INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT FORUM
Volume 18, Number 12 15 December 2016
Article submission: email@example.com Deadline next issue 13 January 2017
Secretariat Email: firstname.lastname@example.org General Secretary Emily Firth
Postal address: 12B Chemin de Maisonneuve, CH-1219 Chatelaine, Geneva, Switzerland
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From the Editor, Request for information for upcoming newsletters
This newsletter is an opportunity for IEF members to share their experiences, activities, and initiatives that are taking place at the community level on environment, climate change and sustainability. All members are welcome to contribute information about related activities, upcoming conferences, news from like-minded organizations, recommended websites, book reviews, etc. Please send information to email@example.com.
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Wilmette Institute courses for 2017
IEF members are faculty for three on-line courses at the Wilmette Institute (http://wilmetteinstitute.org) next year:
Baha'i Perspectives on Agriculture and Food
15 January to 5 March 2017
Faculty: Paul Hanley*, Arthur Dahl*, Kim Naqvi, Neil Whatley and Robert White* [* IEF members]
Watch the Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbtmjphMqOQ
The Bahá'í writings described agriculture as "a vital and import matter" that was foremost among the principles for "the advancement of mankind and the reconstruction of the world” (Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas 89, 90). Yet current agricultural policy often prioritizes yield and profit over health and sustainability, while the poor struggle to feed themselves, and climate change makes farming increasingly unpredictable, threatening the food supply. These and other factors threaten food security. In this course, we will examine the teachings of the Baha’i Faith on agriculture, food, and rural development; relate these teachings to contemporary public discourse on these issues; and explore ways in which agricultural activities can be incorporated into local core activities, community-building, and emerging social action.
Register here - 10% discount for registering by 20 December.
15 April to 9 June 2017
Faculty include Christine Muller and Arthur Dahl
Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but has both scientific and spiritual dimensions. It has farreaching implications for our efforts to relieve poverty, to establish and maintain peace, and for the economy. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of human civilization is at risk because human activities today are severely shaking the underpinnings of life on this planet.
Many people are already suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change such as increased water scarcity, more severe storms, floods, droughts, famines, malnutrition, diseases, and dislocated from their homes. The threat of climate change to our children and grandchildren is immense and its long term consequences are unprecedented in human history. Climate change is a spiritual and ethical challenge because human economic activities are responsible for the warming of the Earth and even our own personal lifestyles contribute to it.
Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind
10 September to 28 October 2017
Faculty include Arthur Dahl, Christine Muller and Peter Adriance
The word sustain means to support for a prolonged period or to keep an effort going continuously. With reference to development, sustainability means to keep the productivity and wealth of our society going continuously into the distant future. Yet we know of no past civilization that has done that successfully; all reached environmental or social limits and collapsed. With the rapid evolution of science and technology, humanity has for the first time run up against planetary limits.
As the warning signs increased, first the environment and then the broader concept of sustainable development rose on the international agenda. However, we have a hard time defining what sustainable development really is. It is, in fact, easier to measure un-sustainability and to try to reduce unsustainable trends. This course will explore the concept of sustainability as is discussed and explored in the larger world and based on principles in the Bahá'í authoritative texts.
Wilmette Institute Supported International Academic Effort
with Global Climate Change Week
Article submitted by Christine Muller. Most of the content below is taken from an article published in the Wilmette Institute's December 2016 Newsletter.
As promised in the November IEF Newsletter, this is a brief report about the involvement of the Wilmette Institute in Global Climate Change Week. The Wilmette Institute and Núr University were among the 288 institutes of higher learning that participated in Global Climate Change Week.
The aim of Global Climate Change Week was to raise awareness and to call for action around the world. The website of Global Climate Change Week explains why it is extremely urgent to take strong climate action:
In Paris in 2015, the international community agreed to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C [2.7°F]”. If current climate policies around the world continue, though, the expected result will be around 3.6°C [6.5°F] warming. If we factor in the current pledges or promises governments have made, assuming they will all be met, global warming would still be likely to reach around 2.7°C [4.9°].
As things stand, then, the international community does not appear to be prepared to take the measures necessary to limit global warming even to 2°C [3.6°F]. This is profoundly shocking, given that any sacrifice involved in taking those measures is far overshadowed by the catastrophes we are likely to face if we do not: more extinctions of species and loss of ecosystems; increasing vulnerability to storm surges; more heatwaves; more intense precipitation; more climate related deaths and disease; more climate refugees; slower poverty reduction; less food security; and more conflicts worsened by these factors....
The Wilmette Institute’s contribution took the form of a Forum on Global Climate Change on its Learning Center Home Page. It provided a link to an Activity Page filled with basic information and a number of videos on climate change and invited Wilmette Institute learners and faculty from all courses, past and present, to participate in the Forum.
As of the completion of this article, twenty-three Wilmette Institute learners had subscribed to its Forum on Climate Change, and eighteen had participated in the discussions. In nine discussion threads, they discussed a wide variety of topics ranging from the great threat of climate change to spiritual perspectives and everyone’s moral obligation to take action. They also included many practical approaches.
Reflecting on the scope of the climate crisis, Peter Haug wrote:
The predicament humankind is approaching is made abundantly clear by astrophysicist Adam Frank, a professor at the University of Rochester. According to Frank, enough of us have not yet understood “the meaning of what’s happening to us and the planet. . . . What we don’t get is the true planetary context of the planetary transformation human civilization is driving.”
He [Frank] observes that, “on a fundamental level we don’t really understand” the problem of climate change.” Man’s cumulative impact is so significant, Frank states, that we’ve pushed Earth “out of the Holocene and into the Anthropocene, an entirely new geological epoch.”
Carol Curtis, a Bahá’í living in the Marshall Islands, wrote about the reality of climate change in an Atoll Nation. People in the Marshall Islands, as well as on other Small Island States, are seriously threatened by sea-level rise. The islands are getting smaller, and their freshwater supply is becoming increasingly contaminated by salt water. Some people have already left, but many are reluctant to leave because they understandably do not want to abandon their homes, their land, and their culture. Carol suggested this beautiful, and heart-breaking, seven-minute video at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/15/marshall-islands-cl…
The topic that engendered the most discussion was action. Candyce Ricco, from East Branch, New York, wrote that
We all need to be individual moral barometers for those around us, setting an example of better stewardship. I try to change the spot I’m standing on in order to, hopefully, witness a ripple effect around me. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to set an example for others to follow. If everyone makes small changes, larger changes will occur.
Judith Russell, who lives in Prescott, Arizona, shared this: “I have determined to walk rather than drive to work every day and compost/recycle in an organized manner.” Another participant shared her positive experience volunteering in a community garden coordinated by Minnesota Interfaith Power. Yet another participant is supporting a carbon tax in his state because he sees that voluntary individual actions will not be sufficient to address climate change, that we need a deep systemic change.
Some participants talked about the usefulness of measuring energy as an effective tool to reduce our energy consumption. A participant from Brazil, a professor at the Universidade de Brasilia, shared an article he wrote (in Portuguese) on Solar Energy as a Solution to the Energy Issue. Some friends discussed the importance of trees and shared resources about Richard St. Barbe Baker, a Bahá’í who dedicated much of his life to reforestation.
One of the most interesting discussions centered on sustainable agriculture and how it can help “sequester carbon,” which means taking carbon out of the atmosphere and returning it into the soil. The discussion included many topics such as the importance of the soil; the role of animals in soil fertility; the many problems with factory farming; the harmful effect of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is emitted by ruminants (cows); the benefits of a vegetarian diet; and the necessity that global meat consumption must be reduced significantly.
In the Global Climate Change Forum inside the Wilmette Institute’s course on Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind, Maria Roca, one of the organizers of a forum on “Climate Change to Climate Action” at Florida Gulf Coast University, made this exciting report:
The forum was conducted as a World Café. We had 6 tables with “expert” table hosts including scientists, representatives from local environmental organizations, political scientists, and permaculture experts. The goal of the dialogue was not just to identify possible actions but to create a plan to implement some of these ideas. After the first forum we hosted the second part of this dialogue where Honors students came together to synthesize the ideas from the original dialogue and to craft the plan of action. This plan will be shared with appropriate members of our administration to move action forward. I have already committed to teaching a one-credit Sustainability Lab next fall where we will take on some part of this plan.
Actions were clearly motivated by spiritual values, which was reflected in a conversation about the relationship of spirit and matter. Our view about the world informs our actions. That is why it is so important to see our interconnectedness not only with people around the world but also with the Earth. Dr. Mukesh Sikarwar, a participant originally from India but now living in Malaysia, stated this clearly in his post: “We are not separate from nature; we are a very, very small part of it. Yet we humans behave as the ruler of nature.” In another post, Mukesh observed that
We humans have damaged our environment and are not concerned about future generations. We live as if no one is going to live after this generation. We are exhausting fish in the ocean and oil in the earth, damaging biodiversity, and engaging in many other destructive activities, and yet we call ourselves civilized.
He went on to agonize over the fact that many Bahá’í communities have not yet made the connection between their faith and their consumption and waste production. The discussion highlighted the importance of education and how our meat consumption contributes to deforestation, species extinction, and climate change. It brought up that it is difficult for many people to see that their consumption of stuff supports an unjust economic system and contributes to the suffering of the very people they profess to love—people in other parts of the world who are producing their clothing, electronic gadgets, and so on under slave-like conditions and are being harmed by the pollution caused by the manufacturing process.
Another participant, John Krochmalny, from Sylvania, Ohio, reported that some communities are making progress: “We have been implementing the principles of the Bahá’í Commonwealth as we understand them toward all aspects in our locality. Also included are the actions with the core principles associated with the United Nations Global Compact as well as the Earth Charter.”
In the area of education, Arthur Lyon Dahl, president of the International Environment Forum, reported that he “gave a lecture to ninety students at Núr University in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on individual responsibility for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including on climate change.” The lecture followed the Twentieth Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum at the University of Núr, the only other Bahá’í-inspired academic institution that participated in Global Climate Change Week.
Erika Keller Rogoff, from Waban, Massachusetts, emphasized the importance of education by sharing two resources:
“The Truth About Climate Change” is a document written by seven well-known senior scientists. Its lead author, Sir Robert Watson, said “Climate change is happening now and much faster than anticipated.” The report is set up in question-and-answer format and makes clear what has happened, what is happening, and what needs to happen in clear and understandable parlance. The second resource is a short article describing the Report. It is only one page and doesn’t have the specifics of the report, but it summarizes one major purpose of the Report. “Leading scientists say most people remain unaware of the truth that climate change is a stark reality now and will continue to get worse without drastic action.”
Global Climate Change Week 2016 is over, but the Wilmette Institute’s GCCW Forum will stay open year round. Besides the nuclear threat, climate change is the most urgent issue humankind must address without delay. Spiritual perspectives are vital in that effort. The participation of universities around the world and of Bahá’ís in the annual Global Climate Change Week offers beams of hope in an increasingly darkening world.
Corruption, morality and religion
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
The world is becoming a more dangerous place, with a loss of shared values, the rise of unpredictable leaders, the increasing concentration of wealth and power, the rejection of science, logic, expertise and even truth, increasing xenophobia and polarization, a disregard for the needs and desires of the young and of future generations, the headlong destruction of environmental resources and life-support systems, the destabilization of the climate, and a debt-driven economic and financial system raping the planet for short-term profit. These contrary winds are sweeping away many hopeful signs of progress from the past, and seem to be leading us to a catastrophe of multiple dimensions and unimaginable consequences. The parallel with the 1930s is frightening.
I was asked to reflect on the moral dimensions of corruption, particularly in the light of recent political events. Corruption is traditionally defined as the abuse of public office for private gain, including bribery, nepotism and misappropriation; extra-legal efforts by individuals or groups to gain influence over the actions of the bureaucracy; the collusion between parties in the public and private sectors for the benefit of the latter; and more generally influencing the shaping of policies and institutions in ways that benefit the contributing private parties at the expense of the broader public welfare (Lopez-Claros 2015). On reflection, the corruption that is eating into the vitals of global society today is more than just the material corruption of bribery for personal gain. It is any undue preference given to personal or private gain at the expense of the public or collective interest, including the betrayal of a public trust or office in government, but also the manipulation of a corporate responsibility for self-enrichment, the distortion of truth and denial of science to manipulate the public for ideological ends, and even the misuse of a religious responsibly to acquire power and wealth. Corruption is just one expression of the priority given to oneself over others, of egoism over altruism, of personal over collective benefit.
The impact of corruption on environmental destruction and mismanagement is often underestimated because, as an illegal activity, it escapes from statistics, but it is a principal reason for the failure of many efforts at environmental protection and management, whether from traffic in endangered species, illegal logging and fishing, or ignoring or evading environmental regulations.
For me as a systems scientist, it seemed clear that there must be a simple underlying systems explanation for all of this. Like the struggle between good and evil, it is nothing new, but it is expressed in complex new forms.
It starts with the nature and purpose of human beings. We are born with an animal nature and the potential for much more, a potential that is realized through education, an education with material, intellectual and ethical/moral/spiritual dimensions. Without the right education, our ego and selfish desires dominate, and our life is driven by self-interest and physical passions. It is perfectly natural to be selfish and aggressive, and for many, “you can’t change human nature”. Corruption is an expression of this, as are war, crime, dictatorships and the many other ways that self-interest is expressed in today’s world. Every civilization in which these forces of disintegration become dominant has eventually collapsed.
Self-centredness in all its forms has become the ideology for self-justification behind the conservative movements of today, whether in the neoliberal economy that drives the concentration of wealth and power, political ideologies of total individual freedom that reject any constraints or regulations in the common interest, national sovereignty that leans to isolationism and self-protection behind strong borders, xenophobia that places one ethnicity or culture above all others, multinational corporations for which the right to profits overrides all other interests, and even criminal syndicates for which illegal activities are the fastest route to money and power. These ideologies forget that Adam Smith’s invisible hand of self-interest was balanced by an individual sense of moral responsibility, and assume that the larger good will somehow “naturally” emerge or trickle down from all these selfish drives, while in practice they only serve to entrench the rich and powerful.
The irony is that human beings have the capacity for much more, as the history of the rise of civilizations has repeatedly demonstrated. Education is what allows culture, science, innovation and social cohesion to develop. It cultivates all the potentials available in each individual, whether the physical capacity for athletic performance or feats of endurance, the intellectual capacity for rational thought, scientific investigation and cultural creation, the emotional capacity for altruism, empathy, solidarity and cooperation, or the spiritual capacity for love, humility, forgiveness, volition, generosity, and self-effacement into a higher collective entity. All of these dimensions of education are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and neglecting any of them can lead to undesirable outcomes.
Fundamental to all of this is the shared morality on which any society must be built, with values that contribute to social cohesion, that favour unity in diversity and leaving no one behind. Education transmits those values and ensures the sustainability of the society. Today, those values are receding. The Baha’i international governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has so well described “the multiplying ills of a disordered society. Over the last year, it has become clearer still that, in different nations in different ways, the social consensus around ideals that have traditionally united and bound together a people is increasingly worn and spent. It can no longer offer a reliable defence against a variety of self-serving, intolerant, and toxic ideologies that feed upon discontent and resentment. With a conflicted world appearing every day less sure of itself, the proponents of these destructive doctrines grow bold and brazen. We recall the unequivocal verdict from the Supreme Pen [Baha’u’llah]: "They hasten forward to Hell Fire, and mistake it for light." Well-meaning leaders of nations and people of goodwill are left struggling to repair the fractures evident in society and powerless to prevent their spread. The effects of ail this are not only to be seen in outright conflict or a collapse in order. In the distrust that pits neighbour against neighbour and severs family ties, in the antagonism of so much of what passes for social discourse, in the casualness with which appeals to ignoble human motivations are used to win power and pile up riches - in all these lie unmistakable signs that the moral force which sustains society has become gravely depleted.” (UHJ 2015, §2)
Many people today, particularly among intellectuals, the young, and those from cultures that retain a sense of collective purpose, still hold to these values and despair at the destructive forces swirling around them, but the faltering or failure of many of the more liberal movements of the left shows that an intellectual attachment to human rights, solidarity, concern for the excluded and marginalized, and redistribution of wealth is not sufficient. Movements of the left are just as riven by ego, ambition and the struggle for power as those on the right.
What is missing is the level of spiritual education and transformation in each individual. Human potential comes to fruition when it is cultivated in a spirit of selfless service, without pride, with no desire to be seen as superior to anyone else, ready to accompany others in their own acts of service and thus to become part of an organically-evolving learning community. It is this dimension of education that is largely absent today in societies around the world. It is spiritual education that empowers every individual to refine their character and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. It is at this level that effective responsibility and accountability can be built into the institutions of society (Dahl 2015).
This leads us to the great absent in efforts to address the crises in today’s world: religion. Traditionally it has been religion that has provide the multitudes with basic moral and ethical values. Religion has taught about good and evil, saints and sinners, the good values that build society, versus the greed, lust, indolence, pride, and violence that are valued in today’s market society. Yet today, even in societies that claim to be religious, those ethical values are largely lacking, or are given lip service while the great majority pursue self-centred materialistic objectives. Where religion has been replaced by a secular ideology, the results are no better, and fear may be used to enforce common values rather than the positive internal motivation that religion can provide.
Interestingly, a recent study of civilisation-building by an avowed atheist has identified religion as the main explanation for the rise of complex large-scale civilizations (Turchin 2016) [see my review at http://iefworld.org/node/825]. The same researcher warned of the impending collapse of our own civilization because of the increasing concentration of wealth, loss of social cohesion and abandonment of the young (Turchin 2010) [see my review at http://iefworld.org/node/622].
However, religion in most of its expressions today is not up to the task. In its statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the Bahá’í International Community provided a detailed analysis of the challenge facing religions with respect to international efforts at the United Nations to address world problems. It highlighted “both the constructive role that religion can play in creating a peaceful and prosperous global order, and the destructive impact that religious fanaticism can have on the stability and progress of the world,” and referred to the UN failure “to address religious bigotry as a major obstacle to peace and well-being.”
“It is becoming increasingly clear that passage to the culminating stage in the millennia long process of the organization of the planet as one home for the entire human family cannot be accomplished in a spiritual vacuum. Religion, the Bahá'í Scriptures aver, "is the source of illumination, the cause of development and the animating impulse of all human advancement" and "has been the basis of all civilization and progress in the history of mankind." It is the source of meaning and hope for the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants, and it has a limitless power to inspire sacrifice, change and long-term commitment in its followers. It is, therefore, inconceivable that a peaceful and prosperous global society - a society which nourishes a spectacular diversity of cultures and nations - can be established and sustained without directly and substantively involving the world's great religions in its design and support.
“At the same time, it cannot be denied that the power of religion has also been perverted to turn neighbor against neighbor. The Bahá'í Scriptures state that "religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man. If it rouses hatred and strife, it is evident that absence of religion is preferable and an irreligious man is better than one who professes it." So long as religious animosities are allowed to destabilize the world, it will be impossible to foster a global pattern of sustainable development….
“Given the record of religious fanaticism, it is understandable that the United Nations has been hesitant to invite religion into its negotiations. However, the UN can no longer afford to ignore the immeasurable good that religions have done and continue to do in the world, or the salubrious, far-reaching contributions that they can make to the establishment of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable global order. Indeed, the United Nations will only succeed in establishing such a global order to the extent that it taps into the power and vision of religion. To do so will require accepting religion not merely as a vehicle for the delivery and execution of development initiatives, but as an active partner in the conceptualization, design, implementation and evaluation of global policies and programs. The historically justified wall separating the United Nations and religions must fall to the imperatives of a world struggling toward unity and justice.
“The real onus, however, is on the religions themselves. Religious followers and, more important, religious leaders must show that they are worthy partners in the great mission of building a sustainable world civilization. To do so will require that religious leaders work conscientiously and untiringly to exorcise religious bigotry and superstition from within their faith traditions. It will necessitate that they embrace freedom of conscience for all people, including their own followers, and renounce claims to religious exclusivity and finality.
“…until the religions of the world renounce fanaticism and work whole-heartedly to eliminate it from within their own ranks, peace and prosperity will prove chimerical. Indeed, the responsibility for the plight of humanity rests, in large part, with the world's religious leaders. It is they who must raise their voices to end the hatred, exclusivity, oppression of conscience, violations of human rights, denial of equality, opposition to science, and glorification of materialism, violence and terrorism, which are perpetrated in the name of religious truth. Moreover, it is the followers of all religions who must transform their own lives and take up the mantle of sacrifice for and service to the well-being of others, and thus contribute to the realization of the long-promised reign of peace and justice on earth.” (BIC 2002)
There are a few steps in that direction, such as the encyclical of Pope Francis (2015), but most of the world is still not listening, especially among those who have long since rejected religion as having any relevance to the modern world.
In its message to leaders of religion, the Universal House of Justice referred explicitly to corruption within religions. “Among the many temptations the world offers, the test that has, not surprisingly, preoccupied religious leaders is that of exercising power in matters of belief. No one who has dedicated long years to earnest meditation and study of the scriptures of one or another of the great religions requires any further reminder of the oft-repeated axiom regarding the potentiality of power to corrupt and to do so increasingly as such power grows. The unheralded inner victories won in this respect by unnumbered clerics all down the ages have no doubt been one of the chief sources of organized religion’s creative strength and must rank as one of its highest distinctions. To the same degree, surrender to the lure of worldly power and advantage, on the part of other religious leaders, has cultivated a fertile breeding ground for cynicism, corruption and despair among all who observe it. The implications for the ability of religious leadership to fulfil its social responsibility at this point in history need no elaboration.
“With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind. At this greatest turning point in the history of civilization, the demands of such service could not be more clear. “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable”, Bahá’u’lláh urges, “unless and until its unity is firmly established.” (UHJ 2002)
It seems clear that the only solution to the multiple challenges threatening us today is to reinforce the spiritual foundations of society, and to help every willing individual to begin the process of internal transformation, and each community to launch itself on a collective process of responsibilization and transformation. Only in this way can we rebuild, from the bottom up, solid ethical foundations for the world society that must ultimately emerge from this age of frustration and transition.
Bahá’í International Community. 2002. Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence? A statement to the World Summit on Sustainable Development by the Baha'i International Community, 26 August 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa https://www.bic.org/statements/religion-and-development-crossroads-conv…
Dahl, Arthur, 2015. Personal and professional accountability: an ethical challenge. Presented in the IEF side event on "Principles of Accountability for Climate Change Agreements" at the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21), Paris, France, 10 December 2015. http://iefworld.org/ddahl15h
López Claros, Augusto. 2015. Removing Impediments to Sustainable Economic Development: The Case of Corruption. Journal of International Commerce, Economics and Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2015) 1550002 (35 pages).
Pope Francis. 2015. Laudato Si': on care for our common home. Encyclical (18 June 2015) http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-fr…
Turchin, Peter, 2010. Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade. Nature, vol. 463, p. 608 (4 February 2010). doi:10.1038/463608a
Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books. 266 p.
Universal House of Justice, April 2002, To The World’s Religious Leaders. Haifa: Baha’i World Centre. http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of…
Universal House of Justice. 2015. To the Baha’is of the World, Ridvan 2015. Haifa: Baha’i World Centre. http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of…
(Un)Natural Disasters: Communicating Linkages Between Extreme Events and Climate Change
World Meteorological Organization
Authors: Susan Joy Hassol, Simon Torok, Sophie Lewis and Patrick Luganda
Bulletin nº : Vol 65 (2) - 2016
The science of attributing extreme weather and climate events has progressed in recent years to enable an analysis of the role of human causes while an event is still in the media. However, there is still widespread confusion about the linkages between human-induced climate change and extreme weather, not only among the public, but also among some meteorologists and others in the scientific community. This is an issue of communication as well as of science. Many people have received the erroneous message that individual extreme weather events cannot be linked to human-induced climate change, while others attribute some weather events to climate change where there is no clear evidence of linkages. In order to advise adaptation planning and mitigation options, there is a need to communicate more effectively what the most up-to-date science says about event attribution, and to include appropriate information on linkages when reporting extreme weather and climate events in the media. This article reviews these issues, advancements in event attribution science, and offers suggestions for improvement in communication.
The weather seems to be getting wilder and weirder. People are noticing. What are the connections to humancaused climate change? And how can we best communicate what the most recent science is telling us about human-induced and natural changes to weather and climate?
When heavy rains led to devastating floods in the United Kingdom (UK) in January 2014, the then Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he “very much suspects” the floods were linked to climate change. A scientific analysis had concluded that climate change had increased the chances of the rainfall that caused the flooding by an estimated 43% (Schaller et al, 2016). The fact is that warmer air holds more moisture, which generally leads to heavier rainfall. The potential for damage from such extreme events is also increasing, as higher river levels put more properties at risk from flooding; the 2014 UK floods cost US$ 646 million (£451 million) in insurance losses, one of the highest in history (Schaller et al, 2016).
In Australia, the summer of 2013 was the hottest on record. The sustained high temperatures were linked to bushfires in the country’s southeast and severe flooding in its northeast. Conditions were so severe it was dubbed “the angry summer” (Steffen, 2013). According to a scientific analysis, the record heat that summer was made at least five times more likely – a 500% increase in the odds of it occurring – by human-caused warming. This conclusion, using the observed temperature record and climate models, was made with more than 90% confidence (Lewis and Karoly, 2013).
The 2014 UK flooding and 2013 Australian heat wave are just two recent extreme events that scientists have determined were considerably more likely to occur due to human-caused climate change. Such heat waves and heavy downpours are among the classes of extreme events that tend to be more frequent and/or more severe in a warmer world.
But not all extremes are increasing. For example, there has been an overall decrease in the number of very cold days and nights, as would be expected in a warming world. Still, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2012 report on extremes wrote: “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events” (Field et al, 2012). Nonetheless, scientific findings that specific extreme weather and climate events can, in fact, be attributed to human-caused climate change have not been widely reflected in public understanding.
Lost in translation
While scientists have known for decades that changes in some classes of extreme weather would result from climate change, the science of attributing individual extreme events to global warming has only advanced significantly in recent years to cover a greater number of extremes and achieve a greater speed of scientific analysis. Unfortunately, the communication of this science outside the extreme event research community has, with a few notable exceptions, not fully reflected these advances. The media, politicians and some scientists outside this area of research still often claim that “we can’t attribute any individual event to climate change.” This may have been true in the 1990s, but it is no longer the case.
Part of the problem is that for a long time many scientists themselves repeated this message. They stuck to the generic explanation that many of the extreme weather events witnessed in recent years were consistent with projections of climate change, although the science had moved well beyond this general explanation to specific event attribution. However, there are some cases in which scientists can say more about attributing the underlying factors behind an extreme event than about the specifics of the event itself. This complexity can create confusion and lead to missed communication opportunities. Hence, it is not surprising that it is taking a while for public awareness to catch up with the science.
Another issue for communication is that the response of the climate system to warming includes intensifying the water cycle, leading, for example, to both more droughts and more floods. If the mechanisms by which this occurs – that is higher air temperatures dry out soils, and a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture leading to heavier precipitation – are not explained to non-scientists, the combination of both wetter and drier conditions can seem counter-intuitive.
Furthermore, the causes of specific extremes can be seen as politically charged in some countries where, unfortunately, climate change has become a partisan issue. For example, in the aftermath of an extreme event, such as a fire or flood, some people may see it as insensitive and/or political to discuss human-induced causes of loss of life or property.
A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events. — IPCC
The need for better communication
Why is it important to better communicate the linkages between extreme events and climate change? The scientific attribution of specific extreme events has become a research avenue with important benefits to society. Both under-attribution or over-attribution could lead to poor adaptive decision-making, jeopardizing infrastructure, human health and more. Being able to rapidly analyse the attribution of extreme weather and climate events and comment while an event is still in the media is a significant scientific and communication advance, which has the potential to reduce future vulnerability to extremes. Such an assessment of risk requires a scientific basis, rather than an opinion based on personal perceptions, media reporting, or in response to political discourse.
Recent research suggests that personal experience of extreme weather has only a small, short-lived effect on what people think about climate change. If an extreme event was experienced more than three months ago, the effect on an individual’s view on climate change largely disappears (Konisky et al, 2015). People do not necessarily make the connections that have been shown by scientific analysis to exist between extreme weather and climate change. If they had help connecting the dots – that is, if scientific linkages were clearly articulated and reported more often and more accurately in the media – perhaps the effect of extreme weather on peoples’ views would be greater, leading to better planning to adapt to changes, improved behavioural change, and more action on climate change.
Media reporting of climate change and extremes
Even as occurrences of certain classes of extreme events have increased, the media in some countries have not kept pace in communicating the scientific understanding of the connection between climate change and extremes.
For example, in the United States of America (U.S.), an August 2015 study by Media Matters for America (MMA) showed that top newspapers ran coverage of wildfires and of the U.S. Clean Power Plan side-by-side (see image above), but failed to mention the role of human-induced climate change in an unseasonably early wildfire season (MMA, August 2015). While calling the wildfires “the new normal,” major California newspapers neglected to give any explanation of the cause of this new normal (e.g., Westerling et al, 2006). Similarly, in June 2016 MMA noted a reversal of progress in attributing extreme events to climate change when media failed to portray links between climate change and the May-June floods in Texas. They noted that major U.S. broadcast news networks ignored climate change in their coverage of the flooding, marking a deterioration in coverage of the linkages since 2015 when networks covered the science connecting climate change to the May 2015 Texas floods (MMA, June 2016).
When the media does cover climate change impacts, the focus is overwhelmingly on extreme weather events. A study of network television coverage in the U.S. in 2015 revealed that coverage of extreme events outpaced all other climate change impacts, including those to public health and the economy (MMA, March 2016). In June 2015, as powerful floods struck Texas, some media stepped up their coverage of the link between heavy rainfall and climate change (MMA, June 2015). While not as widespread as they should be, there have been other examples of good media coverage of the linkages between extreme weather and climate change. However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to media coverage of extreme weather events as the most visible impacts of climate change.
In terms of understanding the linkages between extreme weather and human-induced climate change, the public also tends to be swayed by the views of prominent leaders, even when those views are at odds with the science. For example, an analysis of the record-breaking spring high temperatures that occurred in Australia in 2013 and 2014 showed that the human influence on climate made those record high temperatures substantially more probable (Lewis and Karoly, 2014). Another analysis found that these extreme temperatures were very unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change (Gallant and Lewis, 2016). However, public statements from a prominent leader contradicted these analyses, promoting the view that natural variations and the lengthening period of record could account for the recent heat extremes. Although these views could not be reconciled with the science, they were widely reported and have persisted in public understanding of extreme events.
There is a clear opportunity for the media to discuss the most visible impacts of climate change in their coverage of weather disasters, though it is an opportunity that is missed far too often.
The science of attributing individual extreme weather events to climate change dates back to a 2003 commentary in Nature in which climate researcher Myles Allen raised the question of liability for damages from extreme events that may have been influenced by human-induced climate change (Allen, 2003). This was soon followed by a 2004 research study by Peter Stott and colleagues that examined the 2003 European heat wave associated with more than 35 000 deaths and found that climate change had more than doubled the risk of such extreme heat – the best estimate is that it made it four times more likely (Stott et al, 2004). These early studies laid the foundations of the techniques for using climate models to analyse the linkages between extreme weather events and human-induced climate change.
Many subsequent studies attributing extreme weather and climate events use a probabilistic approach to determine and communicate the Fraction of Attributable Risk (Stone and Allen, 2005). This approach is widely used in health and population studies to quantify the contribution of a risk factor to the occurrence of a disease – for example, how much smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Similarly, evaluating how much climate change alters the probabilities of certain classes of extreme weather events is central to the science of extreme event attribution. Scientists calculate the probability of an extreme weather event occurring in climate model experiments incorporating both human and natural factors; they then compare these probabilities to a parallel set of experiments that include only natural factors. In this way, natural and human climate influences can be separated to determine how much the risk of a particular event changed due to the human influence on climate.
The level of scientific confidence in an attribution result, and the uncertainty around the link between climate change and certain classes of extreme events, depends on several factors. First, scientists require a robust physical understanding of the mechanisms behind a category of events such as heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, or droughts. Next, scientists require high-quality observations so they can determine if the occurrence of this type of event is changing in the observational record. Finally, climate models must be able to accurately simulate and reproduce the relevant class of extreme event.
In several studies, these three factors have aligned and attribution statements have had a high level of confidence. For example, there is great clarity and confidence in attributing heat events that occur over large areas and extended time periods. The physics are well understood, changes are documented in observations, and they are simulated accurately in climate models. For example, in Australia, 2013 was a year of heat extremes with the hottest day, week, month, summer and year on record. Two separate studies found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human13 caused climate change (Knutson et al, 2014; Lewis and Karoly, 2014).
Individual precipitation events present a different set of challenges than temperature extremes. Scientists are confident in the high-level understanding that human-caused intensification of the hydrologic cycle can generally lead both to more floods and more droughts. By increasing the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, humaninduced warming has increased the amount of rain falling in heavy downpours, which can lead to flooding. So there is confidence in both the mechanism and the observed trends, and this indicates a linkage to climate change even in the absence of a formal, model-based attribution study. However, for those relying on such modelling studies, high confidence in attribution of specific events requires that models simulate such processes correctly at small spatial scales, and this can be challenging. Furthermore, in addition to occurring more often in a warmer world, these events often have other mechanisms at work, weather conditions such as blocking high-pressure systems and sea surface temperature patterns (e.g., Dole et al, 2011). While attribution studies have found a human signal in some recent extreme flooding events (Pall et al, 2011; Schaller et al, 2016), the signal is smaller and often less clear than for temperatures as a result of modelling challenges and complex climate mechanisms.
Two separate studies found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.
Scientific extreme event attribution studies typically focus on quantifying risks and likelihoods. It is also true that extreme weather events now occur within a climate system where the background conditions have changed. As such, no weather is entirely “natural” anymore, but rather occurs in the context of a changed climate. That is, “Global warming is contributing to an increased incidence of extreme weather because the environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities” (Trenberth, 2011, USA Today). Every event has been influenced by climate change to some extent through increases in heat, atmospheric moisture and sea level, which all influence how extreme events play out (Trenberth et al, 2015). A more detailed understanding of what the human-induced signal means for the risks of specific extreme events may enable us to more effectively advise decision-making.
In addition, all extremes are occurring in a naturally variable and chaotic climate system. Extreme events are always a result of natural variability and human-induced climate change, which cannot be entirely disentangled. Scientific attribution approaches focused on extremes of heat, drought, flooding, rainfall or storms aim to provide a meaningful understanding of the relative natural and human influences on an extreme event. Hence, each observed extreme event must be considered explicitly in order to provide the most useful information. Similarly, the failure to attribute an event to human causes with a high level of confidence does not negate or challenge the broader understanding of human-caused climate change. Attribution results that are clear and have a high level of confidence in a substantial human cause, or alternatively demonstrate a strong element of natural climate variability, can be equally useful for providing information for planning in a warmer world.
The latest evolution in attribution science is to analyse extreme events in near-real time. The World Weather Attribution project and a similar effort in Europe (EUCLIEA; Stott, 2016) are international efforts to sharpen and accelerate our ability to analyse and communicate the influence of climate change on extreme weather events. The World Weather Attribution project analysed the major flooding in France and nearby countries in June 2016 that closed the Louvre museum, forced the evacuation of thousands, left tens of thousands without power, killed more than a dozen people, and caused damages estimated at over a billion Euros in France alone. The researchers found that the probability of 3-day extreme rainfall in this season has increased by about 80% on the Seine and about 90% on the Loire (World Weather Attribution, 2016).
The suggestions below for more effective communication are based on many years of experience communicating climate science and the links between climate change and extreme weather. When interacting with the media following an extreme event, these suggestions may help scientists to more effectively and accurately communicate the role of climate change in influencing the event.
1. Lead with what is known. Rather than starting with caveats, uncertainties, and what we cannot say (Somerville and Hassol, 2011), a discussion of attribution of extreme weather should begin with how human-induced climate change is affecting the type of extreme weather at issue. For example, “We know that in a warming world, we experience more frequent and severe heat waves. And we see that trend clearly in the data. This event is part of that trend.” Then discuss any studies relating to the specific extreme weather event being discussed, such as those that quantify the altered chances of the event when this information is available from research. For example, “Global warming made this heat wave at least four times more likely to occur, or increased the odds of this event by 400%.”
2. Communicate clearly and simply the mechanisms behind the changes brought on by warming. For example, “A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to heavier rainfall.”
3. Use metaphors, which can effectively help explain how human-induced warming changes the odds of extreme weather events. For example, “heat-trapping gases act like steroids in the climate system, increasing the odds of extreme heat, heavy downpours, and some other types of extreme events. We’re now experiencing the weather on steroids.” This communicates that even though extreme events do occur naturally, many types are now happening more frequently and more intensely. Similarly, global warming “is loading the dice toward more rolls of extreme events,” or “is stacking the deck” in favor of such outcomes.
4. When discussing extreme weather events that have not been clearly attributed to climate change by scientific analyses, it is useful to reiterate our basic understanding of human-induced climate change and to decouple that from the attribution of a particular event. Explain that, “we know climate change is happening now, and is human-caused, even if we can’t be certain that it is a direct cause of this particular event.”
5. Reframe poorly posed questions. Scientists being interviewed are often asked, “Did climate change cause this event?” Reasons for asking such a question can relate to liability, context, planning and more. However, it remains a poorly posed question, with no simple yes or no answer, due to the multiple factors involved in all events. Interviewees can reframe their responses to be more appropriate and informative, for example, describing how the probabilities of these types of events are changing as a result of human-induced warming and identifying particular events that are very unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused climate change.
6. Communicate about confidence and uncertainty in language appropriate for the public. Scientists have a lexicon that can be useful for communicating with each other about these issues, but it is important to remember that many words mean entirely different things to scientists than they do to the public (Hassol, 2008; Somerville and Hassol, 2011). For example, scientists often use the word “uncertainty” to discuss the envelope of future climate scenarios, or the range of model results for a particular attribution finding, but to the public, “uncertainty” means we just don’t know. Thus, referring to “a range” is better than calling it “uncertainty.” Similarly, scientists may describe a finding as being “low confidence” for reasons having to do with data or model issues, but this does not mean there is no observed trend or no projected change as the public might assume from this language.
7. As with any public communication about climate change, try to avoid language that can lead to despair and hence inaction. For example, rather than calling further increases in extreme weather “inevitable,” we can discuss the choice we face between a future with more climate change and larger increases in extreme weather, and one with less. The future is in our hands.
A community responsibility
Changes in extreme weather and climate events are the primary way that most people experience climate change. Human-induced global warming has already increased the number and strength of some extreme events (Melillo et al., 2014). The science in this arena is rapidly evolving. This makes it imperative that we accurately communicate the scientific linkages between extremes and climate change, so that people can make informed decisions about actions to limit the risks posed by these events. As part of this rapid evolution in scientific capacity to attribute extremes to their causes, and given the increase in frequency and severity of extremes, some scientists have asked if the burden of proof should shift from having to prove that there is a human effect on a particular weather event, to having to prove that there is no such effect. Since the human influence on climate is well established, and all events take place in that changed environment, they argue that the question should no longer be “is there a human component,” but “what is it?” (e.g., Trenberth, 2011).
...the choice we face [is] between a future with more climate change and larger increases in extreme weather, and one with less. The future is in our hands.
As climate change progresses, and the science of event attribution evolves, people will continue to ask questions about – and the media will continue to report on – how we are influencing extreme weather and how extreme weather is affecting us. It is the responsibility of the climate and weather science and communication communities to keep up with the evolving science and to work diligently at communicating the latest and best science for the benefit of society.
Susan Joy Hassol, Climate Communication and WMO Commission for Climatology (CCI) Communications Advisor
Simon Torok, Scientell Pty Ltd and CCI Communications Advisor
Sophie Lewis, Australian National University
Patrick Luganda, Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa and CCl Communications Advisor
For References -- See Website
What has faith to do with finance? Inspiring paper launched next month
29 November 2016
ARC has written a groundbreaking paper on Faith and Finance, commissioned by OECD and UNDP to explore the role of faiths as investors in the future, particularly in connection to the strategic development goals (SDGs) created last year by the United Nations.
Faith in Finance will launch in December in China, a location which reflects the significant potential input in this movement by Chinese Daoists, Buddhists and Confucianists in particular, and also because China is the country where membership of religions is growing fastest in the world.
"China is investing significantly in renewable energy [as well as nuclear and coal-based energy], and is a major investor in Asia, Africa and Europe, so to have Chinese religions promoting ethical investment to their followers could have a huge impact," said ARC's Martin Palmer.
"The choice of China reflects the new significance of faiths in the modern commercial world. Faiths have values about nature, they care for people, they care about the proper use of resources, all of which are critical values for everyone, if the world's going to have a just and sustainable future."
The report was commissioned by UNDP and OECD. The aim was to explore faith consistent investing in the context of the SDGs. This idea arose directly from a major event ARC ran with the UN on the faiths and the SDGs in Bristol in September last year.
"We consulted very widely with faith fund managers around the world and undertook considerable research tracing faith finances," Palmer said. "This is also an area ARC has been active before, particularly in the International Interfaith Investment Group (3iG) a decade ago.
Updated 15 December 2016