The Resilience Paradox: The Role of Faith Actors in Addressing Climate Challenges and Vulnerabilities Faced by Small Island Developing States

26 August 2021

Flood response, Sri Lanka. Diocese of Colombo.

“Small island states are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to climate change”

H.E. Dr Walton Webson, Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States

Anglicans are on the front line of the climate emergency, especially those living in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). They are experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change but are also finding ways to try and adapt to this new reality and an uncertain future. In particular, they are developing skills in resilience and disaster preparedness.

The High-Level Political Forum in New York last month provided an opportunity for Anglicans to share their experiences on a global stage. The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) is an annual United Nations conference that brings together member-states to review their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Led by the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations (ACOUN) team, the Anglican Alliance, The Episcopal Church, Caritas Internationalis, Episcopal Relief and Development, the United Nations Environment Program and the Permanent Mission of Antigua and Barbuda jointly convened a side event at the HLPF, which focused on SDG 13 – Climate Action. The session was titled “The Resilience Paradox: The Role of Faith Actors in Addressing Climate Challenges and Vulnerabilities Faced by Small Island Developing States.”

The striking panel of speakers included the Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, the Archbishop of the West Indies, the Disaster Resilience Programme co-ordinator of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, the Principal Coordinator of UNEP’s SIDS & Regional Seas Programme, and a member of the General Synod Standing Committee of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. The session was moderated by Jillian Abballe, Advocacy Manager and Head of Office for the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations. Together, the speakers presented a sobering assessment of the challenges SIDS face, but they also shared stories and strategies for resilience, proving the potential and importance of faith actors in the fight against the consequences of climate change.

A full recording of the session is here.

By way of introduction, Jillian Abballe explained why the session was titled “The Resilience Paradox”. She said, “SIDS face a shared set of geographical, environmental, economic and social vulnerabilities and are challenged by unique development needs. Frequent exposures to natural hazards and disasters are intensified by climate change and external shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic. Often, they are asking for support to be more resilient and are expected to plan for the future while still reeling from the after-effects of recent devastation as well as a more distant historical legacy. Building resilience is often posed as a durable solution to these challenges faced by SIDS in the face of climate change. And yet resilience is not solely a self-generated state of being, nor can it be achieved in isolation. It is one that is reached through partnership, fulfilment of commitments and burden sharing.”

Canaries in the coal mine

His Excellency Dr Walton A. Webson, Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), was the first speaker. “Unsustainable human activities, including gas emissions, are turning our once hospitable planet into a hostile one. Being at the frontline of these impacts, small island states are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to climate change.

“The impacts of climate change have overtaken our adaptation efforts and these efforts continue to be stunted by inherent challenges we face, such as the lack of resources, technology and capacity. These challenges were even further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. This has drained our limited fiscal resources and resulted in crippling levels of debt.

“Guided by the best available science we have [and] the principle of equity, inclusivity and climate justice, we need to find urgent sustainable solutions for the most vulnerable. The international community has a moral and ethical responsibility to do so. We owe it not only to the vulnerable communities of today but also to the generations of tomorrow.

“In this context, AOSIS recognises the value of effective partnership with all relevant stakeholders, including faith-based actors, to generate climate momentum and action. Regardless of our specific belief, we all have common responsibility to look after each other and look after this planet. We recognise the value the work of these organisations in supporting island communities, especially those facing hardship in the aftermath of climate disasters. We also appreciate the extensive advocacy efforts that are being undertaken by these organisations to divest from fossil fuels into modern and clean energy. There are more opportunities for collaboration and I hope today’s dialogue will pave the way for even more robust efforts towards enhancing climate resilience in small island states.”

Calling for climate justice

The keynote speaker was the Most Rev. Howard Gregory Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and Archbishop of the West Indies. Archbishop Gregory described the catastrophic impacts of climate change on Caribbean nations, set out the actions larger nations need to take to protect vulnerable countries, and called on the Church to recognise its mission and mandate both to safeguard the integrity of creation and challenge the injustices inherent in climate change.

“Whilst SIDS are the smallest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, their populations, biodiversity and resources are the most at risk, being threatened by recurring natural disasters, with the Caribbean being seven times more likely to be impacted than any other region. Since 1995 there has been an increase in the intensity and distribution of hurricanes in the Caribbean. The number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes have increased over 50% in the last 20 years. Large scale agricultural losses are not unusual as more than half of the countries in this sub region rely on one or two commodities for export revenues. In 2007, Hurricane Dean destroyed all of Jamaica’s major export crops and severely impacted the agricultural sectors of Haiti, Dominica and St Lucia. In addition to the 69 lives lost, the estimated cost of Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas in 2019 is $3.4 billion.

“From a faith based perspective, this is where the 5 Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion take on the character of a mandate for Christians, namely to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the life of the earth. Advocacy for the protection of people who are most vulnerable to climate change remains a moral imperative.

“The region requires assistance in its efforts and so technology transfer, capacity building in flood risk, watershed, ocean and coastal management, and education and training of locals on climate impacts and adaptation are very important if we are to have an effective climate change reduction and mitigation model.

“We cannot negate the fact that global warming caused by other countries has a greater impact on poorer and smaller countries such as those in the Caribbean. Yet what happens in one part of the world affects those in other parts of the world and the greenhouse gases produced by such countries are no different. Consequently, small islands, such as those in the Caribbean should be able to benefit from a fund to which these larger countries should contribute, which would help us to do more to address the environment impacts facing us. Advocating for such funding to be provided by the developed nations of the world is very important but loans are not what should be provided, but grants. Unfortunately, according to Roger Harrabin, the majority of what has been provided so far has been in the form of loans, which are pushing vulnerable countries further into debt and poverty. The G7 countries should also be challenged to take additional steps to reduce their carbon emissions and seek to implement policies that would help use less fossil fuel and more alternative forms of energy. Their failure to do this will have a devastating effect on our world.

“The Church has a crucial role to play in challenging the powers that be in order to encourage the change that is necessary to address the climate crisis with which we are faced, in fulfilment of the fourth Mark of Mission, that is to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.

“The Church must demonstrate its commitment to the alleviation of climate change and the pursuit of climate justice by demonstrating its commitment to the undertaking of best practices in its community and institutional life. This could include efforts to green our buildings and operation, educate our congregations to recognise the roles they can play to mitigate climate change and to be a source of advocacy for the protection of the environment and those who are greatly impacted.

As the church we remain committed to the task of addressing the issue of climate change, so as to ensure the flourishing of all God’s people especially those who are most impacted.”

Most impacted and responding – but not included in global discussions

The first respondent was Ms. Shalomi Perera, Disaster Resilience Programme Coordinator, National Christian Council of Sri Lanka.

Ms. Perera described how Sri Lanka is one of the countries at highest risk of natural disasters, adding “Small Islands States are some of the most impacted countries faced with climate crises but are not always included in global discussions.”

In her presentation, Ms. Perera highlighted some of the initiatives in Sri Lanka that speak to the unique collaborative power that can be realised between faith groups and other stakeholders. She started with an example of a community, faith and government collaboration that used a community participatory approach and resulted in securing a safe and reliable source of water for a Buddhist community. The church’s role was to accompany the community over the three-year process and to act as a catalyst.

“Building on the strengths and experiences of the South Asian tsunami of 2004, and the thirty years of ethnic war that ended in 2009, the Anglican church built a core group of leaders in the diocese who were trained over an 18-month curriculum to respond to and manage disasters in their region. A few years later, as the success of the Anglican programme became more visible in how the Church was responding to recurring floods, this project was expanded to the National Christian Council, at their request, to include 13 different denominations throughout our country to build regional ecumenical disaster committees. Each of the regional committees is representative of the diversity in their communities and serve all, regardless of their religion, race or caste. The programme has been growing over time to adopt different contextual, technical and humanitarian standards in order to improve project efficiency and effectiveness. And now there are 8 regional disaster management committees covering six high-risk provinces in the country.

Shalomi described how, during the pandemic outbreak last year, the regional committees successfully implemented a relief assistance project which supported hundreds of daily wage earners who became financially vulnerable during that time due to lock down regulations.

“As a church-based organisation, we are so proud that more than 60% of the total beneficiaries are from non-Christian backgrounds. As we continue to build resilience, our team of different faiths and beliefs are called to help each other as one family, always.”

The United Nations Environment Programme and Small Island States 

Dr. Lisa Emelia Svensson, Principal Coordinator, SIDS & Regional Seas Programme, United Nations Environment Programme was the final respondent.

Dr Svensson spoke of the need for transformative change to address the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution facing SIDS. “We need to improve our relationship with nature as well as finding nature-based solutions. And in this regard we can refer to the native communities that often have knowledge and experience from their own region on how to find solutions in a specific place.”

UNEP works with SIDS to support their specific needs. “Looking at the specific needs of SIDS, they are indeed ‘small island developing states’, but they are often, and many times foremost, ‘big ocean states’. Thirty percent of the 50 largest economic exclusive zones belong to SIDS, so there are very specific characteristics that we need to consider when we are supporting SIDS for resilience and prosperous economic development.” Dr Svensson spoke of the need to build an inclusive blue economy – or a green economy in a blue world. The three things needed to build such an economy, she said, are science (data and its assessment so as to have science-based policy); planning (engaging policy makers, faith based and other local community leaders, and the native people to discuss trade-offs) and investment.

Dr Svensson talked about UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme, an ocean governance framework that allows specific issues to be addressed, such has pollution, marine litter, microplastics, and oil and gas. Dr Svensson emphasised UNEP’s climate change adaptation and mitigation work and highlighted a 2021-2026 project financed by the Green Climate Fund focused on early warning and disaster management.

Dr Svensson ended by emphasising the importance of faith based organisations, saying FBO’s communities and leaders represent almost 80% of the earth’s population, which she described as “a great and vast opportunity”. She reminded the audience about UNEP’s Faith for Earth initiative and said UNEP has recently adopted a strategy for engagement with faith bodies in relation to the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.

Divesting and investing

In his presentation, Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi, Member of the General Synod Standing Committee of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, talked about three initiatives the Anglican church there has taken.

First is the decision by the Church to divest from the fossil fuel industry, “because we feel it’s the just and right thing to do. Secondly, we have an internal carbon credit system that works within the Church that allows us to fund the reforestation and carbon capture initiatives around the Pacific region”. Thirdly, because of the particular vulnerability of the region to climate change, “We felt it was important that, as a church, we create a position of a climate commissioner that is specifically geared towards addressing climate, not only at the national and regional [level] but also working with international and multilateral bodies to bring to the table the issues we have from a Pacific perspective”.

What can we learn from Indigenous people about resilience?

In the questions and conversation which followed the presentations, the participants were first asked about what we can learn from Indigenous and native people when it comes to resilience strategies. Fei Tevi responded by sharing a story from his context and posing a question. He described asking people in atoll communities who live on strip between the coast and a lagoon about how they deal with the king tides and ocean swells that come through their villages. “To my surprise, they said ‘oh, we just pick up our equipment and furniture and whatever we’ve lost in the lagoon and bring them back to our houses – and then life goes on’. So that poses for me the issue ‘who is the most vulnerable in this situation?’ Is it the Indigenous people who live on the islands or is the perspective we have of the people who live on the atolls? I would contend that our Indigenous communities are much more resilient and can fare much better in such situations today than we have in terms of our big urban city dwellings. Our Indigenous people know how to live on islands, they know the traditions and the culture and the environment.”

However, he also added that, “Unfortunately, because of the increase in the severity and frequency of [impacts] that affect the seasons, our traditional knowledge is also being challenged so we need to bring science in to help our Indigenous communities who face the changing climate and changing environment.”

The next question focused on what young people are doing in response to the climate crisis. In this clip, Shalomi and Fei gave examples from their contexts.

What makes for good partnerships?

In answer to a question about what models of partnership are most effective, Dr Svensson emphasised the need for both sides to have a clear stake in the project. Energy and concrete investment (whether financial or in kind) were needed, she said.

Shalomi stressed the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders, a process that is not easy but is essential. She made particular reference to the need for large agencies to engage with local actors, including faith based organisations. “In my experience”, she said, “it is the faith actors who initiate this partnership, not governments, or the large NGOs or the UN system. So what would help us is for these larger humanitarian actors to be more intentional about reaching out to faith actors [and] embrace the faith communities more widely and deeply and get their experience.”

Developing these thoughts further in respect of how to link global processes with local action, Dr Svensson emphasised the need for leadership. “You need leaders globally, but you also need local leaders”, she said. “Local and regional leaders are crucial to translate the global narrative into adopted discourse for the local communities”.

Fei made an impassioned plea for external partners to understand the reality of how overwhelming multiples disasters can be when international disaster response funding mechanisms are only geared around one disaster at a time. “The increased multiplicity and frequency of disasters right now, as we’ve experienced it in the last cyclone season, is a clear example of what does not work”, he said. “We are being faced with a barrage of questions asking us to report on previous funding when we’ve experienced another three disasters. How do you expect us to respond and be accountable for one cyclone assistance when three have affected us?” Fei called for disaster response frameworks to take this reality into account.

Shalomi added, “We have heard much about localisation and the UN making efforts, and other major donors making public commitments, to link directly with local level institutions. In Sri Lanka we are yet to see widespread localisation and many disconnections remain between these high level discussions and how these programmes are carried out on the ground. Keeping a practitioner perspective present in these international discussions might help this challenge that we see from the ground level.”

In the final question, respondents spoke more about the need for urban people to engage more with the natural world and for external partners to respect, trust and work with local people – and their understanding – to address problems.

After some closing remarks, the webinar ended with a short video highlighting the Resilience course, an initiative of the Anglican Alliance and Episcopal Relief & Development.

The ACOUN team and Anglican Alliance are working closely on environment and climate change. A series of climate webinars will take place in September and October to equip Anglican leaders and others in the run up to COP26, the global climate negotiations taking place in Glasgow, UK in November. Safeguarding creation is a key priority of the Anglican Alliance’s work.