Ethics and Climate Change

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 18:56
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Ethics    Topic: Ethics and Climate Change

For many scientists and environmentalists, global climate change driven by greenhouse gases is a major threat to the ecological balance of the planet and to human well-being. For many in economics and business, them wealth and economic success of Western civilization are founded on the cheap energy provided largely by fossil fuels. For the emerging economies in developing countries, cheap and accessible energy is essential for them to develop and leave behind the abject poverty to which large sections of their populations are subjected. What contribution can an ethical perspective play in addressing such opposing viewpoints in society?

Scientific observations of the state of the planet (see Climate Change) have demonstrated that humanity's collective activities are contributing to significant changes in Earth's atmosphere, including rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat. The effects of global climate change are predicted to affect every region of the planet in the decades and centuries to come and some signs of this change are already evident. There will be winners and losers, with the climate improving in some regions, but with damaging effects in most areas. The regions which are predicted to be most negatively affected are those where people are most vulnerable, thus lacking the resources and capacity to adapt. The costs to human society of adapting to climate change are estimated to be extremely high. Yet the costs of abandoning present fossil fuel technologies and the enormous infrastructure built on them will also be extraordinarily high. It is no wonder that both the need to act and the possible alternatives to the current system remain areas of debate in political, business, and scientific arenas and beyond.

The ethical dilemmas presented by the challenge of climate change are fundamental to the debate, and it is here that religion has a contribution to make. The religious traditions of the world contain guidance, principles and warnings which throw considerable light on the present global environment and development dilemma. The reflections below give a Baha'i perspective.

Climate change is clearly a global problem affecting all humanity, illustrating that the world has now become one country. It is a physical demonstration of the spiritual principle of humankind's essential unity and therefore calls for the abandonment of divisive, nationalistic and materialistic ideologies and traditions. This requires an acknowledgement that humanity has evolved through various stages of unity and is now in the process of creating an ever-advancing global civilisation, based on an organic model of humankind, in which each member plays a crucial role in the well-being of the whole. Decisions on climate change must be made in this context.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that humanity has both spiritual and material natures. The present civilisation has emphasised the material at the expense of the spiritual, and its political and social institutions and relationships are physical manifestations of the spiritual and moral values (or lack of values) upon which they are built. Bahá’u’lláh warned more than a century ago:

“If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation...The day is approaching when its flame will devour its cities...” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 342-343) (BIC 1986, p. 7)

Climate change is but one of many symptoms of that excess. The number of environmental issues which can be included in the category human induced global environmental change extend to, for example, depletion of the protective ozone layer, land degradation and desertification and loss of biodiversity in unprecedented rates. We could also make a parallel list for the innumerable social ills our societies are facing, such as violent conflict, poverty, unemployment and lack of social cohesion.

To re-establish the balance of matter and spirit requires a new emphasis on our spiritual condition and the reining in of excessive materialism. The crucial need at this time is for a reordering of our priorities and an awakening of the human spirit that will in turn provide us with the confidence and the will to make changes in all aspects of human affairs. We cannot successfully address a single environmental issue like climate change without first implementing a more fundamental transformation in human society based on spiritual principles.

Inspiration for such a transformation can be found in the spiritual traditions of every culture, which serve as the collective heritage of one human family. All can contribute to developing harmonious ways of living on the planet that can endure for millennia to come. Indeed, it is through the sharing of such wisdom and guidance from the diverse cultures of the world that a fully global solution emerges. What is called for is a collaborative endeavour embracing all the peoples of the world in a wide-ranging and long-term process of collective consultation aiming to reach a level of unity in understanding and a will to act. Local decisions can then be made within a global context, and can take into account both local and global well-being. Solving the numerous environmental and other problems that transcend political boundaries is part of the process we need to go through to achieve the goal of a truly global civilisation. Addressing issues such as climate change in constructive and proactive ways will assist us in fulfilling that vision.

Religion can help to establish the conditions that need to exist in order for such a goal to be achieved. The Baha'i Faith is unequivocal in its belief in the power of religion to establish concord amongst the peoples of the world. Indeed Bahá’u’lláh states that religion is "the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and tranquillity amongst its peoples." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, p. 63-4)

One of the most fundamental requirements to address global challenges like climate change is a willingness to transcend nationalistic and other divisive forces and agendas that may seek to promote the interests of one sector of humanity at the expense of another. Where negative forces exist in society, it is necessary to replace them with stronger positive forces of love, forgiveness and solidarity. This could start with a conscientious application of the teaching that we should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated - a principle found at the heart of all religions.

Humanity can learn from nature itself, viewing our species as an entity comprised of interrelated parts. We might liken the human species to a single human body or to Earth's ecosphere. Life on Earth has been sustained for billions of years through a complex network of interconnected and interdependent forces and processes, all functioning in harmony with one another in a state of ongoing, dynamic equilibrium. The human body functions in much the same way with all the organs and limbs operating in cooperation with one another. Humankind is also a multi-faceted, interdependent network that, when each portion works in harmony with the rest, can create a rich, dynamic, and self-sustaining system. For the human species, just as in nature, no single sector can address a problem in isolation, especially if it is affecting the entire system; nor can the entire system function at its best if one part of it is suffering or disabled.

Transformation in society must start with each individual human being. The spiritual changes mentioned above can only occur if individuals are inspired to make them, engaging in a deeply personal process of spiritualization, which feeds and fuels the collective recognition of our global humanity. In this respect, each citizen on the planet must acquire an awareness of his/her personal connection with and responsibility towards others, impelling decisions and actions that serve all of humanity.

Many global environmental problems including climate change are the result of many tiny cumulative impacts from personal activities that have an invisible or imperceptible effect on the planet. Just as many actions of our ancestors affect us today, our behaviour may have long-term consequences that we cannot perceive at present. The individual may see no connection between daily life and forms of consumption, and the consequences which may be continents away and decades later. Focussing on human contributions to climate change in particular thus requires that countless individuals change their actions. Such changes can be facilitated by public education campaigns which target the individual citizen's role in finding alternatives to daily practices that may be contributing to the problem. Each human being needs to recognise his/her personal role in addressing this challenge to all of humanity. On the other hand such change of action is a collective problem, for which no one sector or region is to blame, nor can we rely on one individual or sector to solve the problem. Accordingly, it requires responsible governance at local, national and global levels. The type of governance that would be desirable, in the Baha'i perspective, is one which is guided by universal values, including an ethic of service to the common good. It will need to provide for the meaningful participation of citizens in the conceptualisation, design, implementation and evaluation of programmes and policies that affect them. It should seek to enhance people's ability to manage transitions and should offer opportunities to increase their capacities and sense of worth.

In common with many other environmental problems, the issue of climate change has been subject to scientific uncertainty. Such debates are a normal part of the scientific process and can take time to resolve. However the consequences are so significant that there is an ethical obligation to show prudence and precaution. Indeed, if we view the emerging problems as a reflection of a deeper spiritual crisis and a symptom of challenges in other areas of human society over which there is no dispute, we need not paralyse ourselves into inactivity or endless cycles of debate. Strengthening and building on efforts to eradicate poverty, economic and social injustice, and inequitable access to and distribution of resources are all effective ways of addressing the environmental challenges we face today. A balanced integration of the best of science and technology, interwoven with core ethical principles such as justice, equity, and moderation in all aspects of human affairs, should lead humanity along a different, more sustainable path than the one we are currently following. Making those changes will effectively address a host of environmental problems, not just those directly related to the atmosphere.

Humanity's present and future are a culmination of millions of years of evolution. Following thousands of years of existing in relatively isolated communities on the planet, the last few centuries have brought us to the threshold of the fulfilment of our destiny on Earth: the creation of a truly global civilisation, in which every individual is valued, the well-being of one contributes to the well-being of all, and material achievements are viewed not as ends in themselves, but as vehicles for social, moral, and spiritual progress. Global climate change is not an insurmountable challenge or crisis. Rather, it is an opportunity for us to look deeply into the true nature of the human condition and fulfil humanity's destiny.


Baha'i International Community. 1986. A Baha'i Perspective on Nature and the Environment.

Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, Baha'i Publishing Trust, Wilmette, 1939.

Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh. Baha'i World Centre, Haifa, 1978.

Based in part on a statement of the International Environment Forum for the 14th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, May 2006

Article last updated 1 April 2006

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Last updated 7 September 2010