Ethical Challenges of Climate Change

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 12. October 2007 - 7:00
Dahl, Arthur Lyon



Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland
12 October 2007
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There has been an extensive debate on the science of human-induced climate change caused primarily by greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, as well as deforestation and land-use changes. However less attention has been placed on the ethical challenges associated with acknowledging our responsibility. The previous presentations in this conference have outlined the scientific facts and some of the social and political implications; this session will explore the ethical implications in more detail.

International Institute for Strategic Studies, in its Strategic Survey 2007, stated that the scope of the challenge facing us is widely acknowledged. If climate change goes unchecked, its effects will be catastrophic “on the level of nuclear war”. "The security dimension will come increasingly to the forefront as countries begin to see falls in available resources and economic vitality, increased stress on their armed forces, greater instability in regions of strategic import, increases in ethnic rivalries, and a widening gap between rich and poor."

John Vidal, writing in The Guardian Weekly for 9-15 February 2007 (Energy Supplement, p. 3), stated: “On current trends, ...humanity will need twice as much energy as it uses today within 35 years.... Produce too little energy, say the economists, and there will be price hikes and a financial crash unlike any the world has ever known, with possible resource wars, depression and famine. Produce the wrong sort of energy, say the climate scientists, and we will have more droughts, floods, rising seas and worldwide economic disaster with runaway global warming.”

Clearly we cannot ignore climate change, and it is obvious that a global approach is necessary. Climate change cannot be separated from the challenges of economic globalization, energy and resource depletion, poverty reduction, social imbalances and security. Each of these problems interacts with the others in complex ways. Partial solutions will not solve this set of problems that threaten the future sustainability of human life on this planet.

We are all responsible for climate change. Everyone who benefits from the burning of fossil fuels (and that is certainly all of us living in industrialized societies) is at fault. Everyone involved in land clearing or benefiting from land use changes, whether directly or by consuming products imported from elsewhere, is a contributor to climate change. How much we are responsible depends on our country of residence, our lifestyle and our consumption patterns, with the rich obviously the most responsible. Yet the poor will be the greatest victims of climate change, while contributing the least to the problem. This is clearly an ethical dilemma.

More than half of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrialised country technologies like transportation and electricity generation in North America, Europe and East Asia. Another major source is land use changes, today primarily in developing countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa where rapid population growth and a heavy demand for food and other natural resources from industrialized countries have driven forest clearing, land degradation and desertification.

There is little time left to act to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, as climate change appears to be accelerating beyond even the most pessimistic projections of a few years ago. Half of the permafrost in the Arctic is expected to melt by 2050 and 90% before 2100, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as long-frozen peat bogs decompose. The permanent ice in the Arctic Ocean is rapidly disappearing, with 14% melting just in the summer of 2005, and the worst melting ever in 2007. Permanent ice in the Arctic Ocean may be gone by 2030 or even earlier. Greenland glaciers have doubled their rate of flow into the sea in the last few years, as surface melt waters pour down through crevasses to the bottom of the glacier and lubricate the surface between the ice and the underlying rock. A similar process seems to be occurring in the West Antarctic.

As the temperature rises, water expands, raising the level of the oceans. 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 estimated to add another 4 mm per year and Greenland 0.6 mm per year. Ocean levels rising a centimetre every two years will quickly threaten many coastal areas. A leading American expert recently predicted that half of Florida and much of Belgium and the Netherlands, among many other low-lying coastal areas, would be permanently flooded by 2100. As positive feedbacks like increased heat absorption in ice- and snow-free areas become more common, we may soon be approaching a tipping point where runaway climate change would be catastrophic. Some say we may have reached that point already.

Climate change will bring great environmental changes, including changes in agricultural conditions, melting ice and mountain glaciers causing water shortages, forest fires and soil erosion, increasing natural disasters, and a loss of terrestrial biodiversity of 20-50%. The IPCC report in 2007 predicts that there will be reduced precipitation and drought in the subtropics and warm temperate areas and increased precipitation with possible flooding in cold temperate and subarctic regions.

These changes will have significant human impacts, including:
- Increased damage from extreme weather events: floods, droughts, cyclones.
- Less winter snowfall, melting glaciers, water shortages.
- Changing conditions for agriculture and forestry, shifting fish stocks.
- Sea level rise, flooding low-lying areas and islands.
- Millions of environmental refugees, with some estimates as high as 500m-1billion.
- High costs of mitigation and adaptation.
- The greatest impact on the poor.

The economic impacts will also be severe. With each passing decade, the cost of natural disasters linked to climate change has increased. The reinsurance industry estimated some years ago that disasters related to climate change could cost $130 billion annually within 10 years. Already economic damages from weather-related disasters hit an unprecedented $204 billion in 2005, nearly doubling the previous record of $112 billion set in 1998 and reflecting the high number of disasters affecting built-up areas. Three of the 10 strongest hurricanes ever recorded occurred in 2005.

The Report by Sir Nicholas Stern to the United Kingdom Government (October 2006) estimated the annual cost of uncontrolled climate change at more than $660 billion (5 to 20% of global GDP, as compared to 1% for control measures for greenhouse gases). Climate change represents the greatest market failure in human history, as the price signals of the market are too short term, and the effects are too far in space or time from the causes for the costs to be reflected in fossil fuel prices.

We must understand that 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, manufacturing, our consumer lifestyle, even modern cities and their urban sprawl, all depend on energy. Energy demand is rising rapidly and the supply is shrinking, which any economist will tell you is a recipe for prices going through the roof. Global warming is just one more reason to address the energy challenge urgently. With all that we have invested in the present infrastructure, adaptation will be extremely expensive.

Even more worrying in that context is the relationship between energy and population. 80% of global energy comes from fossil fuels, which we must stop burning to reduce global warming. The world population has expanded six-fold in the last two centuries, exactly in parallel with oil production. Oil and gas power the machinery that plows, harvests, processes and transports food to consumers, and nitrogenous fertilizers and agricultural chemicals are petrochemical products. Can the world maintain such a population without the cheap energy from fossil fuels? What will happen if it cannot?

Then there is the question energy planners never ask. Even if we could exploit every fossil fuel reserve, can we really afford to cause so much global warming? The only certain way to avoid further climate change is to leave the carbon in the ground where early life removed it from the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago. What life accomplished over many eons to make the atmosphere propitious for animal life by removing carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen, we are reversing in 200 years.

The UK Meteorological Office, in its report Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, stated: “… 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.”

Our present institutions and governments have failed to address such global challenges. No politician will sacrifice a country's short-term economic welfare, even while agreeing that sustainability is essential in the long term. They would be out in the next election. Furthermore, deep social divisions within societies and between countries prevent united action in the common interest. Climate change is just one symptom of the fundamental imbalances in our world, which decades of efforts have failed to resolve. In fact, our present economic system is driving us in the wrong direction.

The Bahá'í International Community, in various statements over the last two decades, has provided penetrating analyses of the root causes of our present problems that have resulted in accelerating climate change, including their ethical and spiritual foundations. The present economic system driven by materialistic values is largely at fault. Economic thinking is challenged by the environmental crisis (including climate change). The belief that there is no limit to nature's capacity to fulfil any demand made on it is 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. Also, economic decision-making tools cannot deal with the fact that most of the major challenges are global. (based on The Prosperity of Humankind , Bahá'í International Community, 1995)

Climate change results from the self-centred materialism of the Western economic system. 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. (based on Baha'i International Community, One Common Faith, 2005)

Climate change is driven largely by our consumer culture. 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 becomes 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. (based on Baha'i International Community, One Common Faith, 2005)

To respond effectively to climate change, we require new ethical foundations for society, starting with a more ethical economics. 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;
- 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. (adapted from Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development, 1998)

We therefore need new economic models that further a dynamic, just and thriving social order, are strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, provide meaningful employment, and help to eradicate poverty in the world. (Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development, 1998) Only such a system will give the right signals for challenges like climate change and sustainability.

This will only come about when we learnt to combine material and spiritual civilization. In the Bahá'í writings of almost a hundred years ago we find "...although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained.... Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 227, pp. 303-304)

Sustainability is fundamentally an ethical concept that engages our responsibility. The Bahá'í International Community stated a decade ago that, as trustees or stewards of the planet's resources and biodiversity, we must ensure sustainability and equity of resource use into distant future, consider the environmental consequences of development activities, temper our actions with moderation and humility, value nature in more than economic terms, and understand the natural world and its role in humanity's collective development both material and spiritual. Sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment mankind can weigh against other competing interests, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered, a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as the individual's physical survival. (based on Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development. 1998)

Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, underlined the importance of moderation in 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... " Climate change may be signaling that this day is here.

Any response to climate change must be based on justice and equity if it is to achieve universal acceptance. It is unjust to sacrifice the well-being of most people -- and even of the planet itself -- to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities. Only development programmes that are perceived by the masses of humanity as meeting their needs and as being just and equitable in objective can hope to engage their commitment, upon which implementation depends. (based on Baha'i International Community, Prosperity of Humankind)

The goal must be to preserve the ecological balance on which our lives and the global systems of nature depend. For the sustainable economic and social development of all countries, agriculture and the preservation of the ecological balance of the world are fundamental. Climate change threatens that balance. To be sustainable long into the future, the economy must be based on renewable resources (agriculture, forests, fisheries, bio-industries), closed materials cycles and integrated product lifecycles, utilizing all available sources of energy on the surface of the planet.

In responding to climate change, an ethical approach will be essential to convince all of us to act. In fact, climate change may be the common threat that finally forces governments to work together in their collective interest.


'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Haifa, Bahá'í World Centre.

Bahá'í International Community, 2005. One Common Faith. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust.

Bahá'í International Community, 1995. The Prosperity of Humankind, London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust.

Bahá'í International Community, 1998. Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust

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Last updated 4 November 2007