A Christian Missionary Looks For The Human Face Of Climate Change

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by Lowell Bliss

I am an evangelical Christian missionary from a conservative church who can trace my awakening to global climate change to the “lifting of a blanket.” I know that phrase is often used metaphorically. Political posturing and skepticism has long been used like a blanket to smother any sort of serious response to climate change.

But in my case, I literally lifted the edge of a thick cotton blanket and stared into the eyes of a frightened Pakistani girl. And I became a believer.


Of course, human-caused global climate change was not responsible for the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan that injured this girl. And yet, at that moment, I knew that semantic wrangling about who or what caused the event – or whether it was an environmental issue or not – was part of the blanket of confusion.

Environment, I told myself, is nothing more or less than that which surrounds the people Jesus loves. For this girl, her environment had come crashing down.

The men of her family – big, burly Pathans – had hiked out of the mountains to our field hospital carrying a charpai, a rope bed, piled high with blankets. We lifted the covers to reveal a girl, perhaps age 14, sallow-skinned, bony wristed. She lay on one side, her legs curled up. Her mouth gaped. She breathed as if the blankets were water and she was a fish. She had cerebral palsy.

Her father told us a stone had fallen from her home’s walls and struck her during the quake. Since then she had regressed: she no longer ate solid food but was back to drinking from a bottle. She whimpered continuously.

Our doctors examined her and discovered only minor bruises. They asked me, as one of the few Urdu speakers on the team, to translate: “Tell them that the earthquake is not responsible for her cerebral palsy.”

I didn’t need to tell them; they knew that.

“Tell them that there is nothing wrong with their daughter.”

I couldn’t tell them that either. It wasn’t true. What could be more fundamentally wrong than to be trapped in innocent incomprehension, unable to make sense of a formerly safe home, suddenly shaking, crumbling and falling upon you?

I thought often of this girl when record floods devastated Pakistan last summer, deluging twenty million people. Was she one of them? Thirty-five people in her area, Battagram District, were reported dead. I watched the news obsessively, letting statistics and aerial shots float by. I looked for people footage. I looked for her.

On every issue – including climate change – let others debate science and policy. It’s our obligation to always find the human face. In truth, I believe it’s one of the responsibilities of the Church.

One difference between the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods is the link to human-caused global climate change. The director of the World Meteorological Organization claimed, “There’s no doubt that clearly climate change is… a major contributing factor.” Pakistan’s foreign minister said his country’s flooding “reconfirms our extreme vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

Nonetheless it wasn’t long before climate change skeptics threw the blanket of “natural variability” over the disaster, thereby absolving us all from blame and responsibility.

While it is true that a single weather event – however extreme – can never be traced definitively to climate change, I was struck by the dilemma faced by Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate researcher. Commenting on another summer 2010 disaster, he told the New York Times, “If you ask me as a person, do I think the Russian heat wave has to do with climate change, the answer is yes. If you ask me as a scientist whether I have proved it, the answer is no – at least not yet.”

A helpless Pakistani girl taught me to seek the answer to environmental questions not in their cause but in people, however distant they might live. Centuries before globalization, Jesus taught us that indeed we are all each other’s keepers, each other’s neighbors. Whether it is a Japanese tsunami, a Texas wildfire, Pakistani flood, or Alabama killer tornadoes we are obliged to do all we can to respond to the suffering of another.

Lowell Bliss, a missionary for fourteen years in India and Pakistan, is director of Eden Vigil, an environmental missions project of Christar. He and his family live in Manhattan, KS. To comment go to www.blueridgepress.com ©BRP 2011

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