The pain of climate change

Last fall, I heard a story on the radio that caused me to have all sorts of physical reactions.

It was the end of a busy day of ministry, and I was cooking dinner for the sisters I live with, a group of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. I was casually listening to the evening news while I set the table. Then, I heard a story unlike anything I had ever heard before. For those four minutes, I was frozen, staring down at the empty plates while I listened. I was completely stunned. After the story ended, my mind and heart hurt from what I heard. I gasped and groaned and prayed out loud.

What I was hearing, what was disturbing me so deeply, was the news that a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean, Kiribati, (pronounced KIR-e-bass) is in trouble. Due to the stresses of rising sea levels, Kiribati is likely to be completely uninhabitable by 2030. The people must find somewhere else to go or they will not survive.

A nation is dissolving. A people must abandon their home. This was preventable and it is not their fault. It’s our fault. We have destroyed their community, their nation, their lives – and we don’t even know who they are.

I thought a bit about this, and then I returned to the normalcy of my religious life. I rang the dinner bell to call my sisters to the table. We prayed over our food, we savored whatever vegetable concoction I had invented that night, and undoubtedly we had a lively dinner conversation. Afterwards, we prayed in the chapel, and then probably hung out in the living room and laughed together at something silly on TV. In short, even though I had been disturbed, my community and I continued with our routine.

I don’t remember if I brought up what I had learned from the radio in the conversation and prayer that evening. I think about it sometimes, though, and once I found myself crying over it in prayer group. Whenever I find myself praying for the people in Kiribati, I feel a strange darkness color my heart.

Much of my sadness is for the people of Kiribati. The president of Kiribati understands that no developed nation is likely to be willing or able to take in all 103,000 inhabitants together. He is trying to make his citizens marketable, so that they’ll be desired by other nations. He’s providing job training and preparing the people for the reality that they will be split up and scattered throughout the world. If they choose to stay, they will be witnesses as the waves creep higher, turning their limited freshwater reservoirs brackish and salty, and slowly climbing up to cover their houses and villages.

The truth is, whether we act like it or not, the I-Kiribati people on their faraway islands are our brothers and sisters. Their plight is our plight. We breathe the same air and share the same resources.

Even though I understand this, I don’t know how it has really changed me. What I mean, is I can’t really say how the situation in Kiribati has changed my behavior. I haven’t had any sort of concrete physical reactions that will help the I-Kiribati people. I still drive the car for short, quick errands when I could walk or bike. I over-consume coal-powered electricity. I eat beef and enjoy dairy. I ride in airplanes. I waste paper. I am not unlike the rest of my Franciscan community for any of these behaviors. In many ways, we’re contributing to the problem of climate change by just enjoying an American standard of living. 

On the other hand, my community is doing things that matter and make a difference. We are proud of our sustainability efforts. We enjoy the fresh produce from our organic garden in the summer months and enjoy energy from our steam plant in some of our facilities. We are grateful for the work that some sisters did to secure natural burials as an option for us when we fill out our funeral planning forms. We compost, reuse what we can, buy things with little packaging, support local and organic farmers, and of course, we recycle. We’re conscientious shoppers who live out our Franciscan values by how we steward land and resources.

We know that climate change is real and it really is impacting us. We’ve had a long, hard winter in Wisconsin and recent droughts have been rough on some of the farmers we know, as well as affecting our own gardens. We truly are concerned about the increase of extreme natural disasters and the resulting loss of life, the harm to communities and the increase of poverty and related social problems. As a community, we respond to tragedies globally and domestically with increased prayers, compassion and charitable donations. 

Still, as of today, we may not be engaging in the physical reactions that will directly help the I-Kiribati people, such as rallying, petitioning and putting a real stop to our appalling chemical and petrochemical dependencies. In truth, our Franciscan community is a lot like many other people in the U.S.A. who are able to continue living comfortable, undisturbed lives far from the suffering that our standard of living causes.

We are learning the truth and being challenged by our new awareness. We aren’t being forced to move to higher ground, but we are being called to find a new higher moral ground, one that acknowledges the interconnectivity of the world’s inhabitants, and takes into account the real costs of our everyday actions.

It will take more than a gasp and a prayer to be in solidarity with climate refugees, as we must be disturbed by how our standard of living is harming others. We don’t know yet what sort of new physical reactions this situation will require of us, but the truth that we feel in our bodies will lead us on our way. 

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at]

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