The human face of climate change

This story appears in the Laudato Si' encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Caroljean Willie


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Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Sí, accents both the challenges and responsibilities we have to safeguard God’s creation. While there are many passages worthy of reflection and discussion I will concentrate on the connection he makes between climate change and poverty. A quotation in the encyclical from the Bolivian Bishops Conference resonated deeply within me: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” (48)

Recently I completed eight years of service as the Non-governmental Organization (NGO) representative at the United Nations for the Sisters of Charity Federation. During that time one of the major issues on which I worked was the connection between climate change and poverty.

Side events are held by NGOs during U.N. Commissions to demonstrate best practices and/or realities on the ground. In preparation for several of these and for the annual Conference on Teaching about the United Nations (C-TAUN), I asked for input from our Federation members about their experiences of climate change. Several of their responses put a very human face on the connection between climate change and poverty.


Several Sisters of Charity of Nazareth from India did a 20-year study on the effects of a changing climate in the Chatra district of Jharkhand State, one of the poorest in India. They noted that 20 years ago the cold season began in the latter part of October and lasted to early March with little or no fluctuation. Today the cold season is not predictable. It arrives much later and lasts for a much shorter period of time. Rainfall has also changed significantly. Farmers can no longer count on rainfall for irrigation and have no other recourse, so plants are withering in the intense heat. Crops used to consist of wheat and rice, but today farmers are looking for more heat-resistant cash crops. Animal rearing used to be a very important source of income for the community, primarily cows and buffalos. But with the changes due to a shortage of fodder and the depletion of forests and water sources, people had to sell the cows and buffalos and now raise goats and pigs.

Twenty years ago the majority of the population depended on agriculture and agriculture-related labor. Migration for unskilled labor was not common. Planting and harvesting were community affairs; neighbors helped one another. Today, six months of the year, most of the men leave the community seeking work in big cities. Women and children go to nearby towns and villages in search of day labor. Family life is severely disrupted, and an entire way of life is disappearing.

The Cook Islands

The Daughters of Charity of the Western Province of the United States ministered for many years in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. They noted that, due to more severe weather events, waves are salinating the taro patches and are threatening food security. Taro is a staple food for the islanders. Rainfall and weather patterns are shifting; seasons are becoming increasingly longer, hotter and drier; and reefs are suffering extensively from warming oceans.

Coral bleaching is also occurring as the ocean becomes less alkaline and more acidic. This is extremely detrimental to marine life, which is a main attraction for tourists and the main source of income for the residents of the Cook Islands. In the words of Deyna Marsh of the Cook Island Environmental Services, “Changes are already happening. Sea levels are rising all around the Pacific. If nothing is done now, we will lose our islands, our traditions, and our culture. Buildings and infrastructure on the shore will be lost or damaged, and both food security and the health of the people will be affected. . . .You need to care about the little guys. Take a little more time to consider us. We’re humans, too! We also have communities and we are profoundly affected by climate change.”

St. Lucia

The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati ministered for a number of years on the island of St. Lucia. During an interview, the late Donatus St. Aimee, the former U.N. Ambassador from St. Lucia, noted that climate change is already affecting agriculture and food production because of severe drought. According to Ambassador St. Aimee, “Those who rely on farming as a primary source of income are most severely affected,” he said, “but on a small island, repercussions affect all levels of society.”

There is insufficient rain which is leading to poor crop yield and less nutritious meals. Planting cycles are not predictable, so children are often kept home from school to help in the fields.

The rise in seawater temperatures is causing a decrease in algae, and the migratory fish that live close to the surface of the water no longer have a food source. “Fishermen,” he said, “who used to go out every day and bring in a plentiful supply of fish, now go out every other day and bring in half the catch.” On a recent visit to St. Lucia I saw firsthand the effects of the drought and the decrease in the availability of fish.

Around the world

The multi-award winning Sundance film “Climate Refugees” documents the human face of climate change in 48 countries. Many of these countries are among the least developed and have caused the least environmental damage. They have neither the resources nor the infrastructure to adapt and/or mitigate the effects of climate change, but they continue to lose land and people due to catastrophic weather events, unpredictable planting and growing seasons, droughts and floods.

“Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations,” writes Francis. (51)

He also noted that, “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.” (25) The governments of Tuvalu and the Maldives (small chains of islands in the Pacific) are actively seeking other countries to take their people to as their homelands are disappearing. This is not a worse-case scenario for the future; it is already happening.

While acknowledging that “particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest,” (13) Francis’ greatest challenge is to those of us who live in countries whose quest for economic growth at all costs continues to fuel the degradation of the environment with no thought for those whose lives are adversely affected or for future generations.

Laudato Sí is the wake-up call the world needs today. Pope Francis reminds us throughout the document that, “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage. . . .” (92); that, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.” (14)

[Caroljean Willie is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, a Master’s Degree in reading and a Ph.D. in Multicultural Education. She has extensive experience working cross-culturally throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. She is a frequent speaker at regional and national conferences and has also given presentations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.]