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The PC(USA)’s Associate for Migration Accompaniment Ministries presents on climate change’s impact on migration

Just Creation conference intended to build networks for future climate and policy action

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Susan Krehbiel

When the soil is no longer productive, I have to search for other ways to earn a living so that my family won’t die from hunger. I got a pile of sand and gravel to sell. These adaptations are useful. If I did not adapt to the changes, life would have already beaten me, and it would have been difficult to cope with these difficult situations. There is no work in my home area and the soil can no longer produce so I have to say that migration is an option.”

This testimony from a farmer in Haiti describing his situation after suffering multiple impacts related to climate change was delivered to participants in a workshop titled “Climate Caused Displacement and the Role of Faith Communities,” thanks to a recording hosted on the website for Church World Service.

Susan Krehbiel, associate for Migration Accompaniment Ministries for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, presented on the topic of climate change’s impact on migration at Columbia Theological Seminary’s conference called “Just Creation: Shalom for Our Common Home” earlier this month. The hybrid conference featuring experts across disciplines, faith traditions and environmental issues opened with a free public lecture by Heather McTeer Toney of the Environmental Defense Fund, at Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia.


Hear voices from the Church World Service recording here.

While virtual registrants could participate in the opening and closing keynotes and three panel discussions based around the themes of earth, air and water or access the recordings later, in-person registrants were encouraged to select three workshops out of a choice of a dozen topics ranging from eco-anxiety, solar-powered congregations, various global concerns and Creation care themes in the Bible.

Columbia Theological Seminary is committed to hosting these large conferences every two years to engage the public on relevant issues at the intersection of the common good and faith. The seminary is still accepting registrations for the Just Creation conference throughout the month of April to allow a larger audience to access the recorded plenaries and panels.

According to Dr. Mark Douglas, chair of the Columbia Conferences Committee: “Each conference is to be oriented around a particular theme and bring together not only a range of scholars who could help the wider church think about that theme but a range of partnering organizations through which Columbia Theological Seminary and conferees might build networks into the future.” This year’s conference was made possible by a significant grant by the Griffith Foundation, along with contributions and partnerships with other organizations whose interests aligned with the conference.

Dr. Mark Douglas

Past conferences covered the themes of “Bible and Empire” in 2015 and “Migrations and Border Crossings” in 2019. Having presented at the 2019 conference, Krehbiel was eager to return this year for the chance to connect her work on migration with climate change. The ecumenical gathering gave her the opportunity to highlight an overdue but important alliance happening between the two advocacy worlds of environmentalism and immigration rights.

According to a recent report, “Addressing the Protection Gap — Human Mobility and Climate Change in International Frameworks,” from Bread for the World Germany, Climate change, its related hazards, including extreme weather events and slow-onset events, pose a major threat to the existence of poor and vulnerable communities who have contributed the least to global warming.”

The January 2023 report was published in response to another report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to highlight how the panel’s study of impact, adaptation and vulnerability of communities related to climate change confirmed what nonprofits and activists in the “Global South had been saying all along” that climate change, migration and displacement are inextricably linked. What’s necessary is a coordinated effort between those working to alleviate the effects of climate change and those working to better address the causes, concerns and resettlement issues of migrants and refugees.

The Rev. Dr. Bill Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary presents on Creation care themes in the Hebrew Bible. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Krehbiel’s workshop explored the impact of climate change on forced displacements, the human rights challenges and the role of faith communities in responding to these concerns. Her presentation included recent examples of consultations on displacement in Latin America and the Caribbean addressing the impacts of climate change and their humanitarian and advocacy responses. After highlighting the Migration Accompaniment Ministries, mandates of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and PDA’s relationship with the Actions by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance, Krehbiel introduced important terminology regarding forced and voluntary migration, historical conventions around refugee rights, U.S. laws and current stances of the U.S. Department of State.

Krehbiel focused on the environmental degradation that drives people to migrate away from lands bombarded by cycles of droughts, floods and other natural disasters or depleted by corporate deforestation and monocultural farming that render these areas unsustainable for agriculture and human life. She emphasized the lack of protection in current policy for migration due to these slow-onset aftermaths of climate change.

“Human mobility needs to be effectively integrated into more national plans, and greater coherence is required between policy areas such as climate policy, adaptation, disaster risk reduction and existing frameworks and guidelines for internally displaced persons and migrants,” said Krehbiel, who noted that many countries lack the resources and capacities to develop and implement long-term approaches to tackle the complex field of human mobility in the context of climate change. According to Krehbiel, other countries that do have the resources, such as the United States, still rely heavily on responses like “closing borders, militarization of the border, detention and deportation.”

Krehbiel suggested churches do play a role in the conversation to mutually sustain the earth and their neighbors by accompanying migrants through the transit shelter network, advocating for the rights of migrants and refugees such as efforts to stop the “transit ban” and to stop family detention and separation, and to partner with global nonprofits committed to sustainable development in countries like Guatemala, where deforestation, monocultural corporate farming, and the rising frequency of unpredictable storms and droughts damage harvests in poor communities pushed continually further into infertile areas.

In closing, Krehbiel shared a statement from Filippo Grandi, the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):

“In such a complex world, we need to work together. Unfortunately, the international community has become quite unable to do so: unable to make peace, or even prevent predictable catastrophes. To share vaccines. To reduce risks from the climate emergency. To spend a little now — money, political capital or both — to avoid much greater expense in the future. The impact of this inaction on the world’s most vulnerable is grave. Covid, climate, conflict and now a cost-of-living crisis are causing ever more hardship and — indeed, and in various ways — compelling people to flee. The demand for UNHCR’s response has never been greater, while its space to find solutions has perhaps never been smaller.”

Migration like climate change has multiple causes inextricably linked like a chain of events or a failing ecosystem. But according to Krehbiel, the international policies operate under outdated definitions and causes of migration: “Mixed migration needs to be seen as the norm, not an anomaly. It’s way too late to just throw our hands up and say it’s too difficult.”

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