In recent decades, scientific and technological discoveries have rapidly accelerated the dissolution of the traditional obstacles that long separated the nations and peoples of the world. At the same time, with the erosion of cultural barriers, society is undergoing a spiritual transition. The impact of improved educational standards and information technologies is increasing global awareness, and the fundamental unity of the human race is becoming increasingly apparent.
Bahá’u’lláh clearly anticipated these changes and provided an ethical framework in which to address them, but this has largely been ignored until now. However, as climate change accelerates and its implications for the future of humanity become clearer, it may become a driving force for unity since a massive world undertaking is now necessary to mitigate further global warming and to adapt to the climate change that is already underway.
What, then, are the ethical concepts and spiritual principles that are now necessary to transform society in order to make solutions to global warming possible?
The Science of Climate Change
For some time, science has predicted that the planet is vulnerable to global warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those that live in cold regions might feel that a little global warming would be desirable, but any significant change in our climate will result in losers as well as winners. The regions which may benefit often have few inhabitants while many heavily-populated and highly-developed areas will suffer. Some may become completely uninhabitable. Change at this scale will be extremely stressful and expensive.1‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet recently translated from Persian, quoted in a memorandum on Gaia and Nature, to the Universal House of Justice from the Research Department, 8 June 1992.
The problem has its origins in the way life evolved on Earth. The conditions necessary for life in the biosphere are the result of a complex set of delicately balanced systems which are still poorly understood. The atmospheric composition that permits life to exist was itself created in part by the action of the first living things. The earliest plants removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and added oxygen, making animal life possible. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, writing early in the 20th century, referred to this interdependence of the vegetable and animal kingdoms. “Each of these two maketh use of certain elements in the air on which its own life dependeth, while each increaseth the quantity of such elements as are essential for the life of the other.”2Nicholas Stern, “The Economics of Climate Change. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080910140413/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/sternreview_index.cfm 2006. Dead plants, both the remains of marine plankton and terrestrial vegetation, were buried and their energy-containing carbon compounds fossilized to produce coal, oil, and gas, while their carbonate skeletons became layers of limestone, locking a significant part of the Earth’s carbon away in geological formations.
Carbon cycles through the biosphere, as plants take up carbon dioxide to make organic matter, while animals and decomposers oxidize organic compounds and return the carbon dioxide to the oceans and atmosphere. Today, the long-standing global balance between these processes has been upset by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—over the last 150 years, returning carbon to the atmosphere and oceans that has long been out of circulation.
The significance of this for the climate is that carbon dioxide, along with another carbon compound—methane, is among the most important greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the atmosphere in the same way as the glass in a greenhouse lets in light but prevents heat from escaping.
The climate has changed in past geological epochs, with both ice ages and much warmer periods associated with rises and falls in plant cover and carbon dioxide levels. These changes over hundreds of millions of years were due in part to the Earth’s orientation with respect to the sun and to the changing positions of the continents which affect the way the linked ocean-atmosphere system redistributes heat around the world. With the present configuration of continents, a global “conveyor belt” of ocean currents sees cold salty water flow along the bottom from the North Atlantic down to the Antarctic, looping through the Indian and Pacific Oceans and returning as a warm shallow current to the North Atlantic, where the freezing of Arctic ice in winter turns it back to cold water. The sinking of this water draws up the warm current from the Caribbean known as the Gulf Stream which maintains the relatively mild climate of northern Europe. Recent research has shown that these currents can alter quite quickly in correlation with abrupt changes between warm and cold climatic periods.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution powered by fossil fuels, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from 290 to 370 parts per million (ppm), and it could easily reach 550 ppm or more in mid-century. Every tonne of fuel oil burned produces 2.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while extracting the same energy from coal produces 3.8 tonnes of CO2. Deforestation and the loss of humus from degrading soils also release significant quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, representing one third of the increase.
While the rising levels of greenhouse gases will trap more heat and change the air circulation patterns and climate, the effects will be highly variable around the world and are not easy to predict. Using various computer models of the global climate system, more than a thousand scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have confirmed a significant human effect on the climate through global warming, and more is expected. While powerful political and economic interests have questioned the reality of any link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change, none of their arguments has withstood closer scientific scrutiny.
The evidence for accelerating global warming is accumulating rapidly. The global average surface temperature has risen markedly since the late 1970s. Nine of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1995. The models project an even faster rise in global temperature over the next century as greenhouse gas emissions continue. The greatest temperature changes are expected in polar areas. A rise of more than 2°C in the mean global temperature could trigger positive feedbacks that would make major climate change irreversible, and we could reach that point by 2035 if we continue business as usual, with a rise of up to 5°C possible by the end of the century. This is change at a speed and scale for which there is no planetary precedent.
The effects are already apparent. Many species in temperate areas are shifting their distributions, with cold-adapted forms retreating toward the poles, to be replaced by species from warmer climates. Similar shifts in altitude are occurring among mountain species. Arctic species like polar bears that are dependent on the ice are in great difficulty. Coral reefs around the world have bleached and died from unusually high water temperatures. The number of the most intense cyclones (hurricanes) has increased in all oceans over the last 30 years, driven by greater heat energy in tropical ocean waters.
Climate change on the predicted scale will profoundly affect the environment and human activity in many fundamental ways. Food insecurity will increase and many regions will experience water shortages as rainfall patterns shift and mountain glaciers disappear. Rich countries can probably afford to adapt their agriculture with changed crop varieties and new technology, but all scenarios show a severe decline in food production in developing countries. The greatest human impact of climate change will be on the poor, who are especially vulnerable to the predicted increase in extreme weather events such as floods, cyclones, and droughts—the latter particularly pertaining to Africa. Ocean fisheries will also be affected. Already fish stocks in the North Sea are shifting to other areas. As populations are displaced there will be increasing flows of environmental refugees, possibly reaching tens or hundreds of millions, and the related social disintegration could lead to increasing anarchy and terrorism. Natural, economic and social disasters will become more common and more severe.
Ecological systems and species will be severely impacted, greatly accelerating the loss of biodiversity. American scientists have calculated that climate change would cause conditions appropriate for the beech forests of the south-eastern United States to move to north-eastern Canada. Thus, whole ecosystems will shift over long distances if they can move fast enough. In the past, such changes happened more gradually. Birds can fly, but trees cannot get up and move to find a better temperature, and human transformations have blocked migration paths. We may have to replant the forests ourselves.
One effect of global warming is a rise in sea level, due both to the thermal expansion of water and to the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Sea level rise will flood low-lying areas and islands, including many port cities, creating millions of refugees. The projections for Bangladesh show a 1.5 meter rise will displace 17 million people from 16% of the country’s area. If the Greenland ice sheet is destabilised—which now appears to be likely—it will raise the sea level by more than 6 meters. Already some low-lying islands and coastal areas are being abandoned.
The costs of mitigation and adaptation will be enormous, but the cost of doing nothing is already very high and could rise astronomically. The insurance industry estimated a few years ago that the economic impact of natural disasters linked to global warming would reach an annual cost of $130 billion within 10 years, but hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the USA in 2005 alone caused damage reaching $204 billion. A recent report commissioned by the UK government estimated the annual cost of climate change if no action is taken at over $600 billion, or the equivalent of both World Wars and the Great Depression, while mitigating action would only amount to 1% of global GDP.3 Immediate action will be very cost effective, and any delay will raise the cost significantly.
The latest scientific evidence suggests that the worst predictions about climate change may be realized. The Gulf Stream has recently slowed by 30%. If the Gulf Stream stops, the temperature could decrease by seven degrees in northern Europe, limiting agriculture and raising energy consumption. Half of the permafrost in the Arctic is expected to melt by 2050 and 90% before 2100, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Major parts of the Arctic Ocean were ice-free in the summer of 2005 after 14% of the permanent sea ice was lost in one year, and oil companies are already planning for the drilling they can do in an ice free polar sea in the future. Greenland glaciers have doubled their rate of flow in the last three years. The rate of sea level rise had already doubled over the last 150 years to 2 mm per year, and melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now adding another 4 mm per year and Greenland 0.6 mm per year. We may be approaching a tipping point within a decade where runaway climate change would be catastrophic.
The Energy Challenge
Global warming is driven by our addiction to cheap fossil energy. Our industrial economy was built on cheap energy, mostly from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Transportation, communications, trade, agriculture, heating and cooling, and our consumer lifestyle all depend on high inputs of energy. Energy demand is rising rapidly and the supply is shrinking. Global warming is just one more reason to address the energy challenge urgently. Given the enormous investment in present infrastructure, adaptation will be extremely expensive, with the required investment in energy alternatives estimated at $7 trillion.
Some governments have decided to control greenhouse gases. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, established the framework for international action. The Kyoto Protocol on reduction of greenhouse gases set a first target to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, a limited reduction of 5% when at least 60%–80% is necessary. However CO2 emissions rose 4.5% in 2004 to 27.5 billion tonnes, 26% higher than 1990. China and India have doubled CO2 production since 1990, while the USA has increased by 20% and Australia by 40%. The USA released 5.8, China 4.5, Europe 3.3, and India 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2004. Despite its good intentions, humanity is rapidly going in the wrong direction.
Fossil energy consumption is still growing. World oil use is rising at 1.1% per year, with Latin America increasing 2.8%, India 5.4%, and China 7.5%. From 2001—2020, world oil consumption is expected to rise 56%, with OPEC production doubling, but non-OPEC production has already peaked. Oil provides 40% of the world’s primary energy. Two thirds of future energy demand will come from developing countries where 1.6 billion people have no electricity. Energy demand and global warming are on a collision course.
The end of the fossil fuel era is coming anyway. At present consumption rates, reserves of oil are estimated to last about 40 years, gas 67 years and coal 164 years. Geologists estimate the recoverable oil reserve at 2000 Bb (billion barrels). Past production over the last 100 years has already consumed 980 Bb, while the known reserves total 827 Bb and another 153 Bb have yet to be found, so almost half the expected reserve has already been consumed. Production peaks and starts to decline at half of the recoverable resource, because we use the most accessible oil first, and it becomes harder and harder to get the remainder. We could reach peak production within the next decade, after which production will fall at about 2.7% per year, dropping 75% in 30 years. The heavy oil/tar reserves in Canada and Venezuela (600 Bb) equal only 22 years of current consumption. Even without global warming, energy sources and consumption patterns must soon be changed.
Coal also has a significant impact on global warming. The major coal producing and consuming countries (USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, China) formed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate in July 2005. Together they have 45% of the world’s population; they consume 45% of world energy and produce 52% of the CO2, with both expected to double by 2025. They have agreed to develop and share clean and more efficient technologies, especially for carbon sequestration, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide secure energy supplies. However these goals may appear contradictory when China is planning to build 560 new coal-fired power plants and India 213, although India’s coal reserves are expected to be exhausted in 40 years. Today, one quarter of global CO2 emissions come from coal-fired power stations.
Some hopes have been placed on nuclear power but, at least with present technologies, it is not a long-term option. Uranium reserves are expected to be exhausted in about 40 years. Economically and ethically, the technology is also doubtful. The research costs and development of nuclear technology have been highly subsidized, particularly for military uses. There is a high energy input in nuclear plant construction and fuel fabrication, so it is not entirely carbon free. The risks of accidents are so high as to be uninsurable. Decommissioning costs of old plants are not usually included in cost comparisons; decommissioning the Three Mile Island plant in the USA after a minor accident was estimated to cost $3–4 billion. The UK was unable to privatise its nuclear power industry, suggesting it is uneconomic without heavy government subsidies. No country has yet completed a safe long-term disposal site for high-level nuclear wastes which must be secure for at least 10,000 years, so the high continuing waste disposal costs are being imposed on future generations, which is unethical. While research continues, generating electricity from nuclear fusion is still “40 years” away, as it has been for many years.
Our globalized world has become overly dependent on fossil fuels for road transport, shipping, aviation, tourism and therefore global trade. The energy and raw materials for industrial production, including chemical feed-stocks, plastics and synthetics, come largely from oil, gas and coal. Most electricity generation for lighting, heating and cooling is similarly dependent, as are modern cities and the suburban lifestyle. Fossil energy is behind our mechanized agriculture, fertilizers and pesticides, and the whole system of food processing and distribution. What happens when these become much more expensive? The business community is so concerned that the Carbon Disclosure Project representing more than half the world’s invested assets has invited 2,100 companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.
More worryingly, the world’s population has increased six-fold, exactly in parallel with oil production. Can we maintain such a high world population without the subsidy represented by cheap fossil energy? What will happen if we cannot?
There is also the question that energy planners never ask: even if we could exploit every fossil fuel reserve, can we really afford to cause so much global warming? Burning all extractable fossil fuels would raise CO2 in the atmosphere to well over 750 ppm. The ethical challenges of this situation are profound. On the one hand, the selfish desire of a minority of the world population to maintain a materially excessive civilization despite the enormous damage it is causing and the threat this represents for future generations is contrary to basic principles of justice and equity. The poor have every right to demand the same standard of living as the rich, but the planet cannot support present consumption, not to mention any increase. On the other hand, if a reduction in fossil fuel availability and use causes food production and distribution to collapse or become unaffordable, pushing many to starvation, this is equally unthinkable.
Energy is so fundamental to human welfare and civilization that we clearly cannot do without it, but there could be much more moderation and efficiency in its utilization. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote in 1936 that the world federal system anticipated in the Bahá’í teachings, will “consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations. . . The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized. . .” This system will exploit “all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet.”3See UK Meteorological Office. 2005. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Quoted in UNEP Finance Initiative Bulletin 47, February 2006. http://www.unepfi.org/ebulletin/ It will clearly be an aim of such a civilization to develop forms of renewable energy, in environmentally appropriate ways. These energy sources are mostly low density and widely distributed, which would suggest that future communities will be smaller and more wide-spread, unlike the urban concentrations of today. Given the moral unacceptability of the alternatives, the only responsible approach to the energy challenge is to replace fossil fuels with alternative renewable energy sources as rapidly as is humanly possible. The United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office has said that “the biggest obstacles to the take up of technologies such as renewable sources of energy and “clean coal” lie in vested interests, cultural barriers to change and simple lack of awareness.”4See UK Meteorological Office. 2005. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Quoted in UNEP Finance Initiative Bulletin 47, February 2006. http://www.unepfi.org/ebulletin/
With the present size of the global population, the consequences of going back to the world as it was before fossil fuels are unacceptable. The urgent challenge is to rethink civilization in a new and more sustainable way, and to begin the transition as rapidly as possible. This is where the principles of the Bahá’í Faith can suggest some ways forward.
The Ethical Implications of Climate Change
The world’s present institutions have failed to address adequately the threat of climate change. No politician has been willing to sacrifice the short-term economic welfare of his or her country, even while agreeing that sustainability is essential in the long term. Furthermore, the deep social, economic, and political divisions within societies and between countries prevent united action in the common interest. Global warming is just one symptom of the fundamental imbalances in our world and of the failure of our systems of governance to resolve the most critical challenges of our age.
We must recognize the failure of our present economic system to address global long-term issues like global warming. Economic thinking is challenged by the environmental crisis—including global warming. The belief that there is no limit to nature’s capacity to fulfil any demand made on it is demonstrably false. A culture which attaches absolute value to expansion, to acquisition, and to the satisfaction of people’s wants must recognise that such goals are not, by themselves, realistic guides to policy. Economic decision-making tools cannot deal with the fact that most of the major challenges are global.5See Bahá’í International Community, Office of Public Information. The Prosperity of Humankind. (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1995).
Climate change is a consequence of the present self-centred materialism of our economic paradigm. The materialistic view became the dominant interpretation of reality in the early 20th century. Through rational experimentation and discourse, humanity thought it had solved all issues related to human governance and development. Dogmatic materialism captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, ensuring that no competing voices could challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation. Yet not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism’s fundamental flaws. Since World War II, development has been our largest collective undertaking, with a humanitarian motivation matched by enormous material and technological investment. While it has brought impressive benefits, it has nevertheless failed to narrow the gap between the small segment of modern society and the vast populations of the poor. The gap has widened into an abyss.
Consumerism drives much of the emission of greenhouse gases. Materialism’s gospel of human betterment has produced today’s consumer culture in pursuit of ephemeral goals. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. The breakdown of traditional morality has led to the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite. Selfishness has become a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Yet material comforts and acquisitions have been drained of meaning. In the USA the indicators of human welfare and satisfaction have been diminishing since the 1960s. The economy may be richer, but people are not happier. This self-centred, hedonistic culture of the rich, now spreading around the world, refuses to acknowledge its primary responsibility for global warming. The challenge, then, is fundamentally a spiritual one, necessitating a change in the understanding of humanity’s nature and purpose.
What role can religion play in the challenges of today, including global warming? We used to be relatively content living within the limited perspective of our own communities, but now we can closely observe developments all around the world. We know about the extreme differences and injustices and we can no longer tolerate them. This progressive globalizing of human experience increases the stresses of modern life. There is a loss of faith in the certainties of materialism as its negative impacts become apparent. At the same time there is a lack of faith in traditional religion and a failure to find guidance within them for living with modernity. Yet, it would appear that it is an inherent characteristic of the human experience to understand the purpose of existence. This has led to an unexpected resurgence of religion, built upon a groundswell of anxiety and discontent with spiritual emptiness. People lacking in hope are readily attracted to radical, intolerant, fanatical movements. As a result, the world is in the grip of irreconcilable religious antipathies, a situation which paralyses our ability to address global challenges including climate change.
Humanity can choose to conduct “business as usual” in its materialistic way, ignoring the future. The consequences however will soon catch up with us. We can retreat into a fortress of old values, but the pressures of globalization will make this untenable. The alternative is to make the effort to transition towards a unified world civilization based on equity and sustainability, drawing on the complementary strengths of both science and religion. This is the approach that the Bahá’í Faith has championed for more than a hundred years.
Unity is the essential prerequisite for action to remove the barriers to collaboration on global warming. In its 1995 statement, The Prosperity of Humankind, the Bahá’í International Community observed:
“The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world’s population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Deceptively simple in popular discourse, the concept that humanity constitutes a single people presents fundamental challenges to the way that most of the institutions of contemporary society carry out their functions. Whether in the form of the adversarial structure of civil government, the advocacy principle informing most of civil law, a glorification of the struggle between classes and other social groups, or the competitive spirit dominating so much of modern life, conflict is accepted as the mainspring of human interaction. It represents yet another expression in social organisation of the materialistic interpretation of life that has progressively consolidated itself over the past two centuries. . .. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organisation in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”6See World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission): Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Only by agreeing that we are a single human race and live on one planet can we create the ethical and moral basis for addressing a challenge such as climate change.
Some governments have already agreed. They promote the concept of sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.7Bahá’í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue (Lambeth Palace, London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 18–19 February 1998). The nations of the world have repeatedly accepted this as a goal and priority. This is precisely the challenge of climate change. With high fossil energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, we are precipitating damage to our planetary system that will compromise future generations. Governments have agreed they have to act but, faced with a paralysis of will, they do not.
Expressed by the Bahá’í International Community, sustainability is fundamentally an ethical concept. We, the human race, are trustees, or stewards, of the planet’s vast resources and biological diversity. We must learn to make use of the earth’s natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. This requires full consideration of the potential environmental consequences of all development activities. We must temper our actions with moderation and humility, and recognize that the true value of nature cannot be expressed in economic terms. This requires a deep understanding of the natural world and its role in humanity’s collective development both material and spiritual. Sustainable environmental management is not a discretionary commitment we can weigh against other competing interests. It is a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered, a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as our physical survival.8Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1952). pp. 342–343.
Sustainability requires the rethinking of economics. The present economic system is unsustainable and not meeting human needs or able to respond adequately to global warming. Fifty years of economic development, despite some progress, has failed to meet its objectives. The global economic system lacks the supra-national governance necessary to address such global issues. It is not the mechanisms of economics that are at fault, but its values. Economics has ignored the broader context of humanity’s social and spiritual existence, resulting in corrosive materialism in the world’s more economically advantaged regions (driving global warming), and persistent conditions of deprivation among the masses of the world’s peoples. Economics should serve people’s needs; societies should not be expected to reformulate themselves to fit economic models. The ultimate function of economic systems should be to equip the peoples and institutions of the world with the means to achieve the real purpose of development: that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness.
What values do we need for an economic system able to accept responsibility for and address global warming? The goal of wealth creation should be to make everyone wealthy. Society needs new value-based economic models that aim to create a dynamic, just and thriving social order which should be strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature. It should provide meaningful employment and help to eradicate poverty in the world.
All religions teach the “Golden Rule,” namely, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Should a minority of high energy consumers have the right to cause such damage to others and to future generations? Many faith-based organisations are drawing increasing attention to the ethical implications of excessive consumerism and one of its impacts, climate change.
Justice and equity will be essential to achieve unity of action at the global level. It is unjust to sacrifice the well-being of the generality of humankind—and even of the planet itself—to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities. Only development programmes that are perceived as meeting their needs and as being just and equitable in objective can hope to engage the commitment of the masses of humanity, upon whom implementation depends. The same is true of action to reduce global warming.
Solidarity is another essential value in times of rapid change, when many will become victims of climate perturbations and natural disasters. The poor are the most vulnerable to climate change and the least able to protect themselves. We should consider every human being as a trust of the whole, and recognize that both governments and individuals share this responsibility. Voluntary giving is more meaningful and effective than forced redistribution.
Trustworthiness will also become increasingly important. Trust is the basis for all economic and social interaction. Public opinion surveys show little trust in politicians and business, key actors in this area. The repeated failure of governments to respect the commitments that they have made has not helped. Re-establishing trust will have to be part of the solution to global warming, a solution in which everyone will have to make sacrifices.