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Philippe Lazaro
 on December 14, 2020

Climate Vulnerability and the Least of These

An on-the-ground look at the effects of climate change from the perspective of Christian love, hope, and redemption.

village of myanmar

“Okay, I would start my work at around five in the morning,” Nael told me, “and I would end at seven at night.”

hands holding coinsWe walked together across his farm in Haiti—right by the Dominican border. “After all that work, I would have enough produce to earn around 33 gourdes.”

The exchange rate between Haitian and United States currency was an easy one to do mentally. 33 gourdes was 33 cents. After fourteen hours of work, that’s all Nael would’ve had to show for his efforts. He explained how he kept finding himself doing more and more work, to earn less and less money. The environment kept making things worse.

“This is a country where you can’t actually reap what you sow,” one of his neighbors said to me. It’s a reality that is unfortunately becoming true to an increasing amount of places.

My work for the Christian environmental nonprofit Plant With Purpose brings me closer to the frontlines of climate change. This includes places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. These are two of the most food insecure countries in the world due to climate vulnerability. Climate-linked droughts have driven people out of the Central American countryside. Droughts in recent years have claimed over 100,000 lives in the Sahel region of Northern Africa.

This image of climate change contrasts sharply with how I was first introduced to the crisis. Climate change was portrayed as a threat to our future, rather than as an already-present problem. When I contrast the charts and graphs showing possible temperatures in 2050 with my real-life encounters in low-income countries, I start to think that we buried the lede.

On top of that, climate was often depicted as a problem seen through scientific, or sometimes political, lenses. I didn’t immediately see it through a spiritual lens.

Nael, his neighbors, and communities like theirs changed that perception.

Climate concern shows solidarity with Christ’s compassion

A Christian faith is inseparable from compassion for the vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed. As one grows in Christian maturity, their life begins to more closely resemble the life of Christ. Jesus’ ministry seemed to rush towards the edges of society—the poor, the lepers, the women who fell out of good reputation—with a sense of urgency. His solidarity was perhaps most memorably articulated when He said that “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

That spiritual framework shifts the question from “What can we do about climate change?” to “How are we treating God’s climate? His soil? His forests and farmland?” And we find our answer in the condition of farms like Nael’s.

Rural populations account for 85% of people living in poverty around the world. One thing often obscured by our common depictions of poverty is the relationship between people and their land. So many of the world’s most vulnerable populations rely heavily on agriculture and healthy land for survival. When that land becomes unhealthy, so many things begin to unravel.

The impact of climate change is a particularly cruel one because of how many other problems it exacerbates. Climate change might not cause every global problem, but examine most of them and you’ll start to see how it can be connected, often heightening existing challenges.

Unhealthy ecosystems mean that women have to walk longer to get clean water. Infertile farms mean that children—usually daughters—are taken out of school to work. Poor ecological health drives parents in Central America or Southeast Asia to seek other opportunities, often in informal labor, resulting in dangerous migrant journeys or a vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation. Ecology has also been a vehicle for systemic racism, with the most polluted ZIP codes housing majority Black and Hispanic populations.

The Sermon on the Mount promises good news to the poor, hungry, mourning, and the excluded. Visit a rural community in Ethiopia, Myanmar, or the Dominican Republic, and you’ll find lots of poverty, hunger, mourning, and exclusion. Much of it stems from our climate crises.

Scripture talks about how all of creation groans as a result of sin, injustice, and a broken relationship throughout all of creation. Redemption, then, is also meant to take place throughout all of creation. Fighting climate change is an essential way to participate in this process.

Philippe Lazaro

Our relationship with creation is a spiritual question

Many Christians around the world have a much stronger understanding of how their faith impacts their relationship with their ecosystem than you might guess based on prevalent attitudes within the American church.

For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a longstanding tradition of conserving a forest around the perimeter of church sites. These forests can often be seen from above as patches and circles of dark green emerging from otherwise dry, overgrazed land. They are sites of worship, conservation, and even burials for the deceased.

A common practice in the Lutheran Church of Tanzania has been to plant trees to commemorate baptisms and other events in church life.

More often than not, it looks simply like recognizing God’s design in the dynamics of nature. I’ll always remember Christina, a mother living in Tanzania telling me about how much her farm benefitted from her learning how to compost. “God put these small creatures and organisms in our soil,” she told me with delight. “It’s like we’re helping it do what it was designed to do.”

Whenever I encounter parables about seed-sowers and farmers, I remember that the lives of Jesus’ first audience looked a lot more like Nael’s and Christina’s than my own. Their proximity to creation has so much to teach me about my faith, not just in an academic sense, but through lived experiences.

Scripture talks about how all of creation groans as a result of sin, injustice, and a broken relationship throughout all of creation. Redemption, then, is also meant to take place throughout all of creation. Fighting climate change is an essential way to participate in this process.

farmer in myanmar in a boat

For Christians, climate action is an act of love

The sky above me as I write (in September) is orange. I live in California where we have around a hundred separate wildfires. While fire season has been a yearly concern, the way it gets worse and worse each year underscores the increasingly inhospitable climate we live in.

The American Psychological Association adopted the term “eco-anxiety” in 2017. It describes the psychological stress caused by the relentless effects of climate change. This term describes the shared sense of overwhelm as the West Coast catches on fire. It echoes Nael’s deep concern over how to keep providing for a family. It captures the frustration of so many young adults, vocal about the crisis they’ve inherited.

I recently discovered the work of Renée Lertzman, a psychologist who specializes in climate related stressors. Something she said helped me best understand climate concerns from the lens of my faith. “Ultimately, eco-anxiety is about love,” she says. “Our concerns remind us that we are alive and part of a larger world.”

From a Christian standpoint, love is the highest calling. The command to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves is the ultimate command on which all the others rest. So often, we frame the conversation about climate change around guilt. My faith gives me a chance to see it through a lens of love.

What if we saw Christ in the climate refugee? The food-insecure family? The kid growing up in a food desert? How would that change our response? Would it add urgency? Would it add creativity? Would it add hope

Cycles of destruction can become cycles of resurrection.

The communities Plant With Purpose work with plant around five million trees a year. These trees serve as carbon sinks. They help protect the temperature and the habitat around the area. Not only that, but regenerative farming activities store even more carbon in the soil.

The benefits branch outward. The air in these communities around Mount Kilimanjaro is observably cooler. The ice pack at the top of the mountain is stronger, preventing floods. Farms grow more food. Christina has seen her coffee production thrive. People no longer seek out other means of income, but instead tend to their farms. In return, their income increases. Savings grow. Kids can go to school.

Playfully, Nael refused to tell me his current wages. But he did tell me he now employs fourteen people. Work has gone from being an environment of worry to an environment of joy.

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About the author


Philippe Lazaro

Philippe Lazaro is an artist, writer, and designer primarily focused on racial and environmental justice around the globe. He serves as the Creative Director for Plant With Purpose, a Christian international nonprofit focused on reforestation and community development. He hosts the Grassroots Podcast which seeks to refocus the conversation around the climate crisis on the frontline communities it impacts the most. He and his family live in San Diego, California.