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Churches and climate change: Are we ready?

These days, even the most fervent climate change deniers are having a hard time ignoring what scientists have been saying for decades: the planet is warming and, with that, we can expect to see more extreme weather-related events like these.

Churches and climate change: Are we ready?

This summer, new temperature records have been set across North America. Hundreds of wildfires continue to burn across the west coast. Meanwhile, on the east coast, three powerful hurricanes in a row smashed ashore in September. There have been billions in damages. Hundreds of deaths. Thousands left homeless. 

In the midst of these unprecedented environmental crises, one church stood out in its response. That church was Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston and – unfortunately – the response stood out for all the wrong reasons. 

Right after hurricane Harvey struck, people on Twitter started asking if the church – which is a 606,000 sq. ft.,16,000 seat, former basketball arena – would be available to people made homeless by the storm. The associate pastor at first claimed the church was “inaccessible due to severe flooding” – but after photos surfaced showing the church sitting high and dry, Osteen claimed: “the church has been open from the beginning.” The incident prompted a huge backlash on Twitter. Dr. Eugene Gu summed up the sentiment perfectly when he wrote: “Osteen’s megachurch is designed for the rising tithe, not tide.”

The science of adaptation 
These days, even the most fervent climate change deniers are having a hard time ignoring what scientists have been saying for decades: the planet is warming and, with that, we can expect to see more extreme weather-related events like these. Governments, aid organizations, schools, businesses, the military and – yes, even churches – need to be prepared for climate-related disasters as the effects of climate change accelerate. In the past, plans to reduce greenhouse gasses – like the Kyoto Accord – have come up tragically short and, these days, the discussion has moved from “preventing” climate change to “adapting” to climate change. 

Here in Canada, the Federal government has set up a new Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Results led by Blair Feltmate – director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. The 25-member panel’s job is to look at how prepared Canadians are for major weather events caused by climate change. Specifically, they’ll look at the science of adaptation, our infrastructure vulnerabilities, the human health implications, vulnerable populations and the accuracy of flood plain maps. The goal is to provide a complete overview of how prepared we are to deal with climate change’s effects on human populations. 

Those effects are already being felt in Canada. We’ve seen recent flooding in Calgary and Toronto, and forest fires in Alberta and British Columbia. Toronto Island was under water for most of the summer of 2017 – and, close to my own home in Bowmanville Ontario, beach homes had to be protected by a small army of volunteers with sandbags. 

Feltmate says that some people are not going to be pleased with what the panel has to say. In an interview with CBC, Feltmate gave the example of floodplain mapping as something that seems innocuous, but potentially has huge implications for homeowners.

“If you update the flood plain maps, all of a sudden you find out that there are entire subdivisions within your city where now homes are recognized as being at a flood risk,” Feltmate says. “Those homeowners will go apoplectic because you’ve now stigmatized their homes.” 

Similarly, what the panel has to say about aging infrastructure may come as a shock. Most Canadian cities are built to handle predictable, regular rainfall – not the massive dumps of rain we’re seeing in a post-climate change world. These can easily overwhelm storm sewers and reservoirs, leading to massive flooding. 

The bottom line is that scientists and policy-makers agree: we can all expect more of the unexpected when it comes to extreme weather. Churches need to figure out what their role will be in disaster response. A search of articles online reveals that very few church leaders have developed plans to help their communities adapt to climate change – and even fewer have disaster plans ready. 

If a fire, flood or tornado swept your community, what would your church’s response be? Would you simply pass around the offering plate? Leave the doors closed like Lakewood? Or is there a plan to mobilize volunteers to fill sandbags, house and feed the homeless and help the sick and injured? 

Increasingly all of us – including our churches – will need to be ready to act quickly and compassionately when the time comes, or run the risk of seeming cold and indifferent. 

Just ask Joel Osteen.  

About the Author
Churches and climate change: Are we ready?

Lloyd Rang, Columnist

Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.