Reflections on poverty and climate change

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Before I became a priest, I was a professor of oceanography. One of the things I learned was that oceanographers couldn't just study squid or fish in isolation. We had to study interconnected systems. We had to understand not only the animals' environment, such as the water, but its chemistry and circulation, the atmosphere above the ocean and the geology below it. And that, I believe, is how we must understand our world: We must see everything, and everyone, as interconnected and intended by God to live in relationship.

Two of the most significant crises facing our world -- climate change and deadly poverty -- offer an example of such interconnectedness. By understanding how the two crises, and the people they affect, are connected, we can begin to understand how humanity can triumph over both. Extreme poverty -- that is, poverty that kills -- afflicts more than a billion of God's people around the world. Nearly 30,000 of these people will die today. That's 1 every 3 seconds. The factors that propel this kind of deadly poverty include hunger, diseases like AIDS and malaria, conflict, lack of access to education and basic inequality. Climate change threatens to make the picture even more deadly. As temperature changes increase the frequency and intensity of severe-weather events around the world, poor countries -- which often lack infrastructural needs like storm walls and water-storage facilities -- will divert previous resources away from fighting poverty in order to respond to disaster. Warmer climates will also increase the spread of diseases like malaria and tax the ability of poor countries to respond adequately. Perhaps most severely, changed rain patterns will increase the prevalence of drought in places like Africa, where only 4 percent of cropped land is irrigated, leaving populations without food and hamstrung in their ability to trade internationally to generate income.

Conversely, just as climate change will exacerbate poverty, poverty also is hastening climate change. Most poor people around the world lack access to a reliable-energy source, an imbalance that must be addressed in any attempt to lift a community out of poverty. Unfortunately, financial necessity often forces the choice of energy sources such as oil and coal that threaten to expand significantly the world's greenhouse emissions and thus accelerate the effects of climate change. This cycle -- poverty that begets climate change, and vice versa -- threatens the future of all people, rich and poor alike, and of all things in the world that God so loves.

This relationship between deadly poverty and the health of creation was not lost on the world's leaders when, at the turn of the 21st century, they committed to an ambitious yet attainable plan to cut global poverty in half by 2015. This plan, which established the eight Millennium Development Goals, included a specific pledge to create environmental sustainability. 2007 marks the halfway point in the world's effort to achieve these goals, and while progress has been impressive in some places, we're nowhere close to halfway there. President Bush and other world leaders have made bold commitments, but many of them have yet to be realized. How can the United States help put the world back on track?

First, our nation should make good on the promises it has made to expand foreign aid targeted at fighting poverty, cancel the debts of poor countries and seek fairer international-trade rules that allow people living in poverty to empower themselves in the fight against poverty.

Second, our nation's leaders should recognize the emerging consensus that we can no longer ignore our role in safeguarding the health and balance of God's creation. We must take seriously our share in the global responsibility for reducing carbon emissions, and work with other nations to provide the resources and technology transfers that will allow poor countries to address their energy needs through clean-energy sources that will not hasten the rate of climate change.

Of course, it is not the United States alone that needs to deliver. When the leaders of the G8 meet in early June in Germany, climate change will be at the top of their agenda. The health and well-being of Africa is also on the agenda, but much further down. Now is an ideal time for Americans to write, call, or e-mail President Bush and urge him to work with other leaders in the G8 to consider climate change and deadly poverty side-by-side as facets of the same problem. The good news is that Americans are getting involved like never before. Faith communities such as the Episcopal Church, from which I come, are organizing in communities all over the country, as are citizens from many other walks of life. Millions of Americans have joined the call for comprehensive solutions to poverty through efforts like ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History, and groups like the U.N. Millennium Campaign are working with citizens in all parts of the world. To be successful, though, the effort needs even more voices. It needs all of us.

At the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, we hear of God's creation of the universe and his proclamation that the whole of it is very good. Ultimately, this story is an account of relationships: the bond of love between God and the world, and the interconnectivity of all people and all things in that world. It is only when we take seriously those relationships -- when we realize that all people have a stake in the health and well-being of all others and of the Earth itself -- that creation can truly begin to realize the abundant life that God intends for every one of us.

Katharine Jefferts Schori is presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2007/05/20/EDGHQP1IR11.DTL

This article appeared on page D - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle