From Swords to Ploughshares: Climate and Conflict Part 1

November 11, 2019

We know that climate change is an ever-present and increasingly serious threat, and it seems there is always more news of wars, conflicts and violence – but is there any link between the two?

I was recently invited to give a lecture for World Peace Day at Chichester Cathedral, looking at the relationship between climate breakdown and conflict. As I prepared for the lecture, I was reminded of the moving day I spent with Daniel a few years ago, on his shamba, on the floor of the Rift Valley in Tanzania. One of the things that became apparent on that day was how the climate crisis was leading to conflict between him and the herders around him, as they looked for land on which to graze their goats. With good grazing ground becoming increasingly scarce, the goats kept breaking through his thornbush fences. He would have to throw stones at them to scare them away, and you can imagine he was none-too-happy with the herders themselves.

We have been aware of the reality of climate breakdown for decades, and wars and conflict have gone on since the beginning of human society, but there is a particular interest growing in looking at these two topics together. It has become increasingly recognised that – alongside poor governance – conflict and climate change pose the biggest threats to international development, and their effects could see millions of people pushed back into poverty, reversing the progress that has been made in the last thirty years. In fact, Tearfund has seen these two issues as so central to combating global poverty that it has made them two of its three corporate priorities.

So how might climate change and conflict relate to each other? Although a strong causal relationship between the two has not yet been proved by research (this is a new area where further study is needed), there is evidence to show that they are linked. Some researchers have suggested that climate change ‘loads the dice’, increasing the likelihood of the outbreak of violence. But not only that, for both agriculture and warfare, the way we use the earth’s resources has undergone a radical transformation – more intensive methods of production have gone hand-in-hand with greater exploitation of the natural world. Tearfund has found as it has developed its work in these two areas that the root causes of fragility and the challenges for environmental stability are very similar.

There certainly seems to be a correlation between climate issues and fragility: 26 of the 39 states with the highest fragility have chronic, high exposure to multiple climate hazards, facing some combination of floods, wildfires, chronic aridity, rainfall anomalies, cyclones, and coastal inundation. And, of the 10 countries in the world with the largest number of multilateral peacekeepers, 8 of these countries are also highly exposed to climate change.

This correlation means that there are climate and conflict ‘hotspots’: the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), the Lake Chad region in west-central Africa, the Sahel region in north Africa, parts of west, central and east Africa, parts of Latin America (particularly tropical Latin America), and parts of Asia. For example, in the Lake Chad region armed conflict and climate change are compounding each other and affecting water governance, leading to displacement and poverty. There were 11 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance there in 2018. To take an example from a different area, Iraq is both one of the countries in the Middle East that has been hit hardest by climate breakdown and one that has seen much conflict and instability. And in Latin America, which is more than 85% urbanised, the rapid movement of people from the countryside to cities driven by climate breakdown (particularly in tropical Latin America), has fuelled deadly violence given a context of poor government services, lacklustre policing, plethora of firearms, inequality, youth bulge, and dislocated families. These are countries and regions nearer the equator that are less developed, meaning their governments are less able to cope with the effects of climate change, and there are pre-existing higher levels of poverty and instability, increasing the risk of conflict.

Nigeria is a notable example of a country where climate change and conflict are perpetuating and reinforcing each other. Drought and desertification have seen a significant reduction in crop yields for farmers as well as pasture for herders to graze their cattle, leading to competition for the limited fertile land and water resources available, which in turn has led to violent clashes between the two groups. The country is now the poverty capital of the world, with the number of absolute poor rising there and in DRC, meaning that by 2030 these two countries will account for more than 40% of Africans in extreme poverty. The Global Terrorism Index also named it the third most terrorised country three years in a row, whilst the Fragile States Index ranked it 14th in its listings for 2018. Between 2010 and 2015, Nigeria lost 6500 citizens and $14.7 billion, with 62,000 others displaced in a record 850 perennial clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the middle belt region of the country. The crisis is now a full-blown national security threat.

So climate change and conflict are increasingly appearing together, worsening the crisis that fragile communities find themselves in. In Part 2, we’ll look at some of the key issues that tie these two problems together before looking, in Part 3, at how we might work to bring about change.


Saved by Zero

May 2, 2019

Businesses are saying ‘get on with it’, adults and children across the UK are calling for it and now the committee advising the UK Government on climate change has said it’s both feasible and affordable: the UK setting a net zero emissions target by 2050.

This net zero target is needed to meet the Paris Agreement commitment to stay ‘well below 2C’ and pursue efforts to limit temperature rises to 1.5C. In order for businesses and others to work confidently towards this target, we now need the UK Government to legislate for this and start implementing the changes needed. Tearfund is asking the Government to raise that ambition further and become net zero emissions by 2045 at the latest. Research from WWF and Vivid Economics shows it is possible for the UK to go net zero by 2045 by reducing emissions and then balancing the remaining emissions out by planting more trees, restoring peatlands and using technologies to capture and store carbon.

This guidance from the Committee on Climate Change comes at a crucial time when the UK public is making it clear that we want increased and urgent action on climate change. Over recent months we’ve seen a seminal TV documentary by David Attenborough, protests, school strikes and declarations of a climate emergency by local and regional authorities, and this week, the UK and Scottish Parliament.

Today’s recommendation, if adopted, would be a key opportunity in turning that sense of urgency into action and be a litmus test for how serious the Government is to tackle climate change.

The Committee has calculated that to reach net-zero emissions will only cost 1-2% of GDP.  This is the same as the cost it estimated for reaching the 80% emission reduction target enshrined within the Climate Change Act in 2008.  All the economic evidence is that the cost of action is far less than the cost of inaction. Dangerous levels of climate change could cause massive and permanent damage to the UK and global economy.

We know that climate change is already affecting all of us, but as we’ve seen from the unprecedented occurrence of two cyclones in five weeks hitting the coast of eastern Africa – people in poverty are hit the hardest. So, the decision the UK government now faces is a no-brainer – it has to act swiftly to implement today’s recommendations.

Environment, Spirituality

Plastic-Less Lent 2019

March 4, 2019

This little video tells you more about what we’re doing for Plastic-Less Lent this year, so do have a watch and then sign up here to join in: https://www.facebook.com/groups/148636355799566/.

This is a great way to get together with a whole load of other folk from around the world to take steps to reduce our plastic use, which we know is causing massive problems from our seas and for people in poverty.

I look forward to doing this with you!

Bible/Theology, Environment, Videos

Love Always Hopes

February 15, 2019

‘Love Always Hopes’ was the challenging theme I was given to speak on at The Justice Conference in the Netherlands. How do we stay hopeful in the face of millions of people still living in extreme poverty and with global inequality increasing? How do we hope for a better future when our beautiful earth is being devastated by the effects of climate change and waste?

To hear my reflections on remaining hopeful, watch the video of the talk below. (Please note that while the introduction to the talk is in Dutch, the talk itself is in English!)


Christians Who Make a Difference

November 11, 2018

It’s a pretty scary thing asking an external body to do some research for you and having absolutely no control over the findings. What if you don’t like what they come back with?!

So it was with some nervousness that we decided at Tearfund to team up with the research firm Barna Group to look into connections between caring for people in poverty and spiritual growth.

In particular, we wanted to look at what we call a ‘whole life response’ to poverty. Tearfund is absolutely committed to helping Christians, in the UK and around the world, respond to poverty in a ‘whole life’ way: through prayer, giving, advocacy, lifestyle, and other actions such as volunteering. We summarise that as Pray, Act, Give.

In the research we wanted to explore this whole-life response and see how that features for Christians in the UK (and in the US too – a US version is soon to be released). The research came back with a huge amount of fascinating findings – too many to go into in detail here! But three things in particular stood out for me:

  1. There is a close correlation between the Christian faith and responding to poverty, and Christians are more likely to engage in poverty activism than others.

Four out of five Christians (87%) have taken action on poverty in the past year and, in every area of poverty response, churchgoers scored more highly than non-churchgoers. Of particular interest to me was the small minority (16%) of Christians who took action in all five areas and were what we would call ‘whole life responders’. Consistently the findings showed that Christians who prioritise serving people in poverty also prioritise faith practices such as reading the Bible, being a regular part of a church, and praying.

  1. The Christian faith has a continued legacy when it comes to poverty response.

I was fascinated to see in the findings that growing up in a Christian household is a significant predictor of later poverty activism, even among adults who don’t attend church now. Six out of ten poverty activists (62%) grew up in a home where Christianity was practised regularly, even though they no longer attend church. This underscores the long-term impact that religious upbringing has on caring for the poor, even without current involvement in a church.

  1. We have a long way to go

Although the links between responding to poverty and Christian faith are strong, the research also shows there is much more we can do. It’s great that 73% of UK self-identified Christians gave to a charity last year but, quite honestly, why isn’t that 100%?! And only 34% say they respond to poverty in their prayers. It is encouraging to see that 63% have been engaged in advocating for political change in some way (the majority through petitions), but only 39% report making a concerted effort to change their lifestyles, and especially their consumer habits.

So what can we take away from this research? Well I’ve no doubt all sorts of different things will be brought out by people looking at it, but for me there are two things to take away:

  1. Responding to poverty and discipleship are deeply intertwined

This should be pretty obvious to any church leader reading this, but somehow we still seem to miss it. Around the world, discipleship is one of the big issues being discussed (how can we form faithful and effective disciples in today’s challenging context?) and we run all manner of discipleship courses to try to make this happen. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we need to sort out people’s prayer life and bible reading habits first, and things like responding to poverty come further down the line.

If you are a church leader, the message is clear: if you want your congregations effectively discipled, get them engaged with people in poverty and their relationship with Christ will be transformed. 

  1. An effective response to poverty requires our whole lives

Giving financially is a vital part of how we can respond to poverty. Tearfund couldn’t do the brilliant work it does if it wasn’t for the generosity of our incredible supporters. And giving to help others is a Biblical command and reflects our values – if you want to know what is most important to a person, look at their bank statement! But giving on its own isn’t enough. We must also take practical action through, for example, volunteering. And alongside these things, we must be advocates: speaking to governments, institutions and businesses to encourage and push for policies and practices that work on behalf of the poor, instead of against them. Underneath all of this is our own lifestyles and endeavouring to live in ways that are respectful to both people and planet. And finally, surrounding all these human endeavours is prayer. Through prayer we connect with who and what we are praying for and we believe prayer is powerful: at Tearfund we have seen amazing things happen through prayer!

For all of us reading this post, let’s ask ourselves: what are the areas of response we are stronger or weaker in, and what are the steps we could take to live a life that is focused on spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfying the needs of the oppressed (Isaiah 58:10)?


The Gospel, The Whole Gospel, and Nothing But the Gospel

November 4, 2018

At a gathering I was involved with recently, one of the topics most under discussion was that old chestnut, ‘what is the Gospel?’ To help us with our deliberations we looked at some papers by a prominent church leader, author and speaker (I won’t say who it was because I don’t think the papers were truly representative of his thinking, so to give his name doesn’t seem fair). I was then one of the people asked to give a response to the papers.

This chap’s view of the Gospel was easily described as (to use his own words), ‘you are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of the substitutionary work of Christ alone’.

So is this the Gospel? ‘No’, I said in my response, ‘it is not. It’s a key part of the Gospel. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say that it is the core of the Gospel. But it isn’t the whole Gospel, and therefore – in and of itself – it is not the Gospel’. For someone who professes to hold a very high view of Scripture (elsewhere he uses the word infallible), it actually strikes me as a remarkably unbiblical view of the Gospel since it misses out so much of the Bible.

To me it is like an apple. The definition of the Gospel given above is the apple’s core, but there is so much more to an apple than the core alone, and if that is all you eat it will give you something, but ultimately will leave you undernourished. You might not realise it if you have only ever eaten the core, but you will be missing out on the delights of a whole apple!

So what juicy goodness are we missing out on if we focus only on the core, as important as that is (and I hope it hardly need be said that an apple without the core also isn’t a complete apple)?

Well, Leon Morris might want to say that Romans 3:21-26 is, ‘possibly the single most important paragraph every written’,[1] but I would like to suggest that a close rival would be Colossians 1:15-20, particularly in its assertion that the blood of Jesus was shed on the cross for all things (ie including but not just people).

To my mind, an understanding of the Gospel is deficient unless it is rooted in a strong understanding of the Kingdom of God. A couple of weeks ago I was teaching at a Theology School on the theme of peace. I looked at the angels’ announcement to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus that, ‘There is glory for God in highest heaven, and on earth there is peace among the people whom God has favoured’ (Luke 2:14, translation from The Word Biblical Commentary), and at Peter’s conversation with Cornelius about, ‘the good news (= gospel) of peace through Jesus Christ’ (Acts 10:36).

This message of peace was a fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes for the time when God would come and reign fully amongst his people, bringing in a new, earthy era of love, justice, righteousness and peace (eg. Isaiah 32:16-18; Psalm 85:10-13). As the Old Testament scholar Chris Wright has said, ‘God’s purpose was not to invent a production line for righteous individuals, but to create a new community of people who in their social life would embody those qualities of righteousness, peace, justice and love that reflect God’s own character and were God’s original purpose for humanity’.[2] An integral part of that social life is that it would be lived out within the wider community of creation that then responds appropriately (eg. Isaiah 55:12-13; Isaiah 11:6-9).

So Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament’s hopes and this is what the Gospel is all about.

The GOOD NEWS is that, in him, he brings about peace and reconciliation; a restoration of our relationships, with God centrally (2 Corinthians 5: 18-21; Philippians 4:7), but then also with other people (Romans 12:18; Ephesians 2:14-17), within ourselves (Romans 15:13; Thessalonians 3:16), and peace for the whole wider creation (Colossians 1:15-22; Romans 8:19-23).[3] Don’t we need that so desperately today? (The Introduction to Just Living: Faith and community in an age of consumerism, will give you much more on this.)

So when we think about the Gospel and about what it means to live it out and proclaim it – through the way we live, the things we do, and the words we speak – let’s not settle for something that will give us an emaciated faith: yes I want the core, but I want the whole apple too!


[1] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 173.

[2] Chris Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP: 2004), 51.

[3] Out of a desire not to make this post too long, I have not considered what we see actually in Jesus’ life that relates to all of this, but there is much that we could look at there, for example the interplay between healing and salvation. Salvation is never a purely ‘spiritual’ thing.