Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Two weeks ago,
I raised the question of what features of the world and its various
contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in
the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to
areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty
relief, healthcare, etc.
This week, I suggest a second new area of mission work: climate refugees.
Climate refugees, or environmental migrants, are people who move because their place of residence becomes uninhabitable because of changing climatic conditions. The nature of those changing climatic conditions vary based the locale, from disastrous storms to sinking underwater to thawing permafrost to desertification. While these changes affect countries in different and unequal ways, climate change refugees may come from all over the world, including Western countries such as the United States. Experts warn that such climate changes could generate tens of millions of refugees, creating the "world's biggest refugee crisis." Yet this category of refugee is only just beginning to receive attention.
As the number and perceived significance of climate refugees as a category of displaced people grows, climate change refugees will present a potential new area of mission for Christians. Of course, this issue is far beyond what Christians can tackle alone, but it should be an issue with which Christians engage, in partnership with others.
In many ways, Christian mission with climate change refugees will be a continuation of previous areas of Christian mission. Christians have been significantly involved in mission with refugees for the last century. Disaster relief and recover, which is related to mission with climate change refugees displaced by catastrophic storms or famine, has been an important area of mission work, especially for The United Methodist Church, over the past fifty years. Mission with migrants is getting increasing attention, and climate change refugees are a form of migrant.
Yet there are reasons why it may behoove the church to think of mission with climate change refugees as being something different that mission with other refugees. Refugees are typically displaced by some catastrophic event - war, a disaster, famine, etc. Some climate change refugees do fall into this category.
Yet for other climate change refugees, becoming a refugee is more akin to how becoming a migrant works. These climate change refugees recognize that the place in which they are living is untenable and decide to move, but there is no single precipitating event that leads to a wave of people making that decision at the same time. The move is necessary, but not forced.
For climate change refugees of either kind - catastrophic or gradual - becoming a refugee because of climate change also has this unique feature: there is no possibility of going home. Many refugees do not want to or are not able to go home because of political and economic conditions in their homeland. But for climate change refugees, home ceases to exist. It is obliterated because of changing climatic conditions.
Here may be a unique opportunity for Christian mission with climate change refugees. What spiritual and psychological resources can Christians, as people who "have no abiding home" and whose message is about new life after death and departure from the old, bring to mission with climate change refugees? How can we not only help care for their physical needs in the process of relocating but also help them make sense of and find hope within this transition where there is no going back?
Mission with climate change refugees with thus be both a continuation of existing areas of mission and a new area of mission in its own right. But we can expect that recognition of this problem and of the church's need to respond will increase as the number of climate change refugees does.