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Meet the families bearing the consequences of environmental change

Banner rice planters credit shubert ciencia via flickr cc by 20 cna 12 11 15

Rice planters. Credit: Shubert Ciencia via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

For Mary Ann Remocaldo, taking out the trash is not just a simple household chore. Instead, proper waste disposal has meant the difference between living normally and worrying about dangerous floods and diseases. Until recently, the buildup of trash from other people in the streets, in the drainage system, and in their backyard was a hazard for Remocaldo, her husband and two children. “Garbage was everywhere,” she told CNA.   The Remocaldo family lives in Angono, part of the larger Metropolitan Manila area in the Philippines. The town, in addition to being dubbed the “Art Capital of the Philippines” for its large artistic community, is also the last city that water and roads pass through on their way down the mountains on their way to Laguna de Bay, the largest lake in the country. But water is not the only thing that flows down through Angono. Garbage from upstream towns gets swept along with it. And with no place for this refuse to go, it created a buildup in the drainage system and along the lake that has proven disastrous for families such as the Remocaldos, whose house backs up onto the lake itself.  “We couldn’t control the flooding because of the garbage blocking the sewer system,” she told CNA. While the flooding created issues during normal storms, the threat reached new levels when strong tropical storms barreled through the region. During the last typhoon, water levels rose as high as seven feet, Remocaldo explained. “We had to go on boat.” And the impact of the flooding doesn’t stop there. Mosquitoes breed when the water is high, Remocaldo explained. Additionally, rats and snakes take refuge in homes as the water levels rise. More than simply an annoyance, these pests bring the threat of disease or injury at a time when it is not possible to reach medical care. Flooding can also lead to lost classroom time for students, impacting their education for years down the road.  A Global Problem The environmental impact of pollution and changing weather patterns are felt not only by the Remocaldos and their neighbors but by families all over the world, said Lori Pearson, senior policy adviser for food security and agriculture at Catholic Relief Services. “We are seeing this in our everyday work,” she told CNA. Communities across the world – in South America, Africa, coastal regions and even the U.S. – are seeing the impact of environmental changes, Pearson said. Among the most pressing challenges she faces in her work are shifting weather patterns, because of their compounding effects on food crops.  Addressing these issues is a major concern not only for Catholic Relief Services, but for the Church around the globe and for the broader international community.  “The farmers that we’re seeing are facing this. They’re seeing changes in rainfall patterns, and feeling they can’t trust the rain. Either you risk losing your seed or you plant too late and miss part of the growing season,” Pearson said. She pointed to the experience of a farmer that they agency works with in the Sahel region of Africa. He told them that “the rainy season used to be five months. Now it’s three and a half.”  “That has a huge impact on their yield and what the can produce,” Pearson said. “When the rains don’t come, their own food supply and their income supply are immediately impacted.”  Changing weather patterns and growing seasons, along with other factors, can cause soil degradation – soils that lack healthy organic matter for growing foods and are unable to retain much water.  “That makes a farmer much more vulnerable to both droughts and floods,” Pearson said.  Mary Ann Remocaldo and her family. Credit: Addie Mena / CNA.  In addition, she continued, changing environments, both from shifting climates and habitat loss due to deforestation and pollution, have led to an increase in pests and diseases in agriculture and human settlements. “There are certain plant diseases which we were not seeing before which are becoming more prevalent and they’re moving their geographic areas,” she explained, pointing to funguses like coffee rust, which devastates coffee crops in warm temperatures, and malaria.  She also referenced a recent study by University of Nebraska senior research fellow Prof. Daniel Brooks, stating that environmental change caused by deforestation and shifting temperatures makes it easier for some insect and animal-borne diseases – like West Nile Virus and Ebola – to infect human populations.   “What we do in Liberia impacts the people in Sierra Leone, impacts our food supply, impacts what we do in the U.S.,” she emphasized. “It’s all very interconnected.”  This interconnection is a major theme addressed by Pope Francis in his latest encyclical, “Laudato Si” and his other comments on the environment.   “This is one of the things Pope Francis has done so well, is connect the overall level of degradation of our world to what’s happening with climate change and our care for creation, and the poor are the most vulnerable – they’re the ones that are depending on the land, and they’re the ones that are suffering from a failure to care for the Earth,” Pearson said. “We’re concerned about this and it’s having a real impact on people.”  A Catholic View The impact that changing environments and climates are having on the vulnerable makes addressing these issues a topic the faithful should consider, said Bill Patenaude, a lecturer at Providence College, author of CatholicEcology.net and member of the steering committee for the Global Catholic Climate Movement.  Patenaude likened the situation of how people treat their environment to Adam and Eve’s approach to the Garden of Eden.  “God gave a command, a warning that certain actions come with consequences,” he said. “But Adam and Eve want the thing in front of them. They want to acquire it. They want to consume it.” They do, and there are consequences.  “So it is with us and our consumption. Our faith and our reason can tell us that consuming a thing has consequences – or consuming in certain quantities – but we do it anyway because we want the pleasure that we associate with it.” Patenaude challenged Catholics “to look at ecological issues – including climate change – not in a political light but in a spiritual one.”  Like Adam and Eve, he said, humans have a tendency to “take what we want and ignore the consequences – until it’s too late.”  While secular environmental activists may not realize it, Patenaude said, care for creation is actually tied to holiness.  In fact, he told CNA, care for the environment and holiness should not be viewed as separate goals, but as connected.  “(S)eeking to live a holy life will make us better stewards of God’s creation just by making us more virtuous,” he said. “Because whether these activists know it or not, what they are demanding in their marches and protests is really very basic: for us all to live as God intends us to live – in control of what and who we consume rather than our desires controlling us.” He added that faith and reason go together in urging Catholics to address environmental concerns.  “If reason is telling us that our actions – say our use of fossil fuels – are harming the poor or the indigenous of far-away lands, and our faith is telling us that we have a responsibility not to harm but to heal, then of course the quest for a virtuous lifestyles will direct us to choices that do not to take part in systems and consumer supply chains that harm others, or creation as a whole.”  Next Steps The question of how concretely to avoid harming creation is a question the global community has been considering in recent days, most prominently at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France.  The Nov. 30-Dec. 11 climate talks feature delegates from all over the world who are meeting to discuss cuts in carbon emissions, a dedicated Green Climate Fund to help mitigate the pressures vulnerable populations experience due to environmental challenges, and other measures to address harm to the environment.  Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana has stated his hope that the Pope’s latest encyclical “Laudato Si” may influence the delegates’ decisions, and bishops’ conferences from around the globe have signed appeals asking delegates to work towards an agreement at the conference.  Pearson voiced hope that the result of the talks would be measures that developing nations could use for wise and sustainable growth.  While both rich and poor countries are seeing environmental challenges, the poorer nations “have the least to fall back on” and are therefore facing the greatest impact of flooding, pollution, droughts, illness and food shortages, she said. Throughout the world, partners of Catholic Relief Services are concerned that they are not able to keep up with changes, Pearson said, adding, “Our focus is on helping people adapt.”   Mary Ann Remocaldo and her children. Credit: Addie Mena / CNA.  To make this happen, she stressed, developing countries need the financial investments and technical support necessary to make changes that will address new challenges. “We need their support and the financing and the investment to move forward,” she said, pointing to measures such as the Green Climate Fund that could make it easier for developing nations to afford solutions. “We need people to do something now because people are suffering now, and we have the technology and the financing and we can do something about this.” In addition to governments and international bodies, individuals can also make simple changes that help to relieve the pressures experienced the vulnerable in poor countries.  Even small changes of habit, like turning off the lights, recycling, using public transportation and not wasting food can help to care for creation “at the individual level,” Pearson said. For the Remocaldo family, small changes like these have already helped to make a difference in their community. With help from programs through their diocese and Catholic Relief Services, they have learned how to classify trash, separating kitchen waste from what can be recycled and what can be composted. “Right now… they’re segregating the waste and everybody is working so they can keep the community clean,” Remocaldo told CNA. Best of all, these measures have helped to moderate the flooding issue for everyone who lives in Angono. 

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