Belief in Climate Change: A Matter of Choice or Survival? by Rev. Helen Nelson

It may be difficult for some of us to believe, but many persons of faith continue to argue over the role of human behavior in climate change, even as mounting evidence – and sea levels – rise.  And, if you think climate change denial is a phenomenon limited to the United States of America, you may be surprised to learn that other nations are also engaged in this debate; and that for some, their very lives depend on the outcome. Many members of faith groups would be surprised to learn that the foreign mission projects they have supported for decades, or even centuries, in Asia and the South Pacific may soon be under water, not just financially, but literally!

On October 25, 2006, the online publication The Independent published an article by Kathy Marks, Asia-Pacific correspondent, with the following warning to low-lying Asia-Pacific nations of projected sea-level rise to result from global warming.   Environmentalists have warned that global warming, caused by a build-up of greenhouse gases, will cause thermal expansion and a meltdown of glaciers. That could lead to seas rising by up to 23ft, and would be devastating for countries such as Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and China. But the tiny nations of the Pacific, where some of the world’s lowest-lying islands are situated, would be the first to be swamped. Those considered particularly vulnerable, as well as Kiribati, are Vanuatu; the Marshall Islands; Tuvalu and parts of Papua New Guinea.

Perhaps the most imminently vulnerable of these Asia-Pacific nations is Kiribati, also known as The Gilberts.  According to ancient Kiribati mythology, the giant spider Nareau created the island chain and populated them first with spirits (anti), then half-spirits, half humans, and – last of all – humans.  Some of the indigenous beliefs and rituals have been absorbed into the island’s predominant Christian faith. The first Christian missionary landed in the 33-island South Pacific nation of Kiribati in 1850.  Mission trips by various denominations to the exotic locale have been ongoing until the present.  Today, the islands boast some 90,000 residents, of which only 23 do not claim membership in a church. Just over half of the citizens are Roman Catholic, 36 percent are mainline Protestant, and 3 percent belong to the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).  A small number of residents self-identify as Seventh-Day Adventists and members of the Church of God.   Baha’i is the only other religious affiliation reported by residents of Kiribati.

Climate change conferences were held in the South Pacific Maldives in 2009 and in Kiribati in 2010 to strategize appropriate responses for the vulnerable islands and their neighbors. Despite the seemingly irrefutable evidence of rising sea level and eroding landmass, the Kiribati people have struggled over a perceived conflict between faith and science regarding climate change.

In a National Public Radio program by Brian Reed on February 16, 2011, residents of South Tarawa in Kiribati reported long dry seasons without rain accompanied by rising tidewaters encroaching on roads, houses, and crops.  The seawater turns the fresh water on the island salty and brackish, destroying vegetation and diminishing resources for safe drinking water.

Kiribati’s President Anote Tong is convinced that islands like his will become submerged within fifty years.  Former Present and current Parliament member, Teburoro Tito, though, refuses to acknowledge the visible evidence of his country’s accelerating crisis, choosing instead to believe God’s promise to Noah never to send another devastating flood over all the earth will keep his country’s citizens safe. Tito’s views are shared by many Kiribati’s residents.  They feel that they must choose between the word of scientists and the word of God.  They worry that President Tong’s attempts to address the effects of climate change are signs that he does not believe in God.

President Tong understands the tendency toward denial of climate change. “There’s always this deep desire to deny it,” Tong says. “And I don’t want to get trapped into that because that’s an emotional reaction. My emotional reaction: ‘No, it will never happen.’ But the facts are there in front of us. The sea level rise is going to put us underwater, much earlier perhaps than we all anticipated.”

In February 2013, EcoWatch reported that rising sea levels could force the largest migration of displaced peoples in history.  President Tong has been urging an orderly and dignified evacuation of his citizens to neighboring nations such as Fiji and Australia, stating that it is no longer a matter of choice, but of survival.

Those of us in the Western Hemisphere who think we are immune to the climate-induced sea level rise may be deluded into thinking this has nothing to do with us.  But we would be wrong.  Melting glaciers, overdevelopment, short-sighted storm water management, outdated energy policies, and poor enforcement of environmental regulations guarantee that our coastal areas will be impacted, too.  In fact, our coasts have been shrinking for decades, with beachfront property owners and governments of coastal cities spending big bucks to ship in sand from other areas to shore up their shorelines.

As persons of faith, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and our faith communities on climate change and sea level rise.  We also have a responsibility to pray and strategize together for ways to mitigate the problems and to minister to our local, national, and world neighbors.  In the words of Kiribati’s President Tong, “It is no longer a choice, but a matter of survival.”

Rev. Helen Nelson is pastor of Oak Grove Christian Church and a member of  the Board of Directors of the Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition.