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On Earth Day: Why Christians need to care about global child poverty, extreme weather

Tribin is a mother in Bangladesh who struggled to feed her little girls.
Tribin is a mother in Bangladesh who struggled to feed her little girls. | Courtesy of Compassion International

If there’s one thing I know from being around children, it’s how much they love God’s creation. Kids realize something we adults often forget — that great joy can be found in harnessing the power of the earth to grow something beautiful.

A love for creation is God-given. We know this because of how God Himself feels about the world he created. After God formed the earth, he called it “good” (Genesis 1:10). And the better we learn to steward his good world, the more we honor his heart in creating it.

There are many voices and opinions around creation care today. That’s why we must constantly reorient ourselves to the heart of Christ. The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham says: “We know that God created the world, and it belongs to Him, not us. Because of this, we are only stewards or trustees of God’s creation, and we aren’t to abuse or neglect it.”

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The reason Rev. Graham’s words ring true today is that, as residents of the earth, what happens to the earth happens to us. And our children will inherit the earth in the future. How often do we consider what this means for the ways we steward creation today?

At Compassion International, a leading global child development organization, I lead our response to the challenges that environmental degradation — including associated changes in long-term weather patterns — pose to children’s holistic development.

We know from our global work that the quality of the natural environment, including the local climate, directly influences a child's overall wellbeing. Our national offices and local church partners around the world are finding that extreme weather events, such as floods or heatwaves, drastically impact a child's wellbeing.

When the world is hurting, young people in poverty are disproportionately affected. Our experience around the world bears witness to what science is showing us — that when it comes to extreme weather, young people in poverty bear an especially heavy burden.

Some of the ways children in poverty are affected include:

Flooding: In Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, it is often the case that children in areas of poverty have a higher risk of being impacted by floods than non-poor areas. Unexpected weather events like floods often compound problems for children like Eduar in Honduras. Soon after Eduar’s parents lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 quarantine, the rains came — and didn’t stop. “All of a sudden, a strong wave of polluted water broke into our house and flooded the whole place in the blink of an eye,” says Adelina, Eduar’s mother. “My husband acted quickly and took Eduar in his arms while we ran to save our lives.” Eduar’s parents, already stripped of their jobs, now faced an even more pressing challenge — the loss of their home. For many families, stories like this are all too familiar.

Heatwaves: Across the countries we serve, vulnerability to the effects of heatwaves is higher among the poor. Most can’t afford the “tools” (like fans or air conditioning) that many of us take for granted in keeping ourselves cool. Globally, approximately 559 million children are exposed to high frequency of heatwaves — affecting these children in ways you might not expect. A Compassion frontline staff member in West Africa recently shared: “Hot and stuffy classrooms, crowded with a hundred children, make it hard to breathe. Children often ask to have a restroom break, just to stay away from the classroom for 20 minutes to be able to breathe.” On the hottest days, many children don’t come to their local child development center at all.

Drought: Where there is extreme heat, there is often drought. In regions like Southeast Asia, vulnerability to the effects of drought is higher for children in areas of poverty. For one community in Thailand, the water shortages come around every summer.  “Sometimes four days — and sometimes an entire week — pass by without any water,” says Nonthakorn, a Compassion participant in Thailand. “I can’t clean any dishes or use the toilet. And every day, I take several trips walking down the hill to the nearest stream to get water.” Thankfully, in cases like this, Compassion can step in to help — but millions of children around the world do not have this benefit.

Crop failures: In places like West Africa, the effects of crop failures are significantly greater for children in poverty — because they don’t have access to alternative sources of food. Ten-year-old Clementine lives in a region of Togo where the fields recently haven’t produced enough crops. Even if crops did grow, most people wouldn’t have the means to buy them. When Christmas approached, Clementine’s stepmother had to make a tough decision to prioritize survival over gifts: “Christmas can wait.”

As these examples illustrate, any problem faced by families in poverty can easily be multiplied by extreme and unpredictable weather events. And yet, hope often starts with “how” — the tangible steps to improve the situations children face. That’s why Compassion’s national offices continue to work with our frontline church partners to emphasize education about the environment, so children can be better equipped to understand and respond to these challenges.

In Honduras, Compassion is supporting local church partners in developing buildings that utilize sunlight, wind and vegetation to provide comfortable and cool indoor environments. Innovations such as permaculture gardens also hold key potential — in enabling people to produce food in an environmentally friendly manner, even during dry spells or droughts.

The effects of extreme weather can’t fully be described by any statistic or disaster report on the news. The true impact is found in the life of a child, forever altered — or in many cases, cut short. As the world looks to tackle the urgent issue of global child poverty, our faith calls us to address the deeply connected issue of how extreme weather affects children. As stewards of this beautiful world God has given us, we are called to nothing less.

Andrew Leake, Ph.D., is the Principal Program Design Specialist leading Compassion's Environmental Stewardship and Creation Care (ESCC) initiative. He is responsible for helping to guide Compassion's response to the challenges that extreme weather patterns and environmental degradation pose to the sustained achievement over time of the ministry's child development outcomes.

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