You can find this article online at Climate Change and Global Migration: Signs of the Times, beginning on page 8 in the November issue of Response Magazine, the magazine for United Methodist Women.
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Matthew 16:3
We humans are pretty good at predicting the weather, but most of us are at a loss when trying to interpret the meaning and profound implications of climate change. Yet climate change is one of the major signs of our times. Global migration is another sign of our times, distinct but related to our changing climate. Climate change will impact all our ministries, including our ministries of hospitality with immigrants and our missions that serve displaced people around the world, and climate change will cause ever-increasing rates of migration.
Climate change and immigrant rights cannot be addressed in a vacuum. In order to find comprehensive solutions, we will have to consider how these issues are interwoven, look at root causes, and work for systemic transformation. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we look to his life and teachings as a foundation for our response to these great challenges of our day.
Signs of Jesus’ Time
We sometimes think of Jesus as removed from time and space. But Jesus’ ministry did not take place in a vacuum. What were the signs of his time? What was the context of his ministry?
In Jesus’ day, Israel was under military occupation by Rome. The religious leaders in Jerusalem collaborated with the Romans, collecting taxes through the Temple and helping to maintain the precarious social, economic, and political order.
There was great unrest among the people. They awaited the coming of a Messiah who would overthrow Rome and reestablish Jerusalem as a great kingdom, as it was in King David’s day.
Into this mix came Jesus, who challenged the established system while holding fast to principles of nonviolence, compassion, justice, and love. Many times throughout his ministry, Jesus warned that disaster would come upon the people if they stayed on the path they were on. At the same time, he demonstrated fullness of life in the present, showing people what God was like and what human life could be when lived in the presence of God.
Jesus often had to deal with skeptics, who doubted his authority and challenged him at every turn. Matthew 16:1-4 tells about one such encounter:
“And the Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, `When it is evening, you say, `It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, `It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.”
By referring to the “sign of Jonah,” who spent three days in the belly of a fish, Jesus foreshadowed his own death and resurrection. Jesus directly challenged those who were responsible for leading the people in the wrong direction, demonstrated alternatives based on the values of the kin-dom of God, and lived and died in solidarity with those who suffered. By so doing, he gave us an example to follow.
Even more, through faith in the Risen Christ, we can trust that God will guide and empower us in every situation and in each moment of our lives. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we are given clarity to discern the signs of our times, including the interrelated challenges of climate change and global migration, and grace to respond appropriately.
The World Bank report, “Why a 4 degree warmer world must be avoided,” outlines the dangers of a rapid and dramatic rise in global temperatures. So far, mean global temperatures have risen 0.8°C (1.4°F) since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, causing far more damage than predicted. The warmer atmosphere has contributed to record-breaking weather events: heat waves, extended droughts, major wildfires, extreme storms, floods, melting ice caps, rising seas, and more. At the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, the nations of the world agreed that we must hold warming to the limit of 2°C in order to prevent climate disaster. But at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, we are on track for a rise of 4 to 6 degrees in this century. Scientists warn that this would result in disaster.
As global temperatures rise, every region on earth will experience dramatic changes. But the World Bank report also outlines the extreme impacts that a warming planet will have on poor and developing nations. Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia will be particularly hard hit. Drought and water shortages will affect agricultural production of basic crops like rice, maize, and wheat, raising food prices, affecting food security, and threatening famine. Low-lying regions are especially vulnerable to disastrous flooding caused by typhoons, hurricanes, monsoons, or other serious storms. Some islands and coastal areas will disappear; other places will become uninhabitable. Such climate-related disasters will trigger hunger, homelessness, regional conflict, and mass migrations.
Migration rates are rising. By 2013, there was a record number of 232 million international migrants, with millions more displaced within their home countries. Many have been motivated by war, persecution, unfair trade policies, economic hardship, natural disaster, or environmental degradation to leave home in search of a better life.
Europe is currently experiencing the greatest flood of immigrants since World War II. The majority are fleeing war or persecution, and qualify as refugees under international law. Some countries are receiving these desperate people humanely; others arm their borders trying to keep them out.
The greatest number of migrants are from war-torn Syria. Some analysts suggest that climate change may be an underlying factor in this exodus. Syria endured a severe drought that drove 1.5 million rural people off the land and into crowded cities, contributing to unrest. As climate change advances and extended droughts become more frequent, such stories will become more common.
According to António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, climate change will soon become the biggest factor driving population displacements, both inside and across national borders. The effects of climate change on migration will vary. Some regions will experience a mass exodus of people, while others will see a mass influx.[viii] Ministries of hospitality and welcome for immigrants will be increasingly taxed by waves of environmental migrants who are fleeing from regions submerged by rising seas or made uninhabitable by extreme storms or drought.
Without international assistance, the governments of developing nations will lack the resources to meet these challenges, and may respond with expanded police and military power. Even developed nations are unequipped at this time to deal constructively with the increasing number of weather-related disasters that are sure to come. Unless there are proactive plans in place to assist victims of such disasters, even wealthy nations may respond through stricter immigration laws, harsher law enforcement policies, and military power.
During the 2016-2020 quadrennium, United Methodist Women will add climate justice as one of its priorities, building on its work on climate change, immigration, and other ongoing issues of concern. Climate justice addresses the disproportionate impacts of a warming planet on people in poor regions and nations who are least responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions. Climate justice includes a call for wealthy nations to transfer renewable technologies to poor nations and to assist poor nations in adapting to rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events.
Climate justice is an extension of United Methodist Women’s decades-long work on environmental justice, in solidarity with those who are disproportionately impacted by toxic pollution. Poor communities, and especially communities of color, are more likely to be located near sites of extraction, production, transport, or disposal of toxic chemicals. People in such communities, including workers, suffer negative health impacts and may lack access to medical care and other needed services.
A similar dynamic is at work in climate justice struggles. Fossil fuels pollute when they are extracted and processed, as well as when they are burned and released into the atmosphere. In both developed and developing nations, low income people and people of color, including indigenous people, are more likely to live and work in “sacrifice zones,” where fossil fuels are extracted or refined. In weather-related disasters, proximity to toxic sites multiplies exposure risks.
In 2016, United Methodist Women’s annual Mission u will feature a study on climate justice. The climate justice study guide was written by various authors from different regions, which allows for a diversity of perspectives on the topic. The goal of the study is to help equip participants to establish or join creation care ministry teams in their annual conferences. Creation care ministry teams provide a context through which United Methodist Women can work together, in solidarity with others, to care for victims of climate change, work for climate justice, and transform systemic causes of climate change.
Economic globalization has created a Market-based global system, tied together by freely flowing capital, dominated by corporations, endorsed by governments, and enforced by police and military power. The resulting problems are also global in scope. There is great unrest, as the gap between rich and poor grows, poverty deepens, and the climate warms.
The twenty-first century movement for climate justice rigorously challenges the established order, as Jesus did in his day. The current global system is not working for the majority of people or for the natural world. It is inequitable, unjust, and unsustainable. It is supported by institutions that promote white privilege, value profit over people, and exploit God’s good creation. The momentum of this system is accelerating climate change, which in turn accelerates global migration. Many are warning that disaster will befall us if we do not change course.
At the same time, people around the world are awakening to the current dangers and the need for systemic transformation. People in rich and poor nations alike are taking action for climate justice and are calling for “system change not climate change.”
Interpreting the Signs of Our Times
As United Methodist Women and as followers of Jesus, we are called not only to recognize the signs of our times, but to interpret and respond to them. Behind facts and statistics we can see the faces of God’s children, our brothers and sisters around the world, and respond by acting in solidarity and welcoming them in Christ’s name when they come. We can hear creation’s groans, and respond by working to preserve God’s wondrous creation and the interconnected web of life.
On the subjects of climate change and immigration, we must find clarity in the midst of controversy. The United Methodist Church has accepted the scientific consensus on climate change for over 25 years, but skeptics present arguments that test us, sow doubt, and challenge our resolve. It’s important for us to be well enough informed to know the basic facts about climate change and to understand that the fossil fuel industry funds climate skeptics and deliberately sows doubt about climate science. Likewise, in the immigration debate, corporations oppose rights for immigrant workers that might cut into profits, while some politicians support or reject immigration reform depending on which way the political winds blow.
As we seek to interpret the signs of our times, we must give special attention to the voices of those who live and work on the front lines of climate change but are ignored by the media. These include climate activists from the global South, people in sacrifice zones, women farmers struggling to feed their families, young people speaking out for intergenerational justice, and indigenous peoples calling on us to respect the rights of the earth. Their pleas and warnings urge us to demonstrate God’s care and concern by advocating for just policies on their behalf.
We are called to welcome all people on behalf of Christ, protect those who are vulnerable, and preserve God’s creation for future generations. We must continue ministries of hospitality with immigrants and work to prevent increasingly harsh and repressive policies. At the same time we must work for climate justice and join in the chorus of voices calling for “system change, not climate change.” By doing so we follow Jesus, demonstrate the values of the kin-dom, and entrust ourselves and the future to the care of God.
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