James Martin, S.J., recently made the case on this blog that he should have been invited to speak at the Republican and Democratic conventions. (Among other things, he explained in Why I Should Speak at the Conventions, it would secure the party that invited him the Jesuit vote, not to mention that of his mother). Martin was not invited, nor were the people of the Carteret Islands who are seeking a new home.
You did not have the opportunity to meet the Carteret Islanders through the national political gatherings, but their story is coming soon to a Catholic school or parish near you. The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change has organized a nationwide screening of the Academy Award nominated film “Sun Come Up" that tells of their struggle. Climate change is impacting the islands that are their ancestral home. Stronger storm surges are already flooding the gardens where they grow food essential to their survival, and it is only a matter of time before these beautiful Islands near Papua New Guinea on which children skip through white sands are inundated by the warming and rising water of the Pacific Ocean.
Our warming climate raises sea level for two reasons: 1) as the temperature of the oceans rise, their volume increases. This is known as “thermal expansion.” 2) Rising global temperatures melt land ice and the melt waters flow into the ocean. According to NASA, global sea level rose 4-8 inches over the course of the last century and this rise is accelerating. Greenland is currently losing a billion tons of ice per year; its ice loss doubled between 1996 and 2005. Millions of people across the globe live in coastal areas that will be affected as ocean levels continue to rise. Sun Come Up “is one of the first stories of climate change refugees,” we are told in the film. “It will not be the last.”
What shall the people of the Carteret do? Where shall they go? What will happen to their culture that is rooted in their intimate knowledge of island ecology? How has the local Catholic Church supported the relocation efforts they themselves have initiated through Tulele Peisa, their non-governmental organization? During the first week of October as we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis, hundreds of Catholic colleges and universities, high schools and youth groups, parishes and dioceses, and other Catholic organizations will introduce us to the people of the Carteret Islands and their search for a new home. To join in the nationwide screening of Sun Come Up, find a local event or register to sponsor one on the Catholic Climate Covenant Web site. You will receive the DVD and a packet of information to help you introduce the film, conduct discussion and take faith-based action. “Can we remain indifferent,” Pope Benedict XVI asked in his 2010 World Day of Peace Message, “before the problems associated with such realities as climate change . . . Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of environmental refugees?”
The environmental refugees of the Carteret Islands would have been appropriate speakers at our national political conventions for several reasons: 1) the United States is responsible for more heat-trapping carbon emissions than any other nation. It is true that China has surpassed the U.S. as the single largest source of annual emissions, but historically speaking our cumulative emissions are still the highest of any nation. Our actions to address climate change must be commensurate with our share of responsibility in spawning the global crisis. 2) Our own nation is suffering from extreme weather of the character that scientists associate with climate change; the challenges faced by the people of the Carteret Islands are also are own. 3) Finally, as a Catholic parishioner in Papua New Guinea states in the film of the displaced Islanders, “We have to accept these people. They are our brothers and sisters.”