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Climate change webinar focuses on disasters

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance collaborates with Presbyterians for Earth Care

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Presbyterians for Earth Care teamed up  to put on the Responding to Growing Disasters webinar, which aired Thursday. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has seen weather patterns change during this era of growing concern about the impact of climate change on the planet.

“We are aware that disasters are happening out of season,” PDA’s Director, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, said during a webinar hosted Thursday by Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC). “We are aware that disasters are much worse than they used to be. They are much more intense. They are much more frequent.”

The impact is being felt both in the United States and around the world, noted Kraus and other speakers.

The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus

For example, “the tornadoes that hit our own state of Kentucky and neighboring states, Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, all happened in December, which is not typically tornado season for us,” she said. “The intensification and the rapid formation of hurricanes is another issue, and right now in Madagascar and Malawi and Mozambique, they have been hit by back-to-back, very serious, intense typhoons, again out of season and much worse than usual,” leading to catastrophic flooding and the displacement of people.

Kraus was among a handful of PDA staff members who spoke during the Responding to Growing Disasters webinar. Along with PDA presentations, the online event included Earth care resources presented by PEC and suggestions on how to counter climate change.

Watch the full webinar here.

The event followed the release of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), detailing the effects of rising temperature and warning of things to come if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curtailed. According to the United Nations, the authors note that human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting billions of lives around the globe.

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet,” IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner has said. “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”

In the PDA/PEC webinar, the Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA Associate for National Disaster Response, said it’s important to “lower our carbon footprint” and “live in more green and sustainable ways” to try to “reverse, if not eliminate, the impact that human beings have on the climate.”

He also further elaborated on the nation’s natural disasters and how climate change is affecting them.

“The majority of disasters in 2021 shared something in common,” Kirk said. “They were the result of natural variability or randomness but made worse by the effect of climate change and societal and socio-economic trends, so as Laurie mentioned, hurricanes still hit Florida, fires still hit the West, tornadoes (come through) Tornado Alley, but they’re more intense, and the effects are much more devastating.”

PEC’s Moderator, the Rev. Bruce Gillette, highlighted an analysis that found that 1 in 10 homes in the United States were impacted by natural disasters last year. That’s more than 14.5 million homes and almost $57 billion in property damage, but “there’s a variety of things we can be doing,” he said, referring the online audience to resources such as Project Drawdown, which offers a course on climate solutions and has many articles to peruse.

One of the ways that PDA and its partners try to make a difference is through mitigation, which involves helping communities to get in a position to better withstand severe weather. Kirk lifted up work by the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group in eastern Texas, which worked with various partners to build 23 homes to help residents recover from Hurricane Harvey.

Working with engineers on the Tierra de Esperanza (Land of Hope) project, “the homes were built to higher specifications” and were made “much more resistant” to winds and flooding, Kirk said.

“These (residences), because of the way they’re constructed, because of our efforts together, are forever homes for these families, their children and their children’s children,” Kirk said.

On the international front, the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, the PDA Associate for Disaster Response in Latin America and the Caribbean, spoke about some of the challenges being experienced by communities in the regions that he serves. Some have dealt with heatwaves, heavy rainfall, devastating hurricanes and catastrophic wildfires — sometimes all in one year, he said.

The Rev. Edwin González-Castillo

Sharing a personal experience, he noted, “I was a pastor in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit, and the amount of damage that it created was never seen before, especially for that generation — for our generation,” he said.

Although that hurricane occurred in 2017, the ramifications are still being felt. “Just a few weeks ago, PDA approved a grant for the Dominican Republic that had to deal with construction of houses that were devastated by Hurricane Maria,” González-Castillo said. “So the damages are still there,” even if it’s no longer on the news.

He noted that PDA also has provided assistance in Puerto Rico in many ways, including ushering in thousands of volunteers to help rebuild homes.

During another part of his presentation, González-Castillo discussed how climate change is fueling migration in various parts of the world.

Major damage occurred as the result of back-to-back hurricanes named Eta and Iota, which struck Central America in November 2020. (Photo by Sean Hawkey)

Weather events such as hurricanes Eta and Iota, as well as droughts and floods have “increased the amount of people that have to leave their homes, looking for a better place,” he said. “So a lot of the people that are coming out to the United States or going to Mexico, or even internal immigration, is due to the changes in climate because they don’t have a place that they can grow their food, they don’t have a place to work. Fishermen, because of the contamination, the pollution, cannot fish in the same place that the previous generations could fish,” he said.

PDA is working around the world with partners to address food insecurity and other issues, such as access to clean water, González-Castillo noted. “We’re thankful always for donations and the help from our communities and churches that understand the need to work together.”

Firefighters gather In August 2020 in front of Bonny Doon Presbyterian Church in the Presbytery of San Jose. The church sustained minor damage in a wildfire. (Photo from Cal Fire CZA)

Because of current events, the webinar also included an update on the conflict in Ukraine and prayers for people affected. (Click here to contribute to international refugee programs.)

PDA has awarded grants to partners working to assist refugees and internally displaced people. “We’re trying to get a lot of resources in right away because the emergency needs are so overwhelming,” Kraus said.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Its work is made possible by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


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