The Common Good

Climate Change, Poverty, Distractions, and Denial

Since the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) came into force in 1995, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNCCC has met annually to assess progress in dealing with global climate change. From November 26 until December 7 in Doha, Qatar, the Conference of the Parties will meet again, for the 18th time, thus the title “COP18."  Among other things, COP18 will bring together various world leaders in order to adopt decisions and resolutions, publish reports, and attempt to establish legally binding legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

While many Americans are immersed in election season politics, football season, and climate change denial, the time is upon us to face the increasingly conclusive scientific evidence, reflect upon our theological and moral affirmations, and for both ecological and economic reasons, ensure that the United States contributes toward a fair and binding agreement at COP18 in Qatar. 

In addition to the overwhelming consensus among credible scientists about the validity and seriousness of climate change, the scientific body of knowledge also reports that climate change has a direct influence on poverty, especially within the developing world. Extreme weather has an impact on productivity and can raise the price of staple foods, such as grains, that are important to many households throughout the world. And studies have shown that global warming increases the frequency and intensity of heat waves and drought in many areas. While these realities have a deep and dramatic impact upon developing nations, they have also shown an increase in consequences within Europe and North America. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), climate change is a deep and wide-ranging global concern, for it increases poverty and halts sustainable development in the following ways:

  • There has been considerable research surrounding climate change and agriculture. Among other things, climate change affects rainfall, temperature, and water availability in vulnerable areas, thus it has a strong influence upon productivity, agricultural practices, and distribution of rural land. It also worsens the prevalence of hunger through effects on production and purchasing power, thus some predict the number of people to be impacted by malnutrition to be nearly 600 million by 2080. 
     
  • Of the 3 billion population increase projected worldwide by 2050, the majority will be born in countries that already experience water shortages. As the temperature of the earth warms, changes in rainfall, evaporation, snow, and runoff flows will be affected. 
     
  • As a result of accelerated ice sheet disintegration, rising sea levels could result in 330 million people being permanently or temporarily displaced through flooding. Warming seas can also fuel the increase of more intense tropical storms.
     
  • An increase in temperatures leads to illnesses and deaths. In specifics, climate change alters the geographic range of mosquito-born diseases, such as malaria, thus exposing new populations to the disease. As a changing climate
     
  • The report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health points out that disadvantaged communities are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change because of their increased exposure and vulnerability to health threats. More specifically, more than 90 percent of malaria and diarrhea deaths are experienced by children aged 5 years or younger, mostly in developing countries.

It is clear that the world cannot afford to engage the false debate of environmental sustainability versus economic growth; the two go hand in hand within an interconnected system. 

In many ways, the global economic downturn shows how a failure to promote environmental sustainability drives economies into further crisis, not only in the developing world, but also within those countries that have enjoyed generations of prosperity. And so, as increases in global temperatures lead to dramatic rises of inequality and poverty, the nations most responsible for climate change – such as the U.S. – are called to take responsibility in order to offer sustainable livelihoods for people and places throughout the world. The issue of climate change – and the resulting consequences of economic crisis, inequality, and poverty – has reached a breaking point, and a lack of significant and far-reaching action will lead the world further down a dangerous path.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transformation was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." 

Because the scientific evidence surrounding climate change is clear, and the implications for humankind are many, the response to these global challenges needs to be persistent, organized, and significant. As Jesus calls upon humankind to “love thy neighbor," and as the Old Testament prophets remind us to strive for justice, we recognize that within a deeply connected world “neighbor” implies all that God has created, and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. 

So an implication of Jesus’ words and actions is to share and receive the Good News not only on Sunday mornings, but through daily acts of long-term advocacy that promotes sustainable livelihoods. With COP18 in Qatar on the horizon, the time has come when humanity can no longer afford to fight over our resources, and the moment is upon us to prod our elected officials toward legally binding legislation that values the gifts of creation that God has entrusted us to manage. 

The time is now. God has allowed humankind to serve as stewards of creation, and the time has come to embrace this sacred responsibility more fully, value the resources that God has so graciously offered, and ensure that all of God’s creation – in this generation and the next – receives the fullness of life that God has promised.

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). 

Climate change photo, Sangoiri / Shutterstock.com

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