Climate Change: Scientific and Faith Perspectives

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 29. May 2011 - 17:15
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

10th IEF Conference, Oxford, UK, 15-17 September 2006


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Science has for some time predicted that the planet is vulnerable to global warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This introductory presentation to the conference on Science, Faith and Global Warming: Arising to the Challenge provides a brief overview of the science of climate change, looks at the driving forces behind global warming, particularly the burning of fossil fuels for energy, shows how our addiction to fossil fuels has its roots in the short-term perspective of our materialistic society, and introduces some of the ethical concepts and spiritual principles necessary to transform society at this most fundamental level and make solutions to global warming possible.

Those accustomed to British weather might think that a little global warming would be desirable, but there will be losers as well as winners in any climate change. The biosphere is maintained by a complex set of delicately balanced systems which are still poorly understood. The atmospheric conditions that permit life to exist were themselves created in part by the action of living things. The early plants removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and added oxygen, making animal life possible. Dead plants, both the remains of marine plankton and terrestrial vegetation, were buried and fossilized as coal, oil and gas, and 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 return the carbon dioxide to the oceans and atmosphere. The 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 methane, are 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.

Climate Change

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, due in part to the Earth's orientation 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 salty 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. Research has shown that there can be quite abrupt changes between warm and cold periods.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from 290 to 370 ppm. 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 carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

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 not easy to predict. Various computer models of the global climate system are used to predict these effects, and 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. While powerful political and economic interests have questioned the reality of any link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change, none of these arguments have withstood closer scrutiny.

The evidence for accelerating global warming is accumulating rapidly. The global average surface temperature has risen markedly since the late 1970s, with a repeated number of record warm years. The models project an even faster rise in global temperature over the next century as greenhouse gas emissions continue. 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. 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 more heat energy in tropical ocean waters.

Human Impacts of Climate Change

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. Already some low-lying islands and coastal areas are having to be abandoned.

Climate change on the scale predicted will impact the environment and human activity in many fundamental ways. Food insecurity will increase and many regions will experience water shortages. As populations are displaced there will be increasing flows of environmental refugees, and social disintegration could lead to increasing anarchy and terrorism. Natural, economic and social disasters will become more common and more severe. Climate change will also greatly accelerate the loss of biodiversity.

On food security, the rich countries can probably afford to adapt with changed crop varieties and new technology, but all scenarios show a severe decline in food production in developing countries. Biodiversity will be severely impacted. American scientists have calculated that the beech forests of the southeastern United States under climate change would move to northeastern Canada. So whole ecosystems will shift over long distances if they can move fast enough. In the past the changes happened more gradually. Birds can fly, but trees cannot get up and run to find a better temperature. We may have to carry the seeds ourselves.

The greatest human impacts of climate change will be on the poor, with an increase in extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and cyclones. There may be less winter snowfall, melting glaciers and resulting water shortages. Changing conditions will create problems for agriculture and forestry. Already fish stocks in the North Sea are shifting to other areas. The costs of mitigation and adaptation will be very high.

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 we destabilise the Greenland ice sheet (which now looks likely) it will raise the sea level by more than 6 meters.

The economic impact of natural disasters linked to global warming will be severe. The insurance industry estimated a few years ago that within 10 years the annual cost would reach $130 billion, but last year with hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the USA the damages reached $204 billion. So there is already the cost of doing nothing. Can we afford not to do something about it?

The latest scientific evidence suggests that the worst predictions may be realized. The Gulf Stream has recently slowed by 30%. If the Gulf Stream stops, the temperature could drop 7 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 2005 for the first time, 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 has 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 where runaway climate change would be catastrophic.

The Driving Forces

Global warming is driven by our addiction to cheap energy. Our industrial economy was built on cheap energy, mostly from fossil fuels. Transportation, communications, trade, agriculture, heating/cooling, and our consumer lifestyle all depend on energy. Energy demand is rising rapidly and the supply is shrinking. Global warming is just one more reason to address the energy challenge urgently. Adaptation will be extremely expensive.

The governments did decide 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 the target to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, a limited reduction of 5% when at least 60% is necessary. However CO2 emissions rose 4.5% in 2004 to 27.5 b tonnes, 26% higher than 1990. China and India have doubled CO2  production since 1990, while the US has increased by 20% and Australia +40%. The US released 5.8, China 4.5, Europe 3.3, and India 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2004. Despite the good intentions we are going rapidly in the wrong direction.

Fossil energy use is still growing. World oil use is growing at 1.1%/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 40 years, gas 67 years and coal 164 years. Geologists estimate the recoverable oil reserve at 2000 Bb. 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 used the most accessible oil first, and it becomes harder and harder to get the remainder. We could reach peak production as early as 2008-2012, 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 (600Bb) equal only 22 years current consumption. Even without global warming, we must change energy sources and consumption patterns.

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 population, 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, 25% of global CO2 emissions come from coal-fired power stations.

We are so dependent on fossil fuels now 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 urban planning 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 worried 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 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?

Then there is 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?

The nuclear option does not look much better. Uranium reserves are expected to be exhausted in 40 years. 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 included; 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 privatize 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 waste disposal costs are being imposed on future generations. This is unethical. While research continues, generating electricity from nuclear fusion is still "40 years" off.

The UK Met 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."

The Faith Perspective

How do we go back to living without fossil fuels? Or can we rethink civilization in a new and better way? This is where the faith perspective can suggest some ways forward.

Our present institutions have failed to address global warming adequately. No politician will 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 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. We must recognize that our present economic system is incapable of addressing global long-term issues.

Global warming underlines the failure of our economic system. 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 (BIC, 1995).

Climate change is a consequence of the dominant self-centred materialism of society. The early twentieth century materialistic interpretation of reality became the dominant world faith in the direction of society. Humanity thought it had solved through rational experimentation and discourse all of the 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 brought impressive benefits, it failed to narrow the gap between the small segment of modern society and the vast populations of the poor. The gap has widen into an abyss (BIC, 2005).

Our consumer culture drives much of the emission of greenhouse gases. Materialism's gospel of human betterment produced today's consumer culture pursuing 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 (BIC, 2005). In the US. the indicators of human welfare and satisfaction have been going down since the 1960s. The economy is 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 illness is spiritual.

What role can religion play in the challenges of today, including global warming? We used to be content living in our own communities, but now we can see what is happening all around the world. We know about the 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 there for living with modernity. Still most people are longing to understand the purpose of existence. This has led to a sudden resurgence of religion, based on a groundswell of anxiety and discontent with spiritual emptiness. Desperate people without hope are easily attracted to radical, intolerant, fanatical movements. As a result, the world is in the grip of a war of civilizations based on irreconcilable religious antipathies. This situation paralyses our ability to address global challenges such as climate change.

We can choose to continue with business as usual in a materialistic society, ignoring the future, but it will soon catch up with us. Or we can retreat into a fortress world of old values, but the pressures of globalization will make this untenable. The alternative is to make the effort to transition towards sustainability drawing on the complementary strengths of both science and religion.

Values for Sustainability

Unity is the essential prerequisite for action to remove the barriers to collaboration on global warming. "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.'" (BIC, 1995).  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 like climate change.

Governments have already agreed. They promote the concept of sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (WCED, 1987). The nations of the world have repeatedly accepted this as a goal and priority. This is exactly what climate change is about. We are creating fundamental challenges that will compromise future generations. Governments have said and agreed they have to act but they are not acting on it.

Sustainability is basically an ethical concept. We 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 (BIC, 1998).

Sustainability requires rethinking 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 is objectives. The global economic system lacks the global 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 (BIC, 1998).

What values do we need for the economic system? 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 (BIC, 1998). It should be able to accept responsibility for and address global warming.

All religions teach some form of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Does a minority of high energy consumers have the right to cause such damage to others and to future generations? Many faith-based groups are drawing increasing attention to the ethical implications of excessive consumerism and one of its impacts, global warming.

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 (BIC, 1995).

Solidarity is another essential value in times of rapid change. 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. The goal of wealth creation should be to make everyone wealthy. Voluntary giving is more meaningful and effective than forced redistribution.

Cooperation and reciprocity are essential properties of all natural and human systems, increasing in more highly evolved and complex systems. They will be necessary to find solutions to global warming.

Trustworthiness will 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. Re-establishing trust will have to be part of the solution to global warming.

Since our extreme energy demands are the driving force for global warming, we shall have to learn to moderate material civilization. "The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.... The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities... " (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings). Global warming is a perfect illustration of this. To moderate our lifestyles, we should cultivate contentment. All faiths have taught the spiritual value of a simple life and detachment from material things: " content with little, and be freed from all inordinate desire" (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Iqán). What does this imply for the consumer society and its energy consumption?

Climate change is an issue on which all religions can find common ground. All share a common commitment to justice, solidarity, altruism, respect, trust, moderation and service. Religion can strengthen the ethical framework for action on climate change. It can educate about values and global responsibility. It can create motivation for change, and encourage the necessary sacrifices. Global warming and the resulting climate change challenge our generation in fundamental ways. Science alone cannot solve the problem.


Bahá'í International Community, Office of Public Information, 1995. The Prosperity of Humankind. Haifa, Bahá'í  World Centre.

Bahá'í International Community, 1998. Valuing Spirituality in Development. A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998. London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust.

Bahá'í International Community, 2005. One Common Faith. Haifa, Bahá'í  World Centre.

Bahá'u'lláh. 1952. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CLXIV, p. 342-343. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust.

Bahá'u'lláh. 1931. Kitáb-i-Iqán, p. 193-194. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Committee.

World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Last updated 4 November 2006