meghwal, a farmer from a village in northwest India, who is also experiencing the damaging effects of climate change.
For Dhulji, climate change is a lived, daily reality that is robbing him … of a life of flourishing.
Dhulji and other farming families here rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, yet rainfall has become sporadic over the past two decades, and extreme heat has led to dry and degraded soil. Almost 90 percent of households in this region have experienced one crop failure in the past five years, and live half of the year with acute food insecurity.
“Earlier, there was timely rainfall, but now we are struggling with the lack of water for our needs,” says Dhulji.
For Dhulji, climate change is a lived, daily reality that is robbing him and his family of their right to a safe and peaceful life – a life of flourishing. Tearfund’s Indian partner EFICOR is working with people like Dhulji, training them in new and sustainable ways of farming.
Australia’s climate-related disasters causing untold pain
While these examples speak to the challenges for some of the most economically disadvantaged people in the world, we know from our own local experiences in Australia of the untold pain and destruction from the growing incidence of climate-related disasters such as flooding and bushfires.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face in the effort to end extreme poverty. 2021 was one of the hottest years on record, and, on our current path, global temperatures will continue to rise. Recent reports estimate that climate change could push an additional 132 million people into poverty by 2030.
The latest report from the IPCC highlights the harm climate change is already inflicting on people’s lives and wellbeing and the fact that it is hitting disproportionately the poorest and most disadvantaged people across the globe.
The impacts of weather extremes such as increased heatwaves, droughts and floods have already exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity.
It’s time for the Church to have a new conversation about climate change.
We’re excited to release this report as an invitation to this vital conversation. It’s a report filled with the potential for a hopeful future. For the world’s poor – many of whom are at the frontline of the realities of climate change – it’s a conversation that’s becoming increasingly urgent.
Matthew Maury is CEO of Tearfund Australia.