Rev. François Pihaatae of the Maohi Protestant Church at the session on impacts of nuclear testing in Pacific at the 57th CCIA meeting. Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

Rev. François Pihaatae of the Maohi Protestant Church at the session on impacts of nuclear testing in Pacific at the 57th CCIA meeting. Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

Pacific islands experience lasting impacts of the 50 years of nuclear testing and the region has become a global hotspot of climate change, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Commission of Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) learned in its meeting this week in Brisbane, Australia.

The 57th CCIA session gathered experts from WCC member churches who met with Australian church leaders along with leading researchers on climate change and nuclear testing impacts on the Pacific. Spotlight sessions of the meeting addressed topics of the climate change emergency and nuclear testing in the Pacific, as well as Australian bushfires and their impacts on people and environment.

Nuclear testing impacts last generations

From 1946 up to 1996 there have been 322 nuclear tests carried out in the Pacific region by the USA, France and UK, shared CCIA commissioner Rev. François Pihaatae of the Maohi Protestant Church in Maohi Nui islands. France alone has tested 193 bombs in Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in Maohi Nui (French Polynesia) since 1966, and scientists estimate that nuclear waste will be there for more than 300,000 years.

The effects on the health of many islanders are devastating and last for several generations; cases of cancer have increased 3 times in the following years after the nuclear tests. “Both of my parents had cancer. I don’t know how my health will be affected - but most of  my worries are about my children and their future,” said Rev. Pihaatae, former general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches.

Nuclear test victims should be heard, accompanied and healed, and compensations for them should be finally provided, said Pihaatae. He expressed hope that the global and regional fellowship of churches would continue support and programmes accompanying nuclear test victims in the Pacific.

The total energy released by US, UK and France nuclear explosions in the Pacific is equivalent to 9,010 Hiroshima bombs, said Prof. Matthew Bolton of the Pace University (USA) and director of Pace’s International Disarmament Institute.

Radiation from the nuclear tests affects people unequally, but everyone is affected – there is no “safe level” of the radiation. However, women and girls are more vulnerable to radiation than men, said Bolton.

Nuclear tests should be seen also as intrusion in the sovereignty of Pacific nations – most often high-level secrecy has been surrounding the particular tests. Besides, tests have transnational consequences as fallout from the explosions travels around the world and affects other countries.

Among main suggestions of how churches can help, Bolton suggests increasing support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the Pacific and beyond, highlighting ongoing humanitarian and environmental concerns in the region, and amplifying voices and participation of survivors in nuclear diplomacy at international forums.

Pacific - hotspot of climate change hazards

In the CCIA spotlight session on the climate change emergency, Prof. Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University shared the latest research findings on climate change impacts and human and natural influences on global warming.

Global temperature have risen 1.1 degrees compared to the pre-industrial baseline, up 1.5C already over land. The range of the average temperatures has changed significantly, and the map of the temperature anomalies shows that “no place in the world is unaffected, even the North and South poles,” said Howden.

Suva, Fiji, January 2020. Sea level rise is one of climate change hazards affecting nations in Pacific region. Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC

During the last 30 years doubling of marine heatwaves has been observed, and sea level rise is accelerating unexpectedly, making the Pacific region especially vulnerable. Usual once-in-a-century flooding levels are reached every few days at a normal high tide now, providing increased risk of extreme sea level events, explained Howden. Other climate change-related hazards include drought, fires, storms and water scarcity, and the Pacific is in the hotspot of these dangers.

Although climate change is accelerating and climate impacts increasingly present danger, neither emission-reduction responses nor adaptation responses are keeping pace. “But there is increasing momentum for change and this can provide new opportunities if we work together,” concluded Howden.

Smoke kills more than fire

There is a clear relation between climate change and fire disasters, concluded Prof. David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania. Studying wildfires in Tasmania and Australia for many years, he said the fires which occurred on the east coast of Australia have been of unprecedented nature.

Being professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, Bowman explained that smoke pollution and emissions from wildfires has produced energy equal to the nuclear explosion. Smoke pollution is entering earth’s stratosphere and after going “full circle” coming back to other locations in Australia.

According to the data analysed, all biggest cities of Australia and half of the population are affected by smoke pollution, and detailed health impacts are still evaluated. “Smoke kills more people than fire,” said Bowman.

Although many people are in denial about climate change impacts, the role of the church is to speak the truth and to bring hope to people, said Rev. Dr. Stephen Robinson, National Disaster Recovery Officer of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Using the churches’ voice

Bad theology is the reason why many churches and Christians are not responding to climate change, said Bishop George Browning, former chair of Anglican Communion Environmental Network.

Questionable theology, economics and politics contribute to neglecting climate change. “You need to stand by the scientists and lobby with the politicians,” Browning encourages the churches.

The cost of the fire damage in Australia is much higher than investment in mitigation the government should have done, said Browning. The last 10 years have been spent without any significant climate action from the federal government, and many Australians feel embarrassed by the fact.

Looking on the Pacific islands and other places in the world most affected by climate change, it is painful to realize that your country is one of those who have caused this, said Browning. “I have lived a wonderful life, but my grandchildren will not be able to experience everything I was able to. I hate the thought that my grandchildren would say - you had a voice, but you did not use it.”

If we do not take it seriously, nothing else matters much, concluded Browning.


CCIA meets in Brisbane with focus on Pacific regional priorities (WCC press release 19 February 2020)

Bishop Philip Huggins: We can rise to the challenge of the climate emergency (WCC press release 21 February 2020)

Photos from the 57th CCIA meeting in Brisbane, Australia

Learn more about the WCC’s Commission of Churches on International Affairs