Pacific Islands churches are getting ready to care for “climate change refugees” – people who are forced to leave their island homes due to the effects of rising seas and changed weather patterns.
“I don’t think there’s any particular Pacific Island country that is not experiencing some effect of climate change,” says James Bhagwan, a minister in Methodist Church in Fiji and General Secretary for the Pacific Conference of Churches.
Bhagwan is involved in developing pastoral frameworks – “theologies of resilience” – to guide the church’s response and pastoral care to climate-induced displacement.
“It’s dealing with the people who will be forced to move, who will be uprooted.”
He says Pacific Islanders are already “living the reality” of climate change.
“Whether it’s coastal erosion from rising seas, or food security issues because of the the warming and expanding of the seas and ocean acidification which is killing or choking fish, or driving fish away, or whether it’s the extreme weather packages of stronger more intense cyclones, droughts and floods.
He adds that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report on oceans in crisis provides the science to back up what Pacific Islanders are experiencing.
About 90 per cent of the Pacific population is Christian, with the Pacific Conferences of Churches accounting for about 80 per cent of the Christian community.
“It’s dealing with the people who will be forced to move, who will be uprooted,” Bhagwan explains.
“Even if the islands don’t disappear under the water, they will be unliveable.”
He says Indigenous peoples are very much rooted to their land and experience a kind of trauma when that relationship is severed.
“So imagine that in every Pacific Island country where people have to be relocated… being disconnected from their land, the place where their umbilical cord has been buried at birth… where their identity is with the land or with the seas.
“And it’s not a usual case of refugees because they may not have anywhere to go back to. Even if the islands don’t disappear under the water, they will be unliveable because there won’t be fresh water available – you won’t be able to grow anything.”
Along with helping care for displaced people, Bhagwan and his team are also considering how to help communities where such people will be resettled.
“In Pacific Island countries, most of the land belongs to the Indigenous people – it’s not just state land that can just be given away. Again, these are people who are part of that land. So what is the process of them receiving displaced people in a way that not only welcomes them as visitors or as guests but also says, ‘Here, this is your land. Put your roots down and flourish’?”
“Cyclones are coming as early as September and going as late as May – that’s our reality.”
The team is also considering how to pastor a third group – people who “for whatever reason, whether it’s spiritual, emotional, psychological or cultural, will not be able to leave. They’ll just say, ‘I don’t care if I die, I’m staying’.”
In Fiji alone, Bhagwan says, about 400 communities have been identified as at risk for climate change. Just over a tenth of them have been earmarked for urgent relocation. But so far only one has been relocated, and a second group’s relocation just started.
“It’s not even the rising seas; it’s the fact that we used to have cyclone season from November to April every year. Now these cyclones are coming as early as September and going as late as May – that’s our reality,” he says.
“When you have people living in squatter settlements, where they’ve got shacks just nailed together… a corrugated iron roof with concrete blocks to hold it down against a strong wind, imagine what happens when the cyclone comes in – a category five or category six?”
“We have children in growing up saying they don’t know where they’re going go to high school.”
So far, Fiji has been lucky that recent cyclones such as Pam and Winston haven’t hit Fiji’s capital city. If that does happen, the country’s infrastructure would probably be completely destroyed. And Bhagwan says the fear and uncertainty of increasing cyclones is taking its toll.
“We have children in growing up saying they don’t know where they’re going go to high school because it might not be here. Not everybody can get on a plane and go for studies overseas.”
Bhagwan was speaking to Eternity in Sydney, where he was being the voice of the Pacific Churches Conference on a panel that is about listening to the Pacific along with government leaders and civil society leaders at the Australian Council for International Development.
When asked, Bhagwan doesn’t tiptoe around the Australian-Pacific Islander dynamic.
“You are eventually going to reap what you sow, here [in Australia],” he says, frankly. “And it won’t be the people who have closed their eyes to it – everybody will experience it. Already you’re talking about drought in this country; you’ve had floods and other extreme weather. At some stage, somebody’s going to have to step up,” he says.
“We’re not talking about economic policies; we’re talking about the lives of people.”
He would love that person to be Prime Minister Scott Morrison – his “brother in Christ”, as he referred to him in a strongly worded opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald in the lead-up to the Pacific Leaders Forum.
He explains to Eternity: “We thought if we could just appeal to his understanding of Christian justice, compassion, love – all that we’re all called to as Christians – maybe that would speak to him.
“In the context of climate change, we’re not talking about economic policies; we’re talking about the lives of people. There have been some very flippant remarks made by politicians saying ‘they can come and pick fruit in Australia’ or ‘give us your exclusive economic zone and you can come and have a citizenship in Australia’.
“These do not speak to the fears of people who are searching for hope in the midst of what can seem hopeless. Our role as Christians, in whatever we do, is to be agents of God’s grace and hope – and, for those who are placed by God in leadership, that responsibility is perhaps even greater.”
Despite his direct approach, Bhagwan appreciates that the Australian PM has competing priorities and says he prays daily for him and other world leaders.
“These are the people who will be the heroes of the future.”
“I’ve seen the burden of national leadership that comes with that when you have so many interests at play,” he says. “But it doesn’t means that you don’t do the right thing.
“What the world needs now are people who are willing to do what is right. It’s a short-term risk, but if you look at the long-term issue, these are the people who will be the heroes of the future. Because at the other end of the spectrum are people whose very physical lives are on the line.”
To date, Morrison doesn’t appear to have been moved by the pleas of Pacific Islander leaders, yet Bhagwan remains determined and hopeful.
“That’s the prophetic role of the church. We have to be the thorn in the side. We have to say that it’s not just fringe civil society groups… this is the church speaking.”
“Are you not feeling what this part of the body of Christ is going through?”
Although Bhagwan believes “the time for individual action is never over,” he stresses that “at the same time there is a need for corporate responsibility because our Christian faith tells us that we’re not individuals – we are members of the body of Christ”.
He points to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians that says if one part is suffering, the rest of the body feels it.
“So my question is to our Christian communities in Australia and the rest of the developed world is: are you not feeling what this part of the body of Christ is going through? Or is it that you don’t recognise that they’re worthy of being the body of Christ because they’re of a different culture, ethnic group or from a different place?”