HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the Solomon Islands – as in many island nations of the Pacific - churches wield huge influence in people’s lives, both as community leaders and providers of key public services.
Now the government and climate experts are looking to them to take on an additional role: as influential partners in the battle to combat climate change.
“The churches are taking (climate change) on; they are accepting it. They encourage people to look after the environment. We hear it in our sermons and in church retreats,” said Helen Zazu Novak, a resident of Taro, a town in remote northern Choiseul Province that is being hit by coastal erosion and flooding.
“They are saying that we should care for life and this means we should not only care about people, but also the environment,” she said.
Missionaries arrived in this part of the world more than a century ago and today at least 90 percent of people in the Solomon Islands are active members of a Christian church.
In rural areas, where more than 80 percent of the population resides, churches and faith-based organizations are important providers of education and health services.
Hudson Kauhiona, acting director of climate change with the Ministry of Environment, said the government sees churches as a crucial – but so far under-used – partner in efforts to build resilience to climate change, which is threatening water supplies, farming and lives on low-lying islands through worsening storms and sea level rise.
“We are still not really working closely with the churches and other civil society organizations as we should. In communities, they are one of the best groups to do (activities) on behalf of the government. That is an area which still needs to be strengthened,” Kauhiona said.
A recent study of attitudes to faith and the environment among more than 1,200 students at University of the South Pacific campuses across a range of islands found that 80 percent attended church services at least once a week and 90 percent claimed a close personal affinity with the natural world.
The authors, from universities in Australia and the Pacific, noted that climate change messages – even those aimed at an educated elite – “if communicated within familiar and respected religious contexts are likely to be more successful than secular ones”.
Already, faith leaders have been far from silent about the issue.
Thirteen years ago, the Pacific Council of Churches issued a public statement, the ‘Otin Tai’ Declaration, pointing out that climate change “is not an act of God” but instead “a result of human economic and consumer activities that pollute the atmosphere”.
The declaration included pledges by church leaders to engage their churches in education and action on climate change, carry out work on emergency response, adaptation to climate change and other issues, and encourage companies producing or using fossil fuels to support a transition to less carbon-heavy economy.
Under the declaration, local clergy, for instance, were encouraged to use part of their annual budgets to carry out climate change education with congregations.
In the Solomon Islands, the capacity of churches to pass on climate change messages is immense. On Sundays, when the streets of the capital, Honiara, are deserted, places of worship such as Holy Cross Cathedral are bulging with families dressed in their best. Church services are often the biggest social occasion of the week.
The power of faith leaders to influence and inspire action on climate change is in part linked to the role many place in running local services.
The Solomon Islands is a scattered archipelago of more than 900 islands, and many government agencies face immense challenges, with limited staff and resources, to reach and maintain a presence in the country’s remote areas.
But with a church established in almost every village, clergy are on the frontlines of leadership and response when weather disasters or other problems strike rural communities.
“In situations of need, the church can hear from the parish priest in an isolated village and act upon it easier than the government. So we have the natural network of knowing the situation of the people,” said Catholic Archbishop of Honiara, Christopher Cardone.
When Cyclone Pam hit the far-flung Taumako and Anuta islands in the country’s far eastern Temotu Province in 2015, lack of communications and scarce government resources resulted in local communities having to manage most of the disaster response themselves.
The vast grassroots network most churches tie into also gives them access to firsthand knowledge about climate change impacts, with local priests developing a deep understanding of the effects on people’s lives, Archbishop Cardone said.
Many priests grew up in coastal villages and have raised concerns within the church about rising sea levels, coastal erosion and food losses caused by saltwater inundation of farmland.
Caritas International, a Catholic relief and development agency, produced a report last year on the scale of hunger and water shortages communities across the Pacific Island states experienced in the wake of an El Nino weather phenomenon, record high temperatures and Cyclone Winston, which devastated parts of Fiji last February.
“Drinking water is a big issue here in the Solomon Islands and in rural places ... the church has responded with hundreds of water supply projects and water tanks,” Cardone said.
Improving water security will be an ongoing challenge as El Nino events trigger months of drought and as annual temperatures continue rising across the region, according to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program.
The Anglican Church of Melanesia, meanwhile, since establishing a climate change division in 2010, has embarked on a range of climate initiatives as well.
In the low-lying atolls of Ontong Java, in the remote north of the Solomon Islands, they have worked with communities to develop climate resilient farming methods.
Now they are working on improving community resilience to natural disasters.
“All the clergy will be included in disaster preparedness activities. This includes setting up disaster preparedness committees in local communities, which will then be linked to the government,” said Casper Supa, a spokesman for the Anglican Church’s climate change office.
He said the project is being put in place in all of the country’s nine provinces.
The Solomon Islands is expected to suffer annual losses of about $20 million a year from natural disasters – particularly tropical storms and earthquakes – in coming years, according to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, which provides grants to help countries reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards and climate change.
Reporting by Catherine Wilson; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate