Climate Change and Natural Disasters
by Steve Bell
I’m astonished by the kinds of comments I read on blogs and news reports from those who insist that chronic poverty is most commonly the fault of the people who are suffering the most.
The reason I wanted to write this series of blogs was to highlight the matrix of events, trends and processes that benefit some and plague others. The earthquake that so devastatingly hit Haiti in 2010 occasioned much public discussion and (sadly) derision about Haiti’s chronic neediness. I decided to do a little research into her history and in less than an hour discovered a long and crippling legacy of unjust debt, dictatorships and disasters that can hardly be blamed on the beleaguered Haitians. (If you haven’t already, take about five minutes and read my blog Debt, Dictatorship and Disaster – a Brief History of Haiti – it’ll surprise you). From the relatively stable political, social and natural environment I come from, it’s hard to fathom the concentrated challenges that so many… on such a tiny island…. have had to endure… for so long.
My blogs in this series so far have touched on a few of the many causes of poverty around the world: the volatility of world food prices, retrogressive traditional customs, local and global corruption, regional conflict. Upcoming blogs will talk about unjust and unreliable legal structures and gender prejudice. But no matter how you discern it, the deaths of 30,000 children in the Horn of Africa in the last three months cannot be considered self-inflicted. They were just children. And according to reports, there are millions more who are currently, critically vulnerable.
Let’s for a moment consider climate change and natural disasters. When Nanci and I visited a remote village in the Afar Desert in north-east Ethiopia, we met a people who have survived this inhospitable climate for centuries; living rather ingenious nomadic lives that for the most part were quite sustainable. Serious drought (typically every 20 years), though problematic, was anticipated, strategically planned for and absorbed. The unique difficulty these days is not drought in itself, but frequency of drought. What used to come every twenty years is now coming every 5-8 years with not enough time in between to absorb, recover and prepare. Traditional nomadic life is no longer sustainable and the millions there will have to quickly manage a seismic cultural shift in their centuries-0ld understanding of a meaningful life – or they will simply perish.
In 2008, Nanci and I traveled with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to Bangladesh. Just months before our arrival, Cyclone Sidr whipped up a twenty foot sea surge that bludgeoned the heavily populated coastline along the Bay of Bengal. In the middle of the night, within minutes, mothers found themselves hanging on to children with one arm, and the tops of palm trees with the other as the churning waters hurled corrugated metal from destroyed homes, slicing through their skin and muscles until they could no longer hold on to their young. The horror of that night is too much to bear and I rarely let myself think about the stories I heard. But most said that that wasn’t the worst part. Months after the storm, and after the world turned to more immediate disasters, rotting corpses from the tens of thousands of farm animals killed in the storm leached into the water table causing an epidemic of dysentery that caused unspeakable suffering and took many more lives. As with droughts in Africa, the increasing frequency and severity of tropical storms in other parts of the world are having a crippling effect on millions of already vulnerable people.
These these two trips alone inspired quite a change in Nanci’s and my lifestyle. I know there is much heated and politicized debate about the cause of climate change but consider this: Once I met a marine scientist in southern California. He had been studying the profound changes that carbon pollution was having on the world’s oceans. Al Gore’s alarmist film had just come out and naysayers were citing evidence of carbon spikes in the earth’s atmosphere throughout history, suggesting that our present experience is simply cyclical. My friend pointed out that this was a moot point. “Of course there have been carbon spikes in the past,” he said, “but in the past there weren’t 7 billion people on the planet using fossil fuels to ampify the effects.” So Nance and I have downsized to a one-car family. We’ve wrapped our home in insulation and do everything we can to conserve heat in the winter and cool in the summer. I’ve come to appreciate, even enjoy riding the bus and am increasingly choosing a diet that has a smaller carbon footprint. We are certainly not poster-children for the cause, there is much more we could do. But we are learning and changing slowly as our hearts soften to the reality of the global situation as we understand it. We need to constantly re-assess our lifestyle to determine if we can learn to use less and share more – and commit to continuous learning so we might do more on behalf of those most pressed by global stressors.
“The poor, and those who live close to the margins of society often do not have buffers between themselves and their environment and the simple option to relocate is a resource many don’t have. Those of us with adequate resources protect ourselves from disaster – we buy insurance, we rely on our government for support, we tuck money away in bank accounts. And while necessity is the mother of invention and in times of need people find creative ways to cope – sometimes it is not enough.”
Emily Cain / Communications Coordinator, Canadian Foodgrains Bank
And so… besides lifestyle change and personal giving, as a voting citizen of Canada I can also urge my government to represent our hearts on the matter of climate change and global hunger. This week I plan to use the template provided by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s FAST FOR CHANGE campaign to write a letter to my Member of Parliament. I fully understand Governments are limited and should not be counted on to solve all the problems. But they have a tremendous place in the overall matrix of responses needed to address problems that now exist on a global scale. I want my government to know that if it is going to represent me, it must err on the side of long-haul compassion, not short-term protectionism. I would like my government to be a world leader in thoughtful, sustained and sacrificial compassion on behalf of the world’s hungry. Perhaps you might write a letter too. We’re hoping for a Harvest of Letters! If it helps, you can use or modify a letter provided by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank HERE… Info about how to identify and address your MP are provided.
In closing: This past week I was politely criticized for encouraging people to fast and pray. The critique was that these were benign, sentimental activities that enable people to feel good about themselves without having to do the real work of charity and advocacy. Let me say this… I do believe in prayer. Profoundly so. How (exactly) my prayers affect God I cannot say. Will God act decisively in history only if I pray? And if I don’t? I’ve heard many and various teachings about this, but personally, I think we’re treading the the realm of mystery. However, this I do know from experience… prayer changes me. When I am silent before God with the world’s sufferings on my heart, my soul supples and I cannot leave that holy place unchanged. And maybe it is not a good (but seemingly docile) God who needs to be mobilized for change, but rather a naturally self-serving and preserving Steve Bell who needs to change. Perhaps, prayer-changing-me is actually how God works for good in history. It’s just a thought.
Visit the Fast For Change website. Join the campaign to:
Fast and Pray. Fast and Advocate. Fast and Give.
This blog is from week 4 of a six week coffee fast Steve has undertaken in support of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s FAST FOR CHANGE campaign.
Other blogs in this series:
- Week 1 / Family, Food, Feast and Famine
- Week 2 / Root Causes of Hunger
- Week 3 / The Real Cost of Food
- Week 5 / The Human Right to Food
- Week 6 / Women and Hunger
- A Primer on Climate Change and Hunger prepared by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank
- Waste Not, Want Not by Terence Z. Sibanda. “One third of all food produced is wasted, says a recent report from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food is lost at every stage, from initial production, through the supply chain, the retail stage, and finally at the household level…. In medium and high income countries about 220 million tonnes of food is lost at the household level. This loss is the equivalent of the total net food produced in Sub Saharan Africa.”
- A Biblical Perspective on the Problem of Hunger by Walter Brueggemann. The persistence of hunger in a world entirely capable of producing enough food for all, in the end, is an issue of fidelity; a fidelity that issues from a three-way covenant between God, the earth, and its people. For our part, our covenant is to a “love-fueled justice –one that is binding not in the remote, legal sense, but rather in the familial sense.”
Listen to the Fast for Change Radio Player.