Science and Religion in the Climate
Case study of the Bahá'í Community
Arthur Lyon Dahl, Ph.D.
President, International Environment Forum
Coordinator, UNEP/University of Geneva/Graduate Institute Environmental Diplomacy Programme
Paper presented at the conference on
Ethics and Climate Change: Scenarios for Justice and Sustainability
Padova, Italy, 23-25 October 2008
Science and religion are too often seen as antagonistic, with little to contribute to each other. As the debate over climate change has intensified, and the scientific evidence has become overwhelming, it is apparent that scientific information alone may be insufficient to motivate the necessary action for the fundamental transformation of human society. Religions and faith-based groups are increasingly raising the ethical issues behind the climate change challenge, in complement to the scientific arguments. One example of this is the Bahá'í community.
Scientific concepts of ecology, environmental responsibility and evolutionary social change are deeply rooted in the Bahaî writings, and the Bahá'í International Community has been active on environmental issues at the United Nations and elsewhere for many decades. Recent examples of this are a side event at CSD-15 on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, and an essay on this topic in The Bahá'í World 2005-2006, the public record of the Bahá'í community's activities.
In parallel, the International Environment Forum, a Baha'i-inspired organization of environmental professionals, has organized international conferences on the spiritual dimensions of, and response to, climate change, as well as on education for sustainable development and lifestyle changes.
The approach taken combines a scientific perspective on climate change with the resulting ethical challenges. It questions the dominant materialist society and consumer culture, emphasizing the necessary balance of the material and spiritual dimensions of human life. At the social level, it focuses on the unity of the human race founded on justice and solidarity. It explores the spiritual principles upon which any solution to the climate change problem and the larger challenges facing society must be based, and incites individual reflection and community action. Scenarios of the ever-advancing civilization that can result from a principle-based approach provide a positive focus to counterbalance the negative perspectives for our immediate future that the scientific facts demonstrate only too clearly.
A similar approach has proven effective in bringing ethics and religion into training mid-career diplomats in the Geneva environmental diplomacy programme. Participants have been able to integrate their religious and ethical beliefs with their international action.
While those of us in the environmental community have been raising concerns for decades about climate change due to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, we never imagined that it would occur at the rates now being measured, especially in the polar regions. The alarming evidence from the scientific community (IPCC 2007) combined with serious estimates of the economic cost of failure to act (Stern 2006) have now brought debate on the issue to the highest political levels. However it is apparent that scientific information, by itself, is inadequate to motivate action. Faced with the inertia of economic, political and social systems, and powerful vested interests determined to maintain business as usual, the response to climate change is inadequate relative to what scientists say is necessary. Economic and political thinking are inherently short-term, producing what Sir Nicholas Stern called the greatest market failure in history (Stern 2006).
Unlike other global environmental problems like stratospheric ozone depletion, where the number of actors was limited and international agreement on control measures was possible, climate change threatens the very basis of the global economic system founded on the energy subsidy from cheap fossil fuels. This makes action very difficult, as it requires a fundamental transformation of human society. In addition, there are not just a few responsible parties. Everyone is to some extent responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, with responsibility increasing with wealth and the rate of consumption. Everyone also risks being a victim of climate change, with the poor the most immediately vulnerable. This raises a fundamental ethical dilemma that touches everyone.
Faced with the limitations of science to motivate change, it is natural to consider what the other great knowledge system, religion (defined in its largest sense), can contribute to the response to climate change. Science and religion are too often seen as antagonistic, with little to contribute to each other. Yet religion has traditionally been a major source of motivation and ethical guidance. As the debate over climate change has intensified, and the scientific evidence has become overwhelming while action has not followed, it is apparent that a broader approach is necessary. Religions and faith-based groups are increasingly raising the ethical issues behind the climate change challenge, in complement to the scientific arguments. This paper describes one example of this in the Bahá'í community, the most recent of the world religions founded in the mid-nineteenth century.
BAHA'I APPROACH TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Scientific concepts of ecology, environmental responsibility and evolutionary social change are deeply rooted in the Bahá'í writings (BWC 1990), and the Bahá'í International Community has been active on environmental issues at the United Nations and elsewhere for several decades (Dahl 2005). For Bahá'ís, science and religion are fundamentally in harmony, providing complementary perspectives on the same fundamental truth. Just as religion without science and reason can fall into superstition, so does science without religion tend towards materialism.
The Bahá'í approach combines a scientific perspective on climate change with the resulting ethical challenges. It questions the dominant materialist society and consumer culture, emphasizing the necessary balance of the material and spiritual dimensions of human life (UHJ 2005). By teaching contentment with little, and the need to eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty that are often associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions (the former through overconsumption, the latter through deforestation and soil degradation), it encourages a reconsideration of lifestyles and consumption patterns. "Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them. Observe equity in all your judgements, and transgress not the bounds of justice, nor be of them that stray from its path." (Bahá'u'lláh 2002)
At the social level, the Bahá'í approach focuses on the unity of the human race founded on justice and solidarity (BIC 1995). It explores the spiritual principles upon which any solution to the climate change problem and the larger challenges facing society must be based, and incites individual reflection and community action. For a complex issue such as climate change, where costs and benefits, immediate advantages and long-term risks are so unequally distributed, justice and equity will be essential to achieve any global agreement on action. As the Bahá'í International Community has put it in the larger context of development: "Concern for justice protects the task of defining progress from the temptation 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.... Above all, 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 relevant human qualities such as honesty, a willingness to work, and a spirit of co-operation are successfully harnessed to the accomplishment of enormously demanding collective goals when every member of society -- indeed every component group within society -- can trust that they are protected by standards and assured of benefits that apply equally to all." (BIC 1995) The present difficulty in agreeing to global standards for greenhouse gas reductions arises in part because governments are still more concerned about defending their short-term interests rather than justly and equitably distributing both the efforts required and the accruing benefits.
Bahá'ís have a strong vision of a future global society, and see climate change as an important force compelling the nations and peoples of the world to give priority to their common interest. The Bahá'í writings include scenarios of the ever-advancing civilization that can result from a principle-based approach to world challenges like climate change, with a federated world government able to maintain collective security, to manage the planet's vast resources and to distribute its products equitably (Shoghi Effendi, 1938). Such perspectives of the long-term future of the human race provide a positive focus to counterbalance the negative concerns for our immediate future that the scientific facts of climate change demonstrate only too clearly.
Given this background, it is normal that the Bahá'í International Community (BIC) should engage in the climate change debate. At the 15th UN Commission on Sustainable Development in New York in 2007, the BIC organized a popular side event in the UN building on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, in partnership with the Missions of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, the UN, the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University, the International Environment Forum, and other NGOs. An essay on this topic was published in The Bahá'í World 2005-2006, the public record of the Bahá'í community's activities (Dahl 2007).
National Bahá'í communities have also participated in inter-faith events on environment, including climate change, and have encouraged their local communities to consider the need to mitigate climate change in planning their activities.
INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT FORUM
In 1997, a number of Bahá'ís and other like-minded environmental professionals organized the International Environment Forum (IEF), a Baha'i-inspired professional organization for addressing the environment and sustainable development (https://iefworld.org/). Now with over 200 members in more than 50 countries, the IEF has provided a platform for its members to explore the relationship between ethical and spiritual principles and the environmental challenges facing the world. The IEF functions as a virtual organization, using the Internet and the world wide web to network among its widespread membership. It also organizes annual conferences on themes relevant to the environment and sustainability, and has been active in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. In 2002, it was accredited to the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where it participated in the Science Forum and organized several parallel activities. It is a partner in various educational activities such as a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Sustainable Development at the University of Geneva, and contributes to the European Union's Consumer Citizenship Network (http://www.hihm.no/concit/).
As an organization bridging science and spirituality, the IEF has been a forum where climate change has been considered from an ethical perspective, and it has supported the efforts of the Bahá'í International Community and various national Bahá'í communities to make contributions to the debate on climate change at the United Nations and elsewhere.
In 2006, the IEF organized an international conference at Oxford University on "Science, Faith and Global Warming: Arising to the Challenge" in partnership with the Bahá'í Agency for Social and Economic Development of the United Kingdom (https://iefworld.org/conf10.htm). The conference considered climate change from economic, social, gender, development and community perspectives. Speakers included Dr. Halldor Thorgeirsson, Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dr. Augusto Lopez-Claros, then Chief Economist at the World Economic Forum, and various scientists and academics.
The IEF annual conference in 2007 was held in Ottawa, Canada, in collaboration with the Bahá'í Community of Canada, on the theme "Responding to Climate Change: Scientific Realities, Spiritual Imperatives" (https://iefworld.org/conf11.htm). The location was chosen because Arctic communities are some of the first to be severely impacted by climate change, and an ethical and spiritual approach can help them to cope with the forced transformation of their environment and lifestyle. The opening speaker, Professor John Stone, a Vice-Chair of one of the main committees of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had learned the morning of his talk that they had won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
Other IEF conferences have considered topics relevant to climate change such as education for sustainable development and lifestyle changes that would help to reduce carbon footprints. For its 2008 conference in the Netherlands in partnership with the European Bahá'í Business Forum (http://ebbf.org), it considered "Growth or Sustainability? Defining, Measuring and Achieving Prosperity" (https://iefworld.org/conf12.htm), with climate change as one of the major drivers for a new look at the purpose and functions of business incorporating a values-based approach.
ENVIRONMENTAL DIPLOMACY PROGRAMME
A similar approach has proven effective in bringing ethics and religion into training mid-career diplomats on climate change and other environmental issues. The challenges of extending international environmental law and applying existing law are so complex that few governments have the capacity to address them coherently. For example, negotiating an international agreement on climate change action beyond the Kyoto Protocol requires diplomats who understand both the underlying science and the multiple situations in which different countries find themselves when faced with accelerating global change, as well as the politics and economics of climate change.
The UNEP/University of Geneva/Graduate Institute Environmental Diplomacy Programme (http://www.unige.ch/formcont/environmentaldiplomacy/) combines a broad coverage of emerging environmental issues requiring international action with the practical tools and negotiating skills necessary to achieve international consensus. One component of this training is a module on Ethics, Religion and Science for Environmental Diplomacy. It reviews the ethical principles underlying international agreements, and explores the ways the religious or secular positions of governments affect their negotiating positions. It also shows the important contribution that principles relevant to the environment in all the major religions can make to the search for equitable agreements that can be implemented. Examples from the Christian, Islamic and Bahá'í traditions have been studied in detail. By extending the environmental issues requiring international agreement to the most fundamental level of ethical principle, the course helps to lay a foundation for greater international understanding in the future. It has enabled participants to integrate their religious and ethical beliefs and those of their nations and cultures with their international action. They often cite the ethical dimension as one of the strong points of the course.
The success of this approach underlines the need to include the ethical and spiritual dimension in a broad and inclusive form more widely in educational programmes of all kinds and levels to equip citizens for the challenges of the years ahead.
The need to mobilize the world population to respond to the challenges of climate change requires new kinds of partnerships across all segments of society. In particular, the scientific community which has been marshalling the evidence for climate change and trying to understand and project its impacts, should recognize that faith-based organizations have a unique reach to grass-roots levels all around the world, and a capacity to motivate change, that can be used to communicate the ethical challenges arising from climate change and the need for a common effort to respond. The necessary transition will require sacrifices from many people, which will be more readily accepted with an ethical justification and spiritual motivation.
The Bahá'í community provides one model showing how science and religion can be brought together to raise public awareness of climate change and motivate action towards sustainability based on justice and equity.
Bahá'í World Centre (1990). Conservation of the Earth's Resources. A compilation of extracts from the Bahá'í Writings prepared by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust.
Dahl, Arthur Lyon. (2007). "Climate Change and its Ethical Challenges", pp. 157-172. In The Baha'i World 2005-2006: An International Record. Haifa: Baha'i World Centre.
IPCC (2007). Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, IPCC. http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-syr.htm
Stern, Nicholas (2006). The Economics of Climate Change, London, Her Majesty's Treasury. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080910140413/http://www.hm-…. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Last updated 6 December 2008