What can we do about disasters? Fight climate change

Presbyterian leaders say addressing climate change key to addressing increasing, bigger disasters

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — For the last few months, the Rev. Jim Kirk has been managing Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s (PDA) response to situations across the country.

Wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the Southeast, and catastrophic windstorms in the Midwest have their own distinct impacts. But the preponderance of disasters in recent years has roots in the same thing: climate change.

“We need to take it seriously and acknowledge it is a reality,” Kirk, PDA’s Associate for National Disaster Response, said last month at the end of a conversation about unprecedented wildfires in Oregon.

At that time, he was looking at a half-dozen tropical systems in the Atlantic Ocean alone. Since then, Hurricanes Sally and Delta impacted the U.S. mainland and there have been fresh outbreaks of wildfires in California.

Kirk has watched as the wildfire season has expanded in both duration and geography out west, the result of drier conditions and winds that can quickly spread a spark into a wildfire with the “inexhaustible fuel” of dried vegetation. And in the tropics he sees the cause and effect of warmer water producing a warmer atmosphere, creating more impactful storms.

“A lot of people are at their wits’ end trying to figure out how to extract ourselves from the problems we’re seeing: the fires out of California, Oregon, and Washington are so vast, so much  bigger than anything we’ve seen,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for National Hunger Concerns with the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP). “I don’t think we can any longer ignore the influence that our petroleum and growth economy is having on the planet.”

The challenge, said Kang Bartlett and his PHP colleague Jessica Maudlin Phelps, associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns, is looking beyond the enormity of the problem to see how individuals can have a positive impact on the environment.

“Too often we don’t think about the way that we walk on the Earth, the way we hold the Earth, the way we care for the Earth,” Maudlin Phelps said. “Changing that as well as addressing policies and pollution are all important pieces of the puzzle. You can’t address climate change without looking at these disasters.”

In a Sept. 14 post on PHP’s Eco-Justice Journey blog, Maudlin Phelps reminded readers that the fires that were engulfing California and turning skies orange were plaguing Australia at the beginning of the year, and she wrote about steps people can take to slow the impact of climate change. They ranged from advocacy and education to taking action such as planting trees, taking PHP’s Climate Care Challenge, and Blessed Tomorrow’s Guide to Climate Action for congregations and communities.

“Part of coming out of a place of feeling helpless is seeing the interconnectedness of the issues,” Maudlin Phelps said. “For example, what we are doing here that puts carbon in the atmosphere impacts what is going on on the West Coast. Making changes to energy sources is helping people on the West Coast, advocating for clean air policies, and decreasing overall pollution impacts all of us. I think understanding that can help move us out of feeling helpless about what is happening.”

People that we help by our actions and modifying our activities include people in communities and countries dealing with poverty and hunger that can least withstand the impact of disasters. Kang Bartlett said that the growth and impact of disasters is showing more affluent populations what marginalized communities have been dealing with for a long time.

One of the challenges is that not everyone agrees there is a problem, and some actively oppose methods of solving it, including curbing fossil fuel consumption.

“The forces that are driving politics and the economy have accumulated that power intentionally, so it will take an equal and greater loving power to turn things around,” Kang Bartlett said. “It’s important to understand that we’re just one person in a big village, and it’s going to take a village. So, when choosing things to do, if you can choose one over the other that actually increases the voice or the influence or the power of individuals and communities, choose that one, because it is a power dynamic.”

Kirk said, “Nations need to implement reasonable policies to slow climate change. Our personal actions and our national actions reflect the seriousness with which we take this issue.”

WATCH: In April, PDA and PHP presented a webinar on climate change and disaster

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbyterian Hunger Program are Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. They are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.


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