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Columbia Theological Seminary ethics scholar looks at how climate change impacts conflict and violence

The Rev. Dr. Mark Douglas is a recent guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Peter Burdon via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — In addition to the existential threat that climate crisis poses, it’s also a factor in conflict and violence around the world, the Rev. Dr. Mark Douglas said earlier this month on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.”

Douglas, Professor of Christian Ethics and Lead Professor of the Master of Theology degree at Columbia Theological Seminary, spoke to “A Matter of Faith” hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe during a 54-minute episode of the podcast that can be heard here. Catoe and Doong posed this question: “We hear a lot about the impacts of climate change on things like loss of biodiversity and weather changes, but are there more human impacts such as increased likelihood of conflict or violence?”

“It’s maybe an even more interesting question than you had anticipated,” Douglas told the hosts.

Douglas said he first became interested in how climate change can lead to conflict and violence when he heard a retired admiral interviewed on NPR about security considerations related to climate change. “I thought, I hadn’t heard of anybody in my guild, Christian ethics or religious ethics more broadly, talk about climate change and security issues. I thought, here’s a place where maybe there’s a niche for me,” Douglas said. “What I discovered was entire new fields of study with which I was not familiar.”

The first causative impact on security issues and violence driven by climate issues was the El Niño system that began hitting Central America and its neighbors in the early 2000s and returned last year. “This was the first bit of evidence we had, that there is a causative impact on security issues and violence driven by climate issues,” he said.

Climate change also has exacerbated or contributed to conflict, he said. His work suggests “that environmental degradation, climate change, the catastrophic loss of biodiversity and the exponential growth of pollutants, including toxic pollutants, are not only having impacts on human activity, they’re reshaping how we understand the world around us,” Douglas said. To put it another way: “Environmental issues are not only in this new age we’re entering into going to be issues about which we think, they’re going to be lenses through which we make sense of other issues.”

Citing places as varied as Tuvalu, Louisiana, Alaska and Sub-Saharan Africa, Douglas noted that while conflict can lead to displacement, the reverse is sometimes true as well. “When you put more people in an area than that area can support, all of a sudden you have a new conflict” over scarce resources and “ways to understand the land and who has access to what.”

“Environmental degradation, conflict and displacement all interact with each other in complicated ways,” Douglas said. Sometimes one drives the other two; other times, two factors drive the third.

Therapists tell us that “the best way to negotiate climate anxiety,” especially among young adults who are so anxious about climate change that they’re reluctant to have children, “is to do something about the climate,” Douglas said. “Work at your own level to bring about small changes, which reduces anxiety.”

There’s also “a theological claim we would want to make: Somehow God is still working providentially, and our confidence in what God does ought to look like a willingness to have and raise children into God’s future,” Douglas said. “It’s an expression of faithful confidence in God in the face of a lot of change, recognizing that the world has always undergone change and, in the middle of it, we’re better off than most people in history.”

The church “has to pay attention to displacement, primarily refuges, and how we understand resources and questions of scarcity,” Douglas said. “As Christians, we don’t start with control and scarcity to take advantage and control markets. We start with the goodness of Creation and a sense of God’s abundance in which there is enough and go from there.”

Many people identify barriers to “the shift we’re talking about,” Douglas said. “One is, ‘I don’t want to get uncomfortable.’ Another is, ‘If I get involved, I’m going to get dirty hands. I’m going to be complicit.’”

But “complicity is inevitable and attempts to escape it are morally bankrupt,” Douglas said. “Instead of escaping it, our obligation is to try to learn from it.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Douglas noted that when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pursues social action, it’s through programs including the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “Here are actions we can take where we recognize that what we’re doing builds that relationship with our human and non-human neighbors going forward,” Douglas said.

Asked by the hosts for a closing comment, Douglas offered up these, among others:

  • He’d been “negligent,” he said, in not naming white supremacy and race and ethnicity “in the context of climate and violence. … From my particular position of white male privilege, I want to argue that if you’re talking about race and ethnicity and you’re not talking about climate and violence, you’re missing part of the conversation that needs to be had.”
  • “One of the most important things Christians and others can do to address climate change and violence is to build robust democratic systems,” he said. He suggested a three-prong approach: vote with an eye toward the environment; work to make sure everybody’s vote counts by, for example, opposing gerrymandered districts; and “make sure that not only everybody’s vote counts but everybody’s vote gets counted by working against anything that restricts voting rights.”

The hosts thanked Douglas for his time and his insights.

“It’s amazing how interconnected these issues are,” Doong said.

“We went on a journey,” Catoe said, “a journey we need to go on more often.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop each Thursday. Listen to previous episodes here.

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