We are called to act on climate change, ‘the greatest moral threat facing humanity’

Nov 22, 2023
Fanning Island, Republic of Kiribati

Never have I been more aware of the existential threat that climate change poses for people I know and love, writes Sister Patty Fawkner.

Imagine you are a passenger on the Titanic. The impossible occurs – the ‘unsinkable ship’ sinks rapidly and you are thrown into the water. You see a half-empty lifeboat and you call for help. Those on the lifeboat ignore your frantic pleas; they are fearful of being swamped by fellow passengers desperate to escape drowning.

Many half-filled lifeboats did not return to the Titanic and nearly 70% of the passengers drowned.

At the recent Chapter gathering of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, keynote speaker Anote Tong used this graphic image to describe the fate of the Kiribati people as the Pacific nation faces inevitable inundation due to rising sea levels. They will be the ones in the water desperately seeking a ‘lifeboat’.

Anote Tong was President of the Republic of Kiribati from 2003-16 and has been tireless in raising global awareness about the threat that climate change poses for his people and other Pacific islanders. Kiribati consists of a chain of 33 atolls and islands near the equator. It stands no more than two metres above sea level – a paltry two metres; a vulnerable two metres!

Kiribati is home for an estimated 115,000 people. We Good Samaritans have lived and ministered there since 1991, and in 1996 began receiving young women into our community. We now have eight professed I-Kiribati Sisters, all of whom attended our Chapter.

I have visited Kiribati more than a dozen times and have witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by rising tides. I have joined in the jokes about Kiribati’s ‘flatness’ which claim that the highest points in the whole nation are the speed bumps on the road on the main island of Tarawa.

But Anote Tong’s address to our Sisters, Oblates and ministry partners on 24 July left no room for humour. Never have I been more aware of the existential threat that climate change poses for people I know and love.

We have passed the tipping point, Tong said; it is not a question of if Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific islands will sink below the rising ocean waters, but when.

“To be frank, it’s too late to avoid the climate emergency,” concurred Chris Bowen, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, in a recent speech to the Australian Chamber of Commerce in South Korea. His truth-telling, though disturbing, is refreshing.

As Anote Tong addressed our gathering, the Northern Hemisphere was ablaze with forest fires and searing temperatures. The world is facing a hyper-threat; the increase in temperatures of land, sea and air is accelerating beyond any previous projections and natural disasters are increasing in number and magnitude. It is very likely that Australia will experience another black summer bushfire season in the coming months.

“Climate change is the greatest moral threat facing humanity,” Anote Tong claimed, echoing then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s assertion in 2007. Not only that, it is also the greatest global health threat facing the world, according to the leading medical journal, The Lancet.

Yet, as Rome burns, Nero continues to fiddle. As recently as last month the G20 failed to reach agreement on cutting fossil fuels, and Australia continues to export fossil fuels. The Biden administration in the US has approved more fossil fuel projects than did Donald Trump. The world continues to aid and abet the rise in global warming and rising sea levels.

I cannot imagine the experience of leaving my ancestral home and having it become a watery grave. Continuing the Titanic analogy, Anote Tong asked: “Will those people on the lifeboats bother to pull us (the people of Kiribati) in, or push us away because we would be too problematic?”

In the preface to Pastoral Guidelines on Climate Displaced People, Pope Francis says: “Those driven from their homes by the climate crisis need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated.”

It occurs to me that in the face of the climate catastrophe, Australia must provide moral leadership by providing a lifeboat to our Pacific neighbours. Anote Tong offered some practical solutions. Australia can provide climate refugee status to the Kiribati people. We can make it easier for the Kiribati people to apply for visas. Australia can work with Kiribati seasonal workers and upskill them so that they are able to find employment in Australia. Such strategies, Tong asserted, would allow the people from Kiribati to migrate with dignity.

Can Australia step up to this challenge? Or will Australia repeat the hard-hearted response to refugees and seekers of asylum who have come to this country (by boat, in a sad irony) and arrange for climate refugees to be sent to poorer countries like Papua New Guinea or Cambodia?

The moral threat of climate change is real. In this country, we have the resources to exercise moral responsibility. Do we have the will to take moral leadership? For the sake of my Kiribati Sisters, their families and all the citizens of Kiribati, I hope and pray we do.

Post script

For 12 years I have been writing a monthly opinion piece for The Good Oil and for six of those years in a column titled It Occurred to Me. As I step down from my role as Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in late September 2023, it is time for me to put down my pen and have a break.

It Occurred to Me will continue with guest contributors. In the future, I hope from time to time to be one of those contributors.

As a woman in the Church, I am grateful to have had a platform to express opinions that one will not always find in the Catholic press. I write to discover what I think. I write to learn. I write to explore how the riches of our Christian tradition offer wisdom for the challenges confronting today’s world and Church. Thank you to my readers who have encouraged me to write.


First published in The Good Oil August 2023

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