For ministries and nonprofits working to end child poverty around the world, targeted action addressing climate change is becoming an essential part of the mission.
Christian ministries with child poverty, hunger, and health in their mission are aware that extreme weather exacerbates or causes the crisis they address. Such organizations can’t afford to ignore the worsening climate, said Andrew Leake, a Salta, Argentina-based program design specialist with Compassion International, which uses a sponsorship model to fund anti-poverty and community development work across the world.
“We have a program that is designed to release children from poverty through a social process,” Leake said. “That long-term process is now interrupted rather violently by extreme weather and the backdrop of changing climate.”
An October report from UNICEF found that 43.1 million child displacements occurred due to extreme weather events over a six-year period – or approximately 20,000 displacements a day. The report used available data from 2016-2021, and then used current climate models to project what the next 30 years could look like if nothing is done.
The data shows that it is “absolutely critical” to both reduce carbon emissions that are intensifying climate change and build in adaptation programs for the communities already being affected, said UNICEF Programme Specialist on Climate Change, Migration & Displacement Laura Healy. Mitigating future climate emergencies is only one step, she said. Many communities dependent on rivers for their livelihoods will have to adapt to severe and constant flooding.
“What does an education system look like in a setting like that?” she asked.
Compassion has spent decades helping Christians have more proactive conversations on poverty — less about charity, and more about equipping local churches to combat the sources of poverty in their own communities, Leake said. But weather-related displacement and crises put ministries back in a reactive position if they can’t talk about tackling the source of the increasing heat, drought, hurricanes, mudslides, and floods: changing weather patterns, driven largely by human activity.
Christian humanitarian groups like Compassion International and World Vision explicitly talk about those affected by weather events, but advocating for action on climate change and global warming can be tricky when so many people in the U.S. see the issue as political. While neither organization is affiliated with a specific Christian denomination, both have deep connections with evangelicals across the U.S. and world.
In the U.S., evangelicals over 40 are second only to Republicans over 40 in their likelihood to express skepticism about climate change, according to Pew Research. The growing consensus around the need to address the causes and effects of climate change appears to require a complex negotiation for ministries that draw significant funding from groups most likely to deny the urgency of climate change caused by human activity.
What helps, Leake said, is Compassion’s child-centric narrative. Climate change is an unfolding “crisis” that is already directly affecting vulnerable children, he said, and the stories from Compassion’s national offices in Kenya, Nicaragua, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Togo, and other countries support data that shows a dangerously warming climate, and projections about what that will mean for communities. His team compiles both big picture data based on climate models and local stories to communicate to partner churches around the world the urgent need to invest in climate resilience. Local stories emphasize that climate change is a real issue for children, families, and the communities Compassion serves. Advocacy tells their partners that there is something people can do about it.
The UNICEF report used a disaster displacement risk model developed by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and projected that flooding rivers could cause up to 96 million child displacements over the next 30 years. In that same time period, current climate models indicate that cyclonic winds and storm surges have the potential to cause an additional 10.3 million and 7.2 million child displacements respectively.
Paradoxically, some of the increase in counted displacement is actually good news, Healy said, because it means early warning systems are working in places like China and the Philippines.
In some places, Healy said, UNICEF has been working with local governments to prepare for the inevitable. Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are equipped with emergency water purification, hygiene kits, and evacuation plans designed for children. In Fiji, a trust fund prioritizing children is available for climate related relocation.
Data from around the world shows the need for different types of responses. Climate change doesn’t look the same everywhere. Floods and storms accounted for 40.9 million — or 95 percent — of recorded child displacements between 2016 and 2021, due in part to better reporting and more preemptive evacuations. But droughts led to more than 1.3 million internal displacements of children between 2017 and 2021 and wildfires caused 810,000 displacements, with more than a third occurring in 2020.
Given the slow and fast, present and growing nature of climate disaster, Healy said UNICEF is trying to reduce the need for emergency evacuations in disasters but increase options for migration. Families may choose to migrate from drought and famine-stricken areas in pursuit of stable income or education. UNICEF wants less forced evacuations and more choices for the people most affected by climate change to improve their living conditions.
Big picture numbers don’t always capture how climate change is affecting individual communities. Ministries working on the ground in these areas can add their own firsthand accounts when speaking to U.S. based audiences, said Brian P. Duss, senior public relations manager at World Vision. “In my work I’ve been to places like Somaliland and South Sudan, and I’ve seen first-hand how environmental shocks are making life unbearable for children and families that are often already living under challenging circumstances.”
The key, and perhaps the hardest part, Leake said, is balancing the grim data with Christian hope. How Christians think about their responsibility to address climate change often reflects their beliefs about the promises between God, humans, and the Earth. For Christians to take climate action seriously, they have to see the earth as part of humans’ responsibility to steward, and that stewardship has to have a hopeful future.