I was in a discussion the other day about whether it was right for Christian Aid to get involved with campaigning about climate change. Between us, there was a consensus that climate change was a serious and significant issue needing to be addressed in the world today. We also recognised that the effects of climate change have a bigger and more devastating impact on people in poor countries than they do in richer countries. The question that divided us was whether Christian Aid should be one of the organisations to take this campaign on.
Christian Aid’s mandate is as a development and relief organisation. It is a mistake to think of it as a benevolent dispenser of charity, giving aid to the poor*. At times, in emergencies, giving stuff is the right thing to do. But most of the time, Christian Aid is involved with long-term development, helping people out of poverty for good. It works in partnerships all round the world, giving people the tools they need (physical and otherwise) to build their own futures.
One of the key roles Christian Aid plays is to empower people. One of the effects of poverty is that it takes away power, so poor people do not have a voice in their societies. They cannot change things if no-one listens. Christian Aid works hard to make sure people in poor communities do have a voice, a voice which they know how to use, so they can get a hearing about the things which affect them most. It seems to me that the issue of climate change cannot be ignored in this case. The lack of action to stop climate change suggests that most people are not listening to people who are suffering its effects. That’s why Christian Aid should speak out about climate change, giving the poor a voice to change things that are devastating their livelihoods and communities.
People and churches in the UK which support Christian Aid are also involved in these partnerships. Realising our mutual dependence on one another, making sure learning is a two-way process is another strength of the work that Christian Aid does. It is not just people in poor countries who find themselves being ignored when it comes to calling for action on climate change. Maybe the stories being told by those most affected will help the voices of those calling for action in the UK.
Christian Aid does not only help people to advocate for themselves in their own communities. It also advocates on their behalf when it comes to challenging global structures that perpetuate poverty. Recent campaigns on tax avoidance are a good example of this. Key to the tax campaign are calls for transparency, to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices that allow the rich to get richer by finding ways to withhold taxes due to governments, rich and poor alike, though having a greater impact on those with less to start with.
But what does campaigning on climate change involve if not to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices. Why is it that, despite scientific evidence which shows beyond reasonable doubt, that increases in carbon in the atmosphere are caused by humanity’s actions, many of those in positions of power are able to deny this and still get a hearing?
Once again, we are back to issues of power. Money buys power. The fossil fuel industry is able to pour millions of dollars (or pounds!) into lobbying governments, funding climate change denying “science” and ensuring it is allowed to go about its business unhindered. Even as I type, the EU is debating a deal which will allow multinational corporations to fine national governments if said government brings about legislation which has a negative impact on its profits (known as TTIP). Most of these debates are in secret, unreported and unknown.
To be able to unpack and dismantle the power structures and influences of the fossil fuel and energy industry would bring a transparency and accountability that would transform so many other industries and governments. Imagine a world unbeholden to Russia or the Middle East for oil. To be able to make economic decisions without bowing to pressure from the energy industry. Unfurling the grip that fossil fuel has on governments, politics and economic structures goes far beyond climate change. Think tar sands oil and Arctic drilling. Who would sanction this kind of activity unless they were terrified of losing the good will and economic power of the fossil fuel industry? Think about the destructive power of extractive industries (mining) in Africa – especially Nigeria – and then tell me that campaigning on climate change is not an issue of justice. Christian Aid has to be there.
*As an aside, I liked this article exploring the relationships and nature involved in “charity”.