New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

Did the recent United Nations report on climate change leave you alarmed but also bewildered?

If so, my bet is you're one among many. Given the situation’s described magnitude, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the report’s predicted dire consequences.

What's an ordinary citizen supposed to do about it? (Hint: Recycling your jars, can and papers isn’t enough.)

Making it more difficult, I believe, is that some key world leaders either reject the scientific consensus on climate change or prefer to ignore it in favor of shortsighted and immediate economic gains they believe are more likely to attract materially oriented voters. 

No, I’m not just leveling a dig at President Donald Trump. Click here to read a Washington Post story about other important leaders who reject the political steps necessary to stimulate broad public understanding and global action to slow climate disaster, to the degree that’s still possible.

What about journalists? 

Given the depth of climate change’s predicted and irreversible societal upheaval, is climate change the most important story of our time? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan seems to think so.

But that still begs the question: How can this mind-boggling issue be covered in a way that makes it more comprehensible to the ordinary reader?

Allow me to suggest journalism 101’s time-honored formula: explain the macro by focusing on the micro — which is to say tell the story by highlighting one person’s experience at a time.

The New York Times did just that with this piece that ran as a sidebar to its main story on the UN report. Moreover, GetReligion readers, the piece has a strong, and valid, religion component.

In fact, it’s a classic religion yarn explaining how one man is playing out his faith in his daily life in climate change-impacted, drought-ravaged Australia.

WEE WAA, Australia — The Rev. Bernard Gabbott bumped along on a road so remote the asphalt had given way to gravel, heading out to see a farmer who had been working seven days a week, straining to keep his cattle and sheep fed.

He pointed to an empty patch of earth. The farmer had plowed it to plant as pasture for his livestock, but instead, the afternoon wind kicked up clouds of dust.

“It’s been like that for months,” Mr. Gabbott said as he pulled up to a small farmhouse.

When he arrived nearly a decade ago in Wee Waa, a small town surrounded by scrubby farmland, Mr. Gabbott’s mission seemed straightforward. He was the vicar of the town’s small Anglican parish. His job was to bring people to Jesus.

But now, he has found himself wrestling with a far more complicated reality. With the worst drought in decades threatening a way of life in Australia’s rural communities, he has become a one-man support system for earthly concerns.

Not until further down in the piece did the writer skillfully work in the climate change angle. The approach — luring readers into the story by painting a vivid image of the pastor’s humanity in the here and now — works better, I think, than slapping readers across the face, and possibly losing their interest, with an immediate mention of the likely culprit, climate change.

Here’s an additional chunk of the piece — a very, very long passage that is essential reading. Notice how well the personal has been entwined with the larger issue.

Wee Waa, a onetime cotton capital a few hundred miles northwest of Sydney, is one of many rural communities in a part of Australia enduring its driest year since 1965.

Scientists have shown that climate change makes Australia’s droughts more severe, but many farmers said the cause matters less than their immediate needs.

Ron Pagett, 75, farms on thousands of acres on the edge of the Pilliga Scrub, an expanse of scruffy woodland. Mr. Pagett … has lived through other droughts, but he figures it will take years to stagger back to profitability from this one.

A truck pulled up to the house with boxes of canned goods, and Mr. Pagett sighed. “Surely,” he said, “they can find someone poor to give that to.”

Mr. Gabbott said it was a response he heard often: farmers refusing charity, playing down their troubles.

“I’m convinced he turned the tap off,” said Philip Firth, who raises cattle and sheep on land where Mr. Gabbott’s young sons have been learning farmwork, referring to God.

More than $1 billion has been made available by officials to support agriculture. More recently, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, Australia’s first Pentecostal leader, has urged the nation to pray for rain.

It’s a common refrain. Here in the sweep of Australian farming country, where land is measured by the thousands of acres and the horizon consists almost entirely of different shades of brown, there has been a flood of entreaties for divine help — at dinner tables, in schools, at gatherings of friends.

“We pray for your mercy in sending soaking rain,” Mr. Gabbott said, praying at a regular Bible study at home, “that really replenishes the land and restores the country.”

He is a convert to rural life. Mr. Gabbott, who is gregarious and quick to laugh, grew up in Sydney, the son of missionaries. He had a brief career in politics working with the conservative National Party before entering the ministry.

For nearly a decade, he has lived in a century-old house behind the church, where his wife home-schools their children: Seth, 12; Baxter, 9; Elsa, 6; and Sage, 4.

Please read this story in full. Here’s the link again. It’s just a great example of how a humanizing sidebar makes the near-incomprehensible understandable.

One more thing. The Australian prime minister who urged his countrymen (and women) to pray for rain?

His government, like prior Australian governments, refuses to tackle his nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, coal in particular, which have long been identified as a prime cause of human-propelled climate change.


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