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Photos portray suffering caused by climate change - but offer hope as well

Photos portray suffering caused by climate change - but offer hope as well

A man retrieves plastic waste in a river in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Sean Hawkey

08 January 2020

As we begin the year 2020, wildfires rage from the Arctic to Australia, icecaps melt, and fierce storms and floods lash our cities. This is already “the new normal.” At the same time, in politics and media, truth struggles to prevail against lies. It’s a dangerous moment.

Sean Hawkey, a photographer for ecumenical organisations including the World Council of Churches (WCC), selected photos from his archive as a reflection on a decade of work.

Hawkey, a firsthand witness to many events, happy and unhappy, continues to be gravely concerned about the impacts and prospects of climate change. His photos portray not just dramatic events but the slow and so-called “unattractive” stories, the ordinary details of how climate change grinds away at the lives of poor people, what Hawkey describes as “thousands of little stories that aren’t dramatic enough to attract the attention of our media.”

One of the large migrant caravans crossing Chiapas, Mexico. Most of the migrants were from the Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, countries badly affected already by climate change. Climate change is a motor of migration as traditional agriculture fails and water becomes scarce across the region. Photo: Sean Hawkey

Last year Hawkey accompanied the migrant caravan across Mexico, sometimes walking in the darkness to avoid the brutal heat of the day, with ten thousand people, many suffering, sometimes in fear and trepidation, people crying out in prayers for protection. The exodus was welcomed by churches who fed people and bandaged their feet. And day after day people would tell stories of how their crops failed for the fifth year or the tenth year, because the rains didn’t come and they couldn’t get a harvest or they couldn’t find labouring work because the farm owners had gone bust. The climate crisis is linked to mass migration, and we are told this is a fraction of what’s to come.

During a visit to Honduras, Hawkey rose with villagers at 3 am to walk to the well, as the children sang and the family hoped to collect enough water to cook and wash some clothes. Time at the well was rationed because the wells are nearly dry. The water fell in sad heavy drips that resounded in the empty containers. When the next family arrives at dawn, two gallons might have been collected, often barely enough to survive.

In this picture José Santos deepens his well in the village of El Burrillo, Honduras. Into the ninth year of drought in this region, the water table has dropped below the level of many wells, and so wells have to be deepened or abandoned. Water rationing in the area is common, and many people are leaving the region as agriculture fails and water scarcity makes living extremely difficult. Many of those leaving become migrants to the US. Photo: Sean Hawkey

In the same village, Hawkey joined José Santos, who was digging at the bottom of a dry well, trying to reach the water table. He’d already gone down three metres, but found no water. The village had no harvest for six years, nine years now, and the future isn’t looking any better. We are seeing what “unsustainable” really means.

The scientific predictions are that climate change will cause large-scale failure of fisheries and agriculture, and we are already at the tipping point for such failure in many places. And, as well as causing hunger, it causes migration and conflict. As anyone who has attended any UN climate conferences with ecumenical groups knows, the predictions we’ve been listening to for the last decade, or longer, are coming true.

The German Evangelical Church (EKD) synod ran simulateously with the UN climate negotiations in Bonn in 2017,the Rev. James Bhagwan of the Methodist Church in Fiji and the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit led prayers and spoke about climate change to the synod. WCC has been involved in every UN climate negotiation since they began 25 years ago. Photo: Sean Hawkey/WCC

WCC and other faith-based organisations have worked hard to improve our understanding of climate change and what we have to do, and they have taken leadership in the movement for divestment from fossil fuels. We are now seeing breakthroughs in understanding and media discourse, but, as the world is ablaze, it’s of deep concern that we are still not seeing the urgent action required.

We don’t know what a sustainable world looks like exactly, because the scale of change is hard to imagine, but we do know - and the science isn’t really disputed - we have to stop emissions and transition quickly to renewable energy and low-carbon economies, and we have to plant a lot of trees to absorb our emissions, a trillion trees. If this is going to work, churches will have to be involved much more in this new phase.

A statue of Christ crucified stands in the Hambach forest near Bonn where the UN climate change negotiations took place in 2017. The crucifix was erected as part of ongoing protests to stop the expansion of the coal mine next door. Photo: Sean Hawkey/WCC

Hawkey found many inspirations in this movement for life, for example in the work of the Green Patriarch, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, also in the tireless work of Father James Bhagwan of the Pacific Council of Churches showing how island nations are going under, and in the leadership on divestment from Rev. Henrik Grape and the Church of Sweden. Rev. Sue Parfitt of Christian Climate Action also leads people in prayer and protest against the causes of climate change and for the transformations we need, making a stand even if that means being arrested. There are many ways to be involved, all are useful and urgent.

Should our most sacred prayer be to plant trees, as a physical and spiritual commitment to creation and to all our brothers and sisters? Hawkey feels this is a challenge to us all.

As we enter a new decade, Hawkey’s photos may help renew our commitment to act in faith for truth and justice to prevail, to stop climate change, and to do so with all our energy.

Visit the full photo gallery

Learn more about the work of the WCC on Care for Creation and Climate Justice