This week, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke more forcefully about the urgency of climate change than he has before publically, likening it to a weapon of mass destruction. Apparently, such words did not sit well with Sen. John McCain, a politician who was once a pioneer in the political fight against climate change. In response to Kerry, McCain asked, “On what planet does he reside?”
For some context: Kerry has been traveling worldwide. He made his climate change speech in Indonesia, a nation made up of islands that are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Climate change is already contributing to changes in rainfall in the country, with serious droughts and flooding, and the threat of significant sea level rise. Furthermore, Indonesians seem more aware of climate change than we are — no surprise given its impact on their entire country. In its Climate Asia project, the BBC found that 63 percent of Indonesians said the number of trees had decreased and 74 percent believe that climate change is happening (compared with 68 percent of Americans). Kerry was speaking about an imminent problem to a nation where most people are aware of that problem.
So, I think it’s fair to say that Kerry is incredibly aware of not only the planet we’re living on, but also the country he was standing in when he talked about the very real threat of climate change. For those of us in Washington, D.C. working office jobs with indoor climate control — I’m including not only Sen. McCain, but also myself — it can be easy to forget the world we live in.
And I applaud McCain for thinking about the lives of our brothers and sisters in Syria, whose struggles are very real, although we do not see them.
But I challenge him, and all our political leaders, to imagine one step further. I challenge him to look at parts of the world where climate change is already contributing to droughts, floods, famine, and, for some island nations, necessitating the abandoning of entire isles.
And I would remind him and all who worry and pray and legislate for those in war- and conflict-torn countries that new research suggests a link between climate change and violence.
Climate change is not a second-tier issue that can wait until we solve Syria, Iran, Israel/Palestine, the Central African Republic, and other nations’ conflicts. It is a force of destruction in our world, and it is active now, in places we don’t usually see, affecting people Jesus calls us to love as our neighbors. If we talk of wanting to solve conflicts but are not interested in preventing them; if we send in medical relief after a typhoon but won’t limit our polluting behavior that drives intense storms; if we say we care about world peace but are not interested in systemic changes that can keep that peace, then we are doing a disservice to the world.
It’s time we all stopped thinking of climate change as a separate issue to deal with later and start seeing how it has the potential, like a weapon of mass destruction, to destroy all the efforts of our good will. It is already happening, and it will continue to happen, but as members of a world leader, a developed nation with a gigantic economy and a world-class military, we have the power to slow down our carbon pollution, to be world leaders in sustainability, and to help nations adapt to the changing climate. For those of us who are not senators, I think it begins with incorporating climate change into how we look at the world, and bringing it into the conversation with our friends, our pastors, and even our senators. Because it’s God’s planet we’re living on, and God expects us to care for it.
Liz Schmitt is the Creation Care Campaign Associate at Sojourners.