Talks, Sermons & Articles

Bio: Charlotte Olhausen is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin where she studied German, World Religions and Theology.  She is currently working as the Graduate Intern for the Representative Church Body in Dublin.  Her interests lie in human rights and social justice issues.



Combatting Climate Change: Active Participation over Passive Withdrawal

Although the migrant crisis is at the forefront of the media, politics and, as a result, our minds, it tends to only describe one part of the issue.  The refugees we hear about in the news are predominantly those seeking asylum from war and conflict.  here we shed light on those going fairly unnoticed – the environmental, or so-called “climate change” refugees.  Forced migration is one of the most urgent threats facing poor people in developing countries.   One prediction is that by 2050 there will be 200 million forced climate migrants.  Many argue that such conditions continue to exacerbate the conflict and political problems in affected countries because conditions such as drought create an atmosphere in which war, terror and civil strife is more likely.  Of course, environmental factors are not the sole reason for conflict but they are certainly a contributing factor.  The question for us within the Christian community is this: what is our response as the people of God?  

Although climate change may still seem like an abstract idea for those living in the western world, it is an everyday reality for those living in the southeast African country of Malawi, for example.  The hard reality is that people in Malawi endure unliveable conditions as a direct result of our activities and lifestyle choices.  Malawi is one of the African countries worst affected by climate change.  This means they are heavily impacted by droughts and by flooding and the resulting food and water shortages and spread of disease.  Research shows that extreme patterns of alternating periods of flooding and drought in countries like Malawi could lead to an increase in the numbers of IDPs (internally displaced people) in the future.

The bitter irony is that the people living in areas most affected are often those most dependent on the climate patterns for their livelihood.  And they are the least responsible for climate change.  Rich countries produce three quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions which are causing dangerous climate change patterns. 85% of the population in Malawi are subsistence farmers who heavily rely on weather conditions.

One impact of natural disasters is the displacement of people.  This happens when communities lack the resilience or resources to withstand the impacts.  For instance, in 2015 natural disasters in Malawi triggered 1.1 million people to be forced from their homes with flooding leading to at least 174,000 displaced people.  Not only is forced migration undermining economic growth for Malawi but it is also increasing the conflict levels.

The good news is that there are practical solutions, for instance, conservation farming systems and planned relocation – ‘resilience initiatives’.  When communities do not have the benefit of these resilience initiatives they are forced to migrate as a last resort once they have exhausted all other coping strategies and livelihood options.  However, Bishops’ Appeal has been supporting various conservation projects for communities at high risk of flooding and drought, both in Malawi and further afield.  These programmes have helped many to build their resilience to future disasters.  For instance, one project in collaboration with CMS Ireland in Kenya, produced water reserves and a demonstration farm that not only trains people in good agricultural practices but provides food for livestock during drought.

We need to combat the ripple effects of the so-called “anthropocene”.  This is the term used to describe the current geological age.    It used to be the case that the power of nature was more dominant over human activity.  It is now the case that humans are in fact the dominant influence on climate change and the environment.  In the western world we are surrounded by everything and anything we could possibly want.  An abundance of resources lie at our fingertips.  In industrial countries consumers throw away 286 million tonnes of cereal/grain products which is the equivalent of 763 billion packets of pasta.  This statistic is a sobering reality check on the extent and consequences of our consumerism.  

We tend to take our food for granted given it is so plentiful and readily available.  As the statistic above suggests, the environmental cost of producing such masses of food is staggering.  In fact, one third of what we produce never even reaches the dinner table.  However, it is a combinatory issue:  the energy that goes into the production, harvesting, transporting, and packaging of that wasted food generates more than 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.   Before purchasing a product, take the time to consider where it has come from, and whether the packaging is actually compostable or biodegradable – or even necessary!

The question for us here in the West is this: how much “stuff” do we really need?   When we reflect on the most important things in life it can help to give some perspective on the levels of unnecessary consumption.  If we live in a simpler way, we will begin to realise that we do not need as much as we think we do.  In this way, one ‘sacrificial’ decision at a time will not only have a positive knock on for the environment (and so those people most at risk to climate change) but will also begin to transform the quality of our own lives.  By changing our consumption habits, this will have much more positive effects on our environmental footprint. 

A further way to adapt our lives in light of the aforementioned ripple effects of climate change is to take on board energy efficiency and conservation.  For instance, we can choose to use energy-efficient bulbs or rather than using the tumble drier, hang out washing to dry.  In our parishes we can become Eco-congregations and make simple changes to ensure we are expressing our faith and meeting to worship in ways that honour God’s creation.  In our society we are constantly using: whether it be cars, electronic devices, international flights, heating, lighting – the list goes on.  It is in these different ways that the choices we make in how we consume energy have significant consequences for those living in countries like Malawi.  In the past we may not have known about the consequences of our actions but we can no longer plead ignorance.

The more official side of this situation involves international laws and policies dealing with migrants (UNHCR/Paris Agreement).  Presently, these policies do not include climate change refugees.  Therefore, the aim is to reform them accordingly.  Such reforms would include the enhancement of legal statuses for those forced to migrate as a result of climate change induced natural disasters.  It would also involve the provision of easy access to humanitarian visas for safe travel as it is when people are fleeing that they are truly at risk.  In essence, the goal is to develop the most inclusive way to enhance all migrants’ rights.  What is needed to properly address the crisis is both a revised legal framework alongside the very practical solutions outlined above.

These are some of the ways we can take concrete action.  How can we continue to bridge the gap between, on the one hand, our genuine concern for such issues, and on the other hand, turning this concern into action?   Do our intentions follow through with our actions?  Professor of ethics and theology at KU Leuven Johan de Tavernier coined the term “value-action gap” to try and make sense of why people’s concern for; in this case, the environment is falling through the gaps and not being translated into real action.  He argues that it is ultimately a question of where our values come from and also stresses the importance of the context.

In our context, the question becomes, how should our faith inform our action?  For us as Christians, our value comes from identifying ourselves as children of God.  By living in a more ecologically responsible way we choosing to live in solidarity with those most affected by climate change.  But we are also making a commitment to the restoration of justice in our calling as the people of God.  In a report by Christian Aid, taking responsibility for the environment is described as a “logical consequence” of Christian belief.  In particular, by caring for our world we are expressing our love for both God and neighbour.  This sense of ‘togetherness’ should be central to our approach:  active participation over and above passive withdrawal.   We are embodying an openness to, and readiness for, the restoration of justice, in this case “eco-justice”, for the benefit of those forced to migrate as a result of natural disasters.  Our way of bridging the so-called “value-action gap” is by prioritising our values in line with our calling as God’s agents on earth through active agency.

What is our theological framework for achieving this global solidarity?  Consider, for instance, the biblical idea of “koinonia” for which there is no exact word in English.  The two translations most relevant to the faith-based action discussed here are “participation” and “fellowship”.  For instance, in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 koinonia is translated as “participation” where it is used to teach about the importance of generous giving.  Within this context, to give generously could be interpreted in various ways.  The most obvious example is to donate towards a particular cause.  However, “participation” here could also be interpreted as an encouragement for us to take action and get involved: active participation.  This begins to provide us with the sort of theological mandate to put into practice those things we have been thinking about in this article: especially the fostering of an environmentally-aware attitude whereby we change the way we live our lives in order to reduce the negative impacts they have had on others’ lives.

A second English translation of the Greek word koinonia is the idea of “fellowship”.   For example, in Acts 2:43 we read that the earliest Jesus community devoted themselves to koinonia (fellowship).  This idea of fellowship has both an upward orientation (God) and outward orientation (other members of the community).  In the context of Acts 2 this relational dynamic has been made possible by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This idea of Spirit-inspired togetherness (fellowship) empowers us for our mission of active participation and transforms what is seemingly an overwhelming task into an achievable goal.   

The idea of koinonia will also remind us of our fellowship with all of creation and specifically here we think of our common humanity with those who are currently victims of forced migration.  Rather than viewing people from distant cultures as ‘other’, in Christ, we recognise them as fellow human beings and, more than that, as brothers and sisters.  Finally, there is an eschatological dimension to the concept of koinonia as it is includes a future perspective.  In theological terms “eschatology” refers to the end times and the final fulfilment of God’s kingdom.  Just as we pray for God’s kingdom to come in the Lord’s Prayer, it has both a present and a future reference.  The concept of koinonia is one way that we can make sense of the relationship between Church and world; through fellowship and active participation, to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering.

When we place the challenges of climate change alongside the other causes of forced migration we can feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face.  However, the purpose of this paper is neither to invoke a sense of guilt nor to induce a state of despair!  Rather, there is an invitation here to recognise the causal relationship that exists between our lifestyle choices and climate change, and, therefore, to work for a genuine eco-justice in which all people may share in the good things of creation. In this way, we will not only be taking concrete action but also embodying a message of hope for a suffering world.