Human Security and Climate Change: The Ethical Challenge

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 30. May 2011 - 17:07
Dahl, Arthur Lyon


Arthur Lyon Dahl
President, International Environment Forum, Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the Fifth ECPD International Conference
National and Inter-ethnic Reconciliation, Religious Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans:
Reconciliation and Human Security
Brioni Islands, Croatia, 29-30 October 2009

[Powerpoint presentation 1.2 mb]

Climate change is at the top of the international agenda in 2009 with the lead up to the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. Science shows that, after a reasonably stable temperature for the last thousand years, the average planetary temperature has started to rise rapidly (Figure 1), and projections suggest that we could easily overshoot the +2° increase that scientists believe will mean major climate change impacts on the planet and human society (IPCC 2007; Richardson et al., 2009). The temperature increase will be highest in the northern hemisphere and the polar regions.

Figure 1 (UNEP/GRID-Arendal Climate Graphics)

Temperature Trend since 1000

This represents an important threat to human security. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has said that, 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" (IISS, 2007)‏.

No region is safe from such a global problem, and it is important for the Balkans region to consider what the implications are for its own future.

It should be remembered that climate change cannot be separated from the challenges of economic globalization, energy and resource depletion, poverty reduction, social imbalances and human security. Each problem interacts with the others in complex ways. Partial solutions will not solve the problems that threaten future sustainability.

If we ask where the fault lies, we are all responsible for climate change. Everyone benefiting from the burning of fossil fuels is to blame. Everyone involved in land clearing or benefiting from land use changes is a contributor. How much we are responsible depends on our country of residence, lifestyle and consumption patterns, with the rich most responsible. The poor will be the greatest victims of climate change, while contributing the least to the problem. This is an ethical dilemma.

Climate change will be stronger and sooner than anyone expected even a few years ago. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel have accelerated since 2000, rising 0.7%/year in the 1990s, but now 2.9%/year since 2000 (except for the pause in 2009 because of the recession). This could amount to a 39% increase by 2030. There are three principal causes: the growth in the world economy, the rise of coal use in China and India, and a weakening of natural carbon sinks (forests, seas, soils)‏ that used to soak up much of our carbon emissions.

The predicted changes in precipitation (Figure 2) suggest that the polar regions will be wetter, while sub-tropical areas like the Mediterranean will be drier, especially in summer (IPCC 2007).

Figure 2 (IPCC Synthesis Report, 2007)

Precipitation, IPCC 2007

Some examples from Balkan countries show what can be expected by 2050 and 2080. In general the impacts will be greater in the south. Croatia is projected to see an average temperature increase of 1.0-2.1° in 2050 and 2.4-3.2° in 2080, while precipitation will rise 2.4-6.5% in 2050 and 6-10% in 2080. In the FYR Macedonia, temperatures will be 1.3-1.7° higher in 2050 and +1.7-3.2° in 2080, with a decrease in precipitation of 1.8-2.4% in 2050 and 2.4-4.4% in 2080. Albania will also be warmer and dryer, with temperature rising 1.2-1.8° in 2050 and 2.1-3.6° in 2080, while precipitation drops 3.8-6.1% in 2050 and 6.0-12.5% in 2080 (EEA, 2007, p. 150)

Climate change on this scale will bring significant human impacts. There will be increased damage from extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and cyclones, with less winter snowfall, water shortages in summer, and the resulting more extreme wildfires. Conditions for agriculture and forestry will change significantly, with high costs of adaptation, and fish stocks may shift location or decline. With sea level rise now predicted to reach 80 cm to 2 meters by 2100, there will be flooding of low-lying areas and islands, of significant importance in a region with so much coastline and tourism infrastructure. These impacts will result in millions of environmental refugees (some estimates put the figure at 200-500 million), a scale of human displacement that will dwarf anything previously experienced and force countries to lower immigration barriers and accept the free movement of people as part of globalization.‏

The United Kingdom Chief Scientist, John Beddington, announced on 19 March 2009 that the world faces a 'perfect storm' of problems in 2030 as food, energy and water shortages interact with climate change to produce public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migrations (Sample, 2009).

The Stern Report to the United Kingdom government estimated the annual cost of uncontrolled climate change at more than $660 billion, or 5 to 20% of global GDP, as compared to 1% of global GDP for control measures for greenhouse gases (Stern, 2006). It also described climate change as the greatest market failure in human history.

Global warming is driven by our addiction to cheap energy. Our industrial economy was built on cheap energy, 80% from fossil fuels. Transportation, communications, trade, agriculture, heating/cooling, manufacturing, and our consumer lifestyle all depend on this energy subsidy from solar energy stored by early life hundreds of millions of years ago. As a result, energy demand is rising rapidly and the supply is shrinking. Global warming is just one more reason to address the energy challenge urgently.

Despite the significance of this problem, our present institutions are failing to respond with the speed and to the degree necessary to reduce the potential for catastrophic climate change. No politician will sacrifice short-term economic welfare, even while agreeing that sustainability is essential in the long term. The deep social divisions within societies and between countries are preventing united action in the common interest. Climate change is just one symptom of the fundamental imbalances in our world.

Our present economic system with its focus on growth and only what is measurable in the market is driving us in the wrong direction. We therefore have to ask what is fundamentally wrong with economics, which has already demonstrated its flaws with the recent collapse of the financial system and subsequent global recession. It is not so much the mechanisms of economics but the underlying materialistic values and lack of ethical principles that are the root cause of the problem.

As the Bahá'í International Community has put it, 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 (BIC, 1995).

Climate change is driven largely by the excessive consumption of our consumer culture, which is so reliant on fossil fuels and petrochemicals for everything from transport to food production. Yet this is ethically questionable, and far from the values underlying most traditional societies, including those in the Balkans. Again, as the Bahá'í International Community has put it in an ethical context, 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. But 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 (BIC, 2005).

The United Nations Development Programme, in its Human Development Report on the theme of climate change, stated: "Mitigation of climate change poses real financial, technological and political challenges. But it also asks profound moral and ethical questions of our generation. In the face of clear evidence that inaction will hurt millions of people and consign them to lives of poverty and vulnerability, can we justify inaction? No civilized community adhering to even the most rudimentary ethical standards would answer that question in the affirmative, especially one that lacked neither the technology nor the financial resources to act decisively." (UNDP, 2007, p. 68)

If we are to address the root drivers of climate change, and of many of the other imbalances in present world society, we need a more ethical approach to economic development. 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, 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)‏.

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 (BIC, 1998). Only such a system will give the right signals for challenges like climate change and sustainability.

As trustees or stewards of the planet's resources and biodiversity, we must ensure sustainability and equity of resource use into the distant future, consider the environmental consequences of all 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 (BIC, 1998).

From an ethical perspective, climate change is fundamentally unjust, since 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 (BIC1995).

Any global action on climate change can only succeed if it is seen to be equitable. 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 (BIC 1995).

A number of groups have been addressing this ethical perspective, including the Baha'i International Community and the International Environment Forum ( For several years there has been a Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change which  pointed out in 2004 that "an ethically based global consensus on climate change may prevent further disparities between rich and poor, and reduce potential international tension that will arise from climate-caused food and water scarcities and perceived inequitable use of the global atmospheric commons as a carbon sink" (Collaborative Program, 2004).

Another encouraging development may of interest to the many non-governmental organizations and religions represented in the Balkans and collaborating with the European Center for Peace and Development. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC, and UNDP invited the 11 major religions to prepare long-term action plans on climate change and the natural environment, to be presented at an event on 2-4 November 2009 at Windsor Castle co-hosted by the UN Secretary-General and the Duke of Edinburgh. These action plans provide all the religious communities with tools for practical action on climate change in this region based on shared ethical principles. Perhaps this will put pressure on governments to take action as well.

What then are the most important ways forward for the countries and peoples of the Balkan region on the issue of climate change? The following are some recommendations:

- Harness all available sources of energy in the region. This will reduce your vulnerability to price rises and shortages of imported energy, and provide a strong foundation for long-term sustainability.

- Reduce all environmental impacts to sustainable limits. Otherwise the cumulative costs will become significant barriers to maintaining human welfare and security.

- Accelerate the transition to reduce the shock. The sooner action begins, the better the chance of softening the blows of coming crises to the economy and society.

- Support global governance mechanisms to manage this global challenge. Climate change can only be addressed at the global level, with all governments collaborating in their common interest.

- Build a strong sense of community and solidarity within the region and with the outside world. A united community is best able to find solutions to whatever problems may come, whereas a divided community will succumb to the violence that comes when the strong grab what they can at the expense of the weak.

- Share the cost, effort and benefits with equity and justice. As indicated above, people will only support collaborative action if it is seen to be equitable.

Just as a quarreling family unites when faced with an outside danger, climate change may prove to be the common threat that brings the governments and peoples of the Balkans to work together in their collective interest. An ethical approach will be essential to convince all of us to act.


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.

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

Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, 2004. Buenos Aires Declaration on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change, prepared at the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in 2004.

European Environment Agency, 2007. Europe's Environment: The Fourth Assessment 2007.

International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007. Strategic Survey 2007 (September 2007)

IPCC, 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, IPCC.

Richardson, Katherine, Will Steffen, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Joseph Alcamo, Terry Barker, Daniel M. Kammen, Rik Leemans, Diana Liverman, Mohan Munasinghe, Balgis Osman-Elasha, Nicholas Stern, and Ole Wæver, 2009. Synthesis Report from Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions. International Scientific Congress on Climate Change, Copenhagen, 10-12 March 2009. Copenhagen, University of Copenhagen.

Sample, Ian. 2009. World faces 'perfect storm' of problems by 2030, chief scientist to warn., 18 March 2009.…;

Stern, Nicholas, 2006. The Economics of Climate Change, London, Her Majesty's Treasury.…. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

UNDP, 2007. Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, for United Nations Development Programme.

Last updated 31 October 2009