Church and climate: two issues that are close to many Pacific Islanders’ hearts. Seaphotoart/Shutterstock.com
Unless you are cocooned in a tourist bubble, it is hardly possible to miss God when you visit the Pacific Islands. In every village and on every main street there seems to be a church or temple, packed to bursting point on holy days. It is testament to the considerable influence of spirituality on the way people live in the Pacific.
Yet almost every well-intentioned outside agency – including those of foreign governments such as Australia and the European Union – that seeks to help the region’s people adapt to the effects of future climate change is drawing up its plans in secular ways, and communicates using secular language.
Over some 30 years, most such interventions have failed, proving neither effective nor sustainable. The answer to the question “why” may in part lie in the sidelining of God.
At this point, conversations with representatives of donor organisations often become awkward. Why, they ask, should spirituality have any role in a problem like climate-change adaptation or disaster risk management, which is so clearly framed in human, secular terms?
The answer lies in who does the framing. Far fewer people in most donor programs are spiritually engaged than in the Pacific.
A recent survey of 1,226 students at the highly regarded University of the South Pacific found that more than 80% attended church at least weekly, 35% of them more often than that. Bear in mind that this is a sample of the region’s educated urban elite – its future leaders.
Among the wider population, churchgoing seems to be almost universal. For example, Fiji’s 2007 census and Tonga’s 2011 census both showed that less than 1% of the population stated they had no religion. That’s much lower than in donor countries like Australia, Europe and the United States, where at most around 40% of people are habitual churchgoers.
Besides being spiritually engaged, the student survey revealed significantly higher “connectedness to nature” among educated Pacific Islanders than among people in richer countries, as well as deep concerns about climate change and what it might mean for their future and that of their descendants.
The survey revealed widespread pessimism that not enough was being done about climate change in the Pacific. Yet within the responses were two interesting points. The first was “spatial optimism bias”, a widely expressed belief that familiar environments were in a better condition than less familiar ones. The other was a “psychological distancing” of environmental risk – the belief, often spiritually based, that other places were more vulnerable than places to which the respondent had ties.
Earlier this year, I attended Sunday church in a village in Fiji where I was conducting research. The village had escaped the fury of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston the year before, despite being only 50km from the storm’s centre. The preacher told his congregation that it was their relationship with God that had saved them – because they were pious they had been spared the cyclone’s wrath.
It is easy to ridicule these views, but it would be a mistake to ignore them, given their prevalence among the communities that foreign agencies are trying to help.
My research suggests that one reason for the failure of external interventions for climate-change adaptation in Pacific Island communities is the wholly secular nature of their messages. Among spiritually engaged communities, these secular messages can be met with indifference or even hostility if they clash with the community’s spiritual agenda.
There are examples from all around the world. In the colonial history of Africa, the spiritual value of land was dismissed by colonisers who saw it solely in economic terms. More recently, the Dakota Access Pipeline has become a political flashpoint, pursued by the US government in the name of economic development, but resisted by Native Americans because of the sacredness of the land.
For communities in many poorer countries, including in the Pacific Islands, the most influential messages are those that engage with people’s spiritual beliefs, and the most influential communication channels are often those that involve religious leaders.
In April 2009, the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) issued the Moana Declaration that presciently accepted that climate change and sea-level rise would force people from vulnerable coastal locations to less vulnerable areas elsewhere.
After this, the PCC set up a climate change unit and drove initiatives to put climate change into Sabbath sermons across this vast region.
But more needs to be done. My ongoing research, including projects with the PCC and the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research, suggests that this lack of effective engagement with the religious community is still a key failing.
Church leaders can heavily influence practical discussions at every level of the community. That makes them an important potential target for agencies aiming to make a real difference in how Pacific Islanders cope with climate change.
About The Author
Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, Australian Centre for Pacific Islands Research and Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast. I acknowledge my collaborators in this project: Dr Kate Mulgrew, Dr Bridie Scott-Parker and Professor Doug Mahar (University of the Sunshine Coast), Professor Don Hine and Dr Tony Marks (University of New England), and Dr Jack Maebuta and Dr Lavinia Tiko (University of the South Pacific).
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming Kindle Edition
by David Wallace-Wells
It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible. In California, wildfires now rage year-round, destroying thousands of homes. Across the US, “500-year” storms pummel communities month after month, and floods displace tens of millions annually. This is only a preview of the changes to come. And they are coming fast. Without a revolution in how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth could become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century. Available On Amazon
The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption
by Dahr Jamail
After nearly a decade overseas as a war reporter, the acclaimed journalist Dahr Jamail returned to America to renew his passion for mountaineering, only to find that the slopes he had once climbed have been irrevocably changed by climate disruption. In response, Jamail embarks on a journey to the geographical front lines of this crisis—from Alaska to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, via the Amazon rainforest—in order to discover the consequences to nature and to humans of the loss of ice. Available On Amazon
Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves: How to Thrive While Creating a Sustainable World
by Ellen Moyer
Our scarcest resource is time. With determination and action, we can implement solutions rather than sit on the sidelines suffering harmful impacts. We deserve, and can have, better health and a cleaner environment, a stable climate, healthy ecosystems, sustainable use of resources, and less need for damage control. We have so much to gain. Through science and stories, Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves makes the case for hope, optimism, and practical solutions we can take individually and collectively to green our technology, green our economy, strengthen our democracy, and create social equality. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.