(RNS) — As America’s youth march in the climate strike this week and United Nations leaders discuss climate change at their summit in New York, the climate crisis is already here. Storms are becoming more powerful and desertification is threatening our food supplies. Some areas face rising sea levels while others face drought. Poor and vulnerable people are at greater risk of losing their lives and livelihoods. Those who have contributed the least to climate change are already facing the brunt of its impact.
The rest of us have to be ready to respond to the tragedies we are witnessing — the bodies still being recovered from the Grand Bahama and Abaco islands where Hurricane Dorian destroyed nearly half the homes, flooding in Bangladesh, fires in the Amazon and drought in the Horn of Africa.
One reason we feel so overwhelmed by these catastrophes is that they are not the familiar upheavals our refugee and relief systems are built to deal with. In the post-World War II era, when Church World Service was founded, the definition of a refugee was someone dispossessed by violent conflict and persecution. People are still displaced by the scourge of war, but today we face a man-made phenomenon that compounds that threat. Dorian’s refugees are not the first victims of climate change, and, sadly, they will not be the last.
But people of faith, like the 30 million Christians that CWS represents across the United States, and the network of 155 churches and faith-based organizations of the ACT Alliance, recognize the story of a changing planet very well. Noah’s prophetic witness was to call on his community to heed the warning of the darkening skies and take action to save their world before it was too late.
We also know that humans have been on the move since God appointed us stewards of the earth. The threat of internal displacement in coming years looms just as large as international migration. The World Bank estimates as many as 143 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America could be displaced internally by climate change impacts by the year 2050.
As climate-induced migration and displacement increase, we shouldn’t take for granted that states will uphold the human rights of their citizens on the move — since we observe plenty of other examples of how resource-poor and marginalized communities struggle to enjoy their rights as citizens.
Instead of welcoming our Bahamian neighbors who have lost loved ones and suffered a terrible tragedy, in his typically callous way, President Trump denied protected status to Dorian’s victims.
The only strategy that ensures the welfare of humanity and the earth we all belong to is an approach that addresses the root causes of climate change and migration and expands our understanding of who needs international protection.
That’s why ACT Alliance, CWS, and many other faith-based organizations are participating in the U.N. Climate Summit this week and are strongly advocating for comprehensive action.
The defining challenge of this century, in short, is not a climate crisis alone, but a confluence of climate change and forced migration. As freshwater and other resources become scarcer, living conditions become more unbearable and totalitarians continue to erode civil and human rights, desperate people will be forced into even more impossible situations.
All governments must become more ambitious in their climate strategies and national plans. These plans cannot be allowed to discriminate against any part of our global family. The voices of women, girls, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, LGBTQI and others are all too often absent from climate discussions, yet they are disproportionately affected by climate change and must be heard.
Youth activist Greta Thunberg is right when she admonishes us to not remain calm in the threat of the climate emergency. There is a real crisis already taking place, and it is taking a toll around the world on the poor, the young, the marginalized and the sick. It is the most urgent moral call we face today and one that we must all address together.
(Rev. John L. McCullough is president and CEO of Church World Service, and Rudelmar Bueno de Faria is the general secretary of the ACT Alliance. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)