I was a latecomer to the “climate cause.” With all of the world’s social ills, it was hard for me to be invested in an issue like global warming that I little understood and around which there was so much controversy.
All of that changed several weeks ago when I visited the Philippines with Catholic Relief Services. There, I had the opportunity to meet some of the people who are most at risk of the effects of climate change and to see the conditions in which they live.
The Cry of the Earth; the Cry of the Poor
Climate change projections predict that increasingly powerful tropical cyclones and heavier monsoon rainfall will be among the effects of global warming on the Philippines. But in poor countries, it is poverty that turns a natural hazard, like heavy rainfall, into a potential disaster.
Poor infrastructure that cannot withstand the natural onslaught, weak governments that lack the ability to enforce no-dwell laws or coordinate proper warnings and response, and oppressive poverty that offers few options to people who live exposed to the elements in hazard zones; all of these increase the risks posed by natural disasters to the world’s poorest and, specifically, the 60 percent of the Filipino population that lives in coastal zones.
It was my encounter with these complexities of poverty and with the people who live with them in this, by some estimates, the most disaster-prone country in the world that solidified for me the social dimension of climate change on a global level. This intimate link between poverty and the environment is an emphatic central theme of Pope Francis’ encyclical published this summer: “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home.”
“Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society,” he writes. Earlier in the document he writes, “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
This is the critical piece of the climate debate that came to life for me in the Philippines and that Pope Francis illuminated for millions of others with his encyclical: the environment’s link to the perennial, more deeply entrenched Catholic concern for the poor.
The Effects of Climate Change Personified
While in the Philippines, I spoke with Julie Martinez in a slum outside Manila. Her house made of thin wooden sheets stood elevated two or three feet above the ground. Out a square hole in the wall, with nothing but a cloth curtain for cover, the family’s outhouse, shared with three other families, was visible.
We sat talking in a tiny living room, partitioned by a curtain. At night that room becomes the house’s bedroom, with the family of eight sleeping together on the thin wooden floor. The last time there was extreme flooding here the family was awoken in the night by water coming up through the boards. Poor drainage meant the floodwaters wouldn’t recede for three months after that monsoon.
In recent years, the community has been seeing unprecedented rainfall during monsoon season, which exacerbates the flooding problem. These heavy rains are one way the Philippines is already seeing some of the impacts of a warming climate. A 2011 report by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery on the climate risks to the Philippines cited that the metro Manila area could see an estimated 60-100 percent increase in rainfall as a result of global warming.
Julie is concerned that because of all the water damage, the house’s wooden foundation has become dangerously weak. She can feel the house shake when people walk toward it along the community’s makeshift pedestrian bridge.
But any improvements she would make would have to be temporary. She doesn’t own the land she lives on. She lives in a community of squatters, built on government-owned land. In Manila and its surrounding areas, an estimated quarter of the population lives in these informal settlements.
Julie and her family have nowhere else to go. Her husband works in construction and if they were to move to a legal plot of land that they could afford, it would take them far away from his work. They’ve lived in the house for 22 years, knowing that at any time they could be forced to leave, and that the next flood or natural disaster will bring a fresh wave of destruction.
International Agreements, Personal Conversion
This Friday concluded a two-week international climate conference hosted by the UN in Paris. The 21st conference of its kind, it drew tens of thousands of delegates from 195 countries around the world. Its somewhat lofty goal was, “for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C,” a critical threshold believed by many scientists to be the point of climate disaster on a global scale. (It refers to the rise in average global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution).
As of this writing, the real progress the conference achieved toward that goal is unclear. Even when the conference has officially concluded, it will remain to be seen how the documents and agreements produced will translate into real world outcomes and changes.
What is certain is that, however slowly, the international response to this threat is gaining momentum. With the publication of his encyclical, Pope Francis similarly propelled the issue into the minds and hearts of Catholics around the world. And so I am encouraged in the small things I can do each day to be conscious of the planet and the effects of my consumption on the Earth and, by extension, on the world’s poor.
This season of preparation for Christ’s birth presents a perfect opportunity to implement new ways of caring for the Earth, the home he both created and inhabited. Buying gifts, entertaining, travelling, decorating, wrapping presents – all provide us with opportunities to begin making lifestyle changes that prioritize care for the Earth and push back against the “throwaway culture.”
Beyond Christmas, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) lists several ideas on their website for ways Americans can reduce their personal emissions. They’re simple things like conserving water, insulating homes, changing out light bulbs, buying energy efficient appliances, unplugging electronics, recycling, carpooling. But Pope Francis insists that small actions matter.
“We must not think that these efforts [“little daily actions”] are not going to change the world,” he writes in Laudato Si’. “They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such efforts can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s listing of tips for reducing emissions can be found at www3.epa.gov/ClimateChange/wycd.
Joanna Gardner is social ministries communicator, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden and a Catholic Relief Services Egan Journalism Fellow.