“Children are dying”: Climate Crisis and the Rivers of Babylon

Greta Thunberg is 14 years old. She was awarded the honor of being Time’s Person of the Year. She speaks to the United Nations, to national leaders, to the world and she does it while still in high school. And she’s not the only one; at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 25, hosted in Madrid, there were plenty of youth activists talking about their experiences in their home countries. One youth activist from the Netherlands started her activism when she was eight years old. 

I often grow frustrated with the fact that we must classify them as “youth” activists. It seems to be a way to disempower them and write them off. “Well what do they know, they’re only children?” “What can they do, they’re only kids?” “Why should we listen to them, they’re only teenagers?” 

All my life, I’ve often felt like this, like I was “too young” to really do anything or have expertise. I started working for Child Protective Services when I was 19 years old and working with teenagers meant I often worked with clients that were only a few years younger than myself. During one particular case, when I was 23 years old and had worked for CPS for four years, I walked into a meeting with a family and the grandparents said I “looked like I was right out of high school!” I had a bachelor’s degree, four years of experience, and was employed by the state, but still I could not escape my youth. 

Now here I am, almost 30 and with a Master of Divinity degree and still find it hard to break out of the shackles of the “youth” label. But I walked away from Madrid inspired by the overwhelming courage of youth and young adults, determined that I, too, could make a difference, and convinced of the need for action over words. We must act because small nations like Tuvalu are losing their land, their homes, and their way of being. We must act because millions of people are migrating from their homes because of floods, droughts, fires, and pollution, only to find themselves in systems of violence and neglect that traumatize them further—sometimes deliberately. 

We must act because children are dying. 

Irish youth activist Theo Cullen-Mouze shared his frustrations and call to action while at COP: 

“I do not care about shiny pavilions. I do not care about brackets around words. I came to Madrid because the adults are acting like children. You and people like you have sat around tables and talked and talked and talked. You have promised much and delivered little. Children are dying. If I had to sum up the climate crisis, it would be that: children are dying.”

I am reminded of other times in our biblical history when children were dying; one of the ten Plagues that God unleashed upon Egypt, Herod’s rage when being outsmarted by the Magi and Jesus slipping through his fingers, and Babylon conquering Judah. Theo’s words immediately brought up Psalm 137 for me, that line about “we sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept” and its mention of children’s heads being smashed against rocks. 

In reading it again to refresh my memory, I had forgotten how the ending of the Psalm and the referenced smashing of babies’ heads are a plea to God for vengeance by inflicting upon those in Babylon what they did to those in Judah. It is a cry for that age-old adage of “an eye for an eye” and still it is the children who are dying. And perhaps there is some of that misplaced vengeance in the resentment of some older people against the youthful energy—as well as factual accuracy– of the climate activists. 

None of these stories really apply to our current climate crisis; there are no mad kings trying to keep a people enslaved or thwart the rise of the son of God, there’s no country conquering another and deliberately killing their children (at least not in regard to climate change). In this matter, it is the river that does the smashing and us who caused the flood. There’s no revenge to be found, no one we can point the finger at other than ourselves. Our world is on fire, literally in some places, and we must act because children are dying. 

This is why children are stepping up. It is the children, youth, and young adults who will inherit this world in whatever state it is left, and there is very little time before the damage becomes irreparable. “[The adults] have promised much and delivered little,” so now the children must act. 

While I am no longer a child, I feel a connection to this particular group of advocates. I am among the group of millennials who have no desire to have children, and the current state of our world is a big factor in that. I am constantly worried about climate change. While I was not affected by Hurricane Harvey, I have seen its destruction firsthand. I was in San Francisco when the fire that destroyed the entire town of Paradise started and I was affected by the smoke from 200 miles away. Puerto Rico has never recovered from Hurricane Maria and has now been devastated by earthquakes. Thousands of people will be migrating to our southern border due to climate change and, if our current border crisis is any example, we are ill equipped to receive them and care for them, let alone love them. 

As Americans, we are told we can do little to change the stance of our current administration, which has started the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement. We cannot change the orders they give their negotiators, or the way those official signatory Party representatives comport themselves while at COP. But as Americans and people of faith, in fact we can make  changes in our own homes and communities. We can reduce our own carbon footprint by recycling more, travelling less, eating less meat, and using less single use plastic products. We can talk to our communities, our elected officials, our churches, and impart the need for large scale climate advocacy. Most importantly, we must love our neighbor and the beloved creation that God has gifted us. Because people are dying, children are dying, and we must reflect the radical love of God if we have any chance of saving them. 

Conference of Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the Convention. All States that are Parties to the Convention are represented at the COP, at which they review the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts and take decisions necessary to promote the effective implementation of the Convention, including institutional and administrative arrangements.

COP held an international meeting in Madrid, Spain December 2nd – 13th, 2019. For more information about the conference, click here.

Erica Nelson is a 2018 graduate from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is a candidate for ministry within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Before going to seminary, she was a social worker who specializes in working with teenagers in the foster care system. She has served the local church through hospitality and administrative responsibilities and has served the national church as a delegate to the United Nations Status on the Commission of Women and Ecumenical Advocacy Days. She currently serves as a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, a committee that provides advice on social witness and policy to the General Assembly, the national body of the PCUSA.

She has been working for Texas Impact since June of 2018 and has focused on two primary policy areas; immigration and the environment. She coordinates the Courts & Ports program, which brings people of faith to the Texas/Mexico border to be a witness to the way our current immigration policies are affecting migrants so that they may be advocates for immigration policy change at the state and federal level. She has also attended the Conference of the Parties (COP), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Texas Impact attends the COP as observers to learn what is going on in regards to climate at the international level and how Texans can impact change in their own communities. 

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