Usually climate change hits hardest those who are least able to deal with it and had less to do with causing the problem. Consider the example of the village of Kumik in northwestern India, a story told in Jonathan Mingle’s book Fire and Ice. This community has been a viable place of habitation for more than 1,000 years but is now moving because of climate change: the nearby glacier has retreated and access to fresh water from snowmelt is severely limited. This is an interesting example, because it is likely that the accelerated pace of warming in the Himalayas is the result of global climate change and local emissions of soot from burning dung and wood. The village, however, has been burning dung and wood for 1,000 years, while the glacier has been retreating rapidly only in the past 50 years.
On the bright side, these villagers are teaching us all some lessons as they prepare to move to a new location. One lesson has to do with community: They could have split the village and required only half of the households to leave, but that was unthinkable to these folks; they wanted and needed to stay together. Another lesson they provide is in their redesigning their centuries-old houses to be more sustainable. They will be using passive and direct solar and wind power to heat their homes and cook their food, foregoing the sooty wood and dung fires that have been used in this region for as long as anyone can remember.
As harsh as this example of injustice is, there are, unfortunately, worse impacts to come. A compelling example is in Bangladesh, where the country expects to lose 17 percent of their land mass due to sea level rise, resulting in 20 million refugees by 2050. If disparity of impacts and destroying our children’s future is not enough, as much as one quarter of existing species will go extinct.
Climate change is the moral issue of our time. Its magnitude is particularly difficult to face because it hits us on three different levels:
Differential impact results. Though we are all affected by climate change, some populations will be more impacted than others. We in the temperate zones and more affluent communities will be less impacted than those in poorer and low-lying parts of the world and in areas closer to the equator or the poles.
Timing is a factor. There is a time lag between what we are doing now to create climate change and the most severe effects of climate change that will be felt in the future.
The natural world is affected. Climate change impacts not only humans, but all of nature.
Do we care about people in distant lands or people in other communities? Do we care about people of the future? Do we care about preserving other species?
I hope so, but I know for sure that we Quakers have traditionally cared about peace. What does climate change have to do with peace? Two examples illustrate the connection.
In Darfur (western Sudan), the United Nations Environment Programme has concluded that the horrendous conflict between Arab militias and black farmers had its roots in climate disruption. The region has experienced drought and creeping desertification over the past 50 years; the conflict left 200,000 to 500,000 people dead.
From 2007 to 2010 Syria experienced one of the worst droughts of modern times. There were many factors that produced the Syrian civil war, including corruption, inequality, and population growth. The drought, however, was a catalyst. Along with poor water management, the drought led to crop failures that caused 1.5 million people to migrate into dense cities. Crowding in areas that had weak infrastructure resulted in the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad. Since 2011 when the conflict began, at least 200,000 lives have been lost.
We Quakers also care about racial justice. Events that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement are the tip of the iceberg of bias and mistreatment. Do those outside the African American communities become allies, or do they see this as others’ problem? Deirdre Smith, an African American and a climate activist with 350.org, explained how the climate movement and the racial justice movement are linked:
Demonization and the illusion of the “other” allows mainstream United States to feel unaffected and disconnected to the employment of unacceptable and institutionally supported militarized violence. If we hope to build anything together and employ our combined power, we must deny that anyone is an “other”—denying this pervasive cultural norm isn’t easy, but it’s a central challenge we face.
I see breaking down the barrier to the “other” to be integral to both racial equality and climate change. We need to care about each other, whether our distance is measured in geography, time, race, or ethnicity, so that we can work together to create a fair and sustainable world. Deidre Smith says it better than I can:
Part of that work involves climate organizers acknowledging and understanding that our fight is not simply with the carbon in the sky, but with the powers on the ground. . . . But solidarity and allyship is important in and of itself. The fossil fuel industry would love to see us siloed into believing that we can each win by ourselves on “single issues.” Now it’s time for the climate movement to show up—to show that we will not stand for the “otherizing” of the black community here in America, or anyone else.
In North Carolina on February 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four sat down at the lunch counter inside a Woolworth department store. Earlier this year, Jibreel Khazan spoke in Greensboro on the fifty-fifth anniversary of that sit-in:
Climate change is young people’s “lunch counter moment” for the twenty-first century. When my three classmates and I sat down at that lunch counter to end segregation, we did not know what the outcome would be. We simply knew that we had to act. We had to take bold action for necessary change to come about. It is in the tradition of civil and human rights struggle that young people today are calling for action on climate change. It is the biggest threat to justice and opportunity our planet has ever seen.
Let us hope we Friends are up to the challenge of climate justice.