SCIENTIFIC AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
A STUDY COURSE
Spiritual Reflections on Nature and Humankind
“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” The Bible (1)
"All praise to the unity of God, and all honor to Him, the sovereign Lord, the incomparable and all-glorious Ruler of the universe, Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things, Who, from naught, hath brought into being the most refined and subtle elements of His creation, and Who, rescuing His creatures from the abasement of remoteness and the perils of ultimate extinction, hath received them into His kingdom of incorruptible glory. Nothing short of His all-encompassing grace, His all-pervading mercy, could have possibly achieved it. How could it, otherwise, have been possible for sheer nothingness to have acquired by itself the worthiness and capacity to emerge from its state of non-existence into the realm of being?" (2)
Section 1: Nature and Creation
It may be fitting to begin an interfaith course on climate change with some excerpts from the authentic Writings of the world's religions about nature and creation. While the word nature describes our material (physical) world, the word creation applies both to the spiritual and to the material world.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men." (3)
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being." (4) Christianity
"Who created the waters and the plants? Who yoked the swiftness of the winds and the motion to the clouds? For I beheld Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) as the primeval source of creation." (5) Zoroastrianism
"When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: "See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Think of this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world." (6) Judaism
"Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world." (7) Baha'i Faith
Discussion: What do the above Writings suggest about our membership as creatures in God's creation?
Section 2: Interconnectedness in Nature
An often deeply held attitude in our culture is to view humans as separate from nature. This widespread perception is revealed by an examination of the word “environment” itself. The root of the French word “environ” means “around”. The environment means the natural world around us. The word itself expresses a separateness between us humans and other creatures.
Religious Writings provide profound statements about the interconnectedness of nature:
"In the name of the merciful and compassionate God. The Merciful taught the Koran; He created man, taught him plain speech. The sun and the moon have their appointed time; The herbs and the trees adore; And the heavens, He raised them and set the balance, that ye should not be outrageous in the balance; But weigh ye aright, and stint not the balance. And the earth He has set it for living creatures therein are fruits and palms, with sheaths; and grain with chaff and frequent shoots; Then which of your Lord's bounties will ye twain deny.” (8) Islam
"Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, ... the inter-relationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever." (9) Baha'i Faith
"We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." (10) The Seventh Principle of the Unitarian/ Universalists
"Even as the human body in this world which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.
... Co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly. Consider for instance how one group of created things constituteth the vegetable kingdom, and another the animal kingdom. Each of these two maketh use of certain elements in the air on which its own life dependeth, while each increaseth the quantity of such elements as are essential for the life of the other. In other words, the growth and development of the vegetable world is impossible without the existence of the animal kingdom, and the maintenance of animal life is inconceivable without the co-operation of the vegetable kingdom. Of like kind are the relationships that exist among all created things. Hence it was stated that cooperation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness." (11) Baha'i Faith
As human beings we physically share our existence with the animals on this planet. We are part of nature, of the interconnected web of life. Spiritually, however, human beings are different than animals, as God created us with an immortal soul. Our spiritual station endows us to differentiate between good and evil. Animals don't have this dilemma of choice. The human capacity of free will, to be able to consciously decide to do good or evil, comes with the great responsibility of moral action. This responsibility includes stewardship of God's creation.
Discussion: The previous paragraphs shed light on how everything in nature is interconnected. What concrete examples come to your mind? Is nature something we need to use and control or a community to which we belong according to the Writings above?
The sun is the source of all physical energy and provides the warm temperature necessary for the existence of life. The energy of the sun also drives climate patterns and the weather, as differences in air and water temperatures create wind and ocean currents.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen with the help of sunlight. This process is called photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, plants transform atmospheric carbon into organic compounds, especially glucose (sugars). That glucose is used in various forms by every creature on the planet for energy and growth. Photosynthesis is the foundation for all plant and animal life.
Fossil fuels such as gas, coal and oil were created many millions of years ago under great pressure over a very long period of time from broken down dead plants and animals. One could consider them as stored solar energy from ancient times. As we will see, today's rapid burning of fossil fuels brings nature out of balance.
“All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.” (12) Baha'u'llah
Sustainability is the practice of preserving the web of life and not disrupting its balance. Sustainability can be defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (13)
Over several decades, many “developed” societies have become accustomed to a high standard of living that depends on an ever-growing global economy. At the same time, this global economic system has left some societies much less developed, with many people in poverty and struggling to survive, even in the developed societies themselves. While it is clear that poor people must be given the opportunity for some economic growth we must now accept the fact that we are living on a finite planet. Sustainability cannot be achieved without respecting the carrying capacity of the Earth’s finite ability to support human life.
”Carrying capacity” refers to how many organisms can live sustainably in a particular environment without destroying its resources. Many things can be limiting factors, such as food or water supply, amount of shelter, or capacity to absorb wastes. If we apply this concept to humans we must consider the different degrees to which people are using the planet's resources. There is a wide range from bare survival needs, to a modest standard of living, to luxurious, to quite extravagant. Also, the type and level of technology used has an effect on the human carrying capacity of Earth. The planet could support many more people living a simple rural village life than an American suburban lifestyle. Obviously, these points raise significant moral issues of equity and justice in the distribution of wealth, technology, and natural resources when determining Earth’s carrying capacity for human civilization.
The idea of carrying capacity relates closely to that of sustainable development, because both refer to the need to live off of interest rather than capital. If we cut down forests faster than they can grow back, intensify agriculture until it robs the soil of its fertility, and make profligate use of non-renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels, we can increase our standard of living and/or the number of people living on the planet, but we reduce its capacity to support people in the future. The success of development in the West has come partly from diminishing stocks of non-renewable resources, and partly from the import of cheap primary commodities often produced by over-exploitation in developing countries, just as the empires of earlier times flourished through colonial exploitation.” (14)
Another tool to measure our impact on the Earth is the “ecological footprint”. It measures the amount of ecological “space” required to support a person, family, or community. Summing this over a specific population, or the Earth’s total population, gives a rough measure of the amount of resources, the “share” of Earth’s resources needed to support that population at the specified standard of living.
”Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.” (15)
Sustainability is not an entirely new idea. The Iroquois Confederacy, a Native American group, for instance, already taught the wisdom of considering the impacts of our actions on the future: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.” (16)
We are all part of the biosphere, the ecosystem Earth. True awareness of our interconnectedness and interdependence with all other living things and the Earth instills a profound feeling of humility. Such a state of mind is the necessary foundation for a sustainable approach to all our activities. Bahá'u'lláh wrote:
"Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory." (17) Baha'u'llah
Discussion: (When you discuss the following questions it is not necessary that you exhaust the topics. Just find some examples and share some thoughts.)
- What are some unsustainable practices current today?
- How can we implement sustainability in our everyday life?
- How are humility and the awareness of interconnectedness and interdependence important for sustainability?
- What would a sustainable society look like?
Section 3: Science and Religion
"The faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation... is the most praiseworthy power of man, for through its employment and exercise the betterment of the human race is accomplished, the development of the virtues of mankind is made possible..." (18)
Our whole civilization, life as we know it, is built on scientific and technological advances. Science is a specific process of learning to understand the reality of the universe. It is both an individual and a collective process that is progressing over time. Science is a method of investigating reality that minimizes the influence of bias or prejudice. Depending on the discipline of the science, the scientific method encompasses various steps and procedures usually including experimental tests. These experiments must be well documented in order that other scientists can repeat these experiments to check their validity. This replicability of experiments is critical to the scientific method.
A scientific theory or law represents an explanation for observed occurrences, which has been confirmed through repeated experiments and has gained acceptance over time. As used in science, the word “theory” is in contrast to its common, everyday use: For example, when one says “it's only a theory” it implies that something is unproven or speculative. However, nobody would choose to ignore a scientific theory or law of nature such as Newton's theory of gravity and step off from a high cliff because “gravity is only a theory”. A scientific theory is a well-confirmed explanation of some aspect of nature, made in a way consistent with accepted scientific knowledge and methods.
Peer Review is an integral and expected part of the process of publishing the results of a scientific study in a reputable scientific journal. It means that the prospective publishers put a paper presented to them for publication out for prepublication review by independent scientists (often two or three, who usually remain anonymous), who have expertise in the author’s field of research. The purpose of the process is to check that the methodology, analysis, and results are reasonable and properly conducted and presented according to accepted standards.
There is always some degree of uncertainty in science. Scientific results are subject to revision in the future as new experiments are done and as knowledge is applied in the “real world” and the results are reviewed in the light of that experience.
Scientific consensus is the collective judgment of the community of scientists in a particular field of study; it implies general agreement, not necessarily unanimity. Differences of opinion on some detailed aspects of a subject are always present in a scientific community even if there is consensus about the general subject. However, communicating that consensus to those outside the field can be difficult. The usual discussions surrounding the always present uncertainty can seem like a lack of consensus to outsiders, indicating greater disagreement and uncertainty than actually exists. Conveying scientific consensus can prove difficult because of differences between the level of understanding about an issue by scientists, politicians, and the lay-public.
The term “Settled Science” is sometimes used where the opinion of a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable in a field are in agreement that there is no longer reasonable doubt about a certain scientific result or conclusion that would justify any significant expenditure of energy or money at the current time trying to disprove a particular consensus opinion or change their direction of study. Global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases is considered “settled science” by the vast majority of climate scientists, even though there are still many questions to be answered about the specific details of future climate impacts and its implications for human society. Although scientists must adhere to certain ethical principles such as truthfulness and fairness, science does not provide an ethical framework that could guide us in the responsible use of the products of scientific research. Therefore, the ethical values derived from religion are crucial in the implementation of any technology. The science of climate change can explain and describe what is happening to the planet, for example, why glaciers are melting so fast, why sea levels have been rising, and why extreme weather conditions like heat waves, droughts, floods, and stronger storms have been increasing. Science and technology can also propose solutions to mitigate or adapt to climate change. However, the choice of solutions involves value judgments that are beyond the realm of science. The value system necessary for making decisions including climate-change policy is provided by religion.
Religion serves the individual by providing enlightenment and spiritual guidance. At the same time it helps society by providing an ethical framework:
"God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquillity of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.” (19)
"Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein." (20)
Baha'u'llah explains that society is negatively affected when people turn away from religion or when religion becomes corrupted:
"… Religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world. ... Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine…” (21)
The following paragraph explores what happens when people turn away from religion:
"The perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves, under such circumstances, in their worst and most revolting aspects. Human character is debased, confidence is shaken, the nerves of discipline are relaxed, the voice of human conscience is stilled, the sense of decency and shame is obscured, conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty are distorted, and the very feeling of peacefulness, of joy and of hope is gradually extinguished." (22)
We can experience the truth of these words written by Shoghi Effendi in 1936, in all aspects of our society today.
You may be surprised about the positive portrayal of religion in the above paragraphs as you may be a realistic observer of today's world. The Baha'i teachings explain that religions are going through cycles. At the beginning they are full of spiritual light and enkindle increasing numbers of people. A new culture, a new civilization develops. After a while, human made dogma and rituals begin to cloud its light. Corruption and power-seeking individuals engulf its institutions. Then it is time for a new divine revelation and the beginning of a new cycle. Today we need this divine and transformative power of religion more than ever as we are facing planetary crises that are unprecedented in human history. Religion provides a clear framework of ethics that can guide us in our actions to address these crises.
"Religion exerts a profound influence on all societies and many of the world's peoples. Throughout history, it has proven to be the primary force for social progress, motivating individuals to develop spiritual qualities, and empowering them to sacrifice for their fellow human-beings and to contribute to the betterment of their communities.” (23) The role of religion as a motivator for action will be further discussed in Class 9. Ethical principles derived from religion will be discussed in Classes 5 and 7.
Science and Religion
"The principle of the harmony of science and religion means…that everything in this creation, all aspects of human life and knowledge, should be studied in the light of [religious] revelation as well as in that of purely rational investigation [i.e., science].” (24) The Universal House of Justice
Science and religion are tools to investigate reality from two different angles. Each discipline asks a fundamentally different question.
Science asks: “How does the universe work?”
Religion asks: “Why is there a universe and what is its purpose, and what is our purpose of existence as human beings?”
If science and religion ask fundamentally different questions and are complementary, how are they each to be used when we examine an issue of social concern? The role of science is the assessment of facts and their potential physical and social consequences. After scientists provide citizens, politicians, and other stakeholders with the facts and consequences of concern, all stakeholders must use ethical values to make policy decisions about any actions to be taken that may affect society. Values and ethics are the domain of religion. In the case of climate change, science can explain the causes of global warming and project with various amounts of certainty the impacts of the resulting changes in climate. It is then up to the public and to governments to consider these facts, to apply values, and then to act accordingly.
Misuse of Religion and Science
"Any agency whatever, though it be the instrument of mankind's greatest good, is capable of misuse." (25) `Abdu'l-Baha
When talking about religion we should be aware that abuse and perversion of religion have often caused intolerance, fanaticism, oppression and even war. This is, of course, in stark contradiction to the original teachings of all the world's religions. The Baha'i Faith, for example, admonishes that "religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth, give birth to spirituality, and bring life and light to each heart. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act...." (26) Or as stated by Baha'u'llah,
“In matters of religion every form of fanaticism, hatred, dissension and strife is strictly forbidden."(27) Baha'ullah
At the heart of the Christian Faith is love. It is a love not limited to our own family, nation or coreligionists. It embraces everyone, even our enemies:
“But I say unto you which hear, love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." (28) Jesus
The Baha'i Faith teaches that all religions have the same divine origin and that we should "consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship." (29)
Most important for avoiding religious fanaticism is the use of reason and science.
Science can also be abused. The most widespread abuse of science and technology is their use without spiritual or ethical consideration. Such abuse frequently results in human rights violations and/or environmental problems and degradation. For example, if a company manufactures and sells sterile seeds, the farmers become dependent on that company to buy seeds every year. If bioengineered seeds are sold, they can contaminate many native species of crop plants, which may result in the eventual loss of all these important food plants. The way much of scientific research is controlled and exploited by corporations frequently shows the lack of an ethical framework.
Deliberate misrepresentation of science by economic interests and political interference is another form of abuse. A case in point is the systematic disinformation campaign by the climate change skeptics. They are not following responsible scientific criticism, but through various tactics endeavor to shed doubts on climate science.
Independent Investigation of Truth
“…Man must independently investigate reality, for the disagreements and dissensions which afflict and affect humanity primarily proceed from imitations of ancestral beliefs….” (30)`Abdu’l-Bahá
Every human being has the responsibility to investigate reality and search for the truth, both in the realms of physical as well as spiritual reality. The principle of independent investigation of truth has applications in everyday life. When we watch news on TV, listen to the radio, or read an article in a newspaper we can think about whether this is really factual, partially true or even false. When we hear or read about an issue, we should relate it to what we have already learned from sources we trust and check out underlying sources.
You have probably seen in the media the controversy over different views about the science of climate change. The media often give equal time to scientific information and the views of climate skeptics. While for many social issues it is beneficial to hear different opinions, in the case of climate change this is not the case, as it is a matter of science education. Different human opinions don't affect the laws of physics and chemistry. It is a huge problem that the general population is not well- and even mis-informed about climate change, for the consensus of a large portion of the population is needed to support meaningful actions that could help mitigate it and avert a catastrophe. In a democracy, citizens must be informed enough that they feel comfortable making value judgments and choosing policies based on scientists' assessed risks and benefits.
Baha’u’llah admonished the writers of newspapers “to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should inquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing. ... Fair speech and truthfulness, by reason of their lofty rank and position, are regarded as a sun shining above the horizon of knowledge.” (31)
Next time you read a newspaper, go on the internet, or see news and advertisements on TV, think about what you consider as credible information.
Given the spiritual principles of the independent investigation of truth and consultation, should this course give only one view of climate change science if there are other opinions? Why are these other views not given equal value? The warming of our planet Earth is a fact and not an opinion. That's the consensus of an overwhelming majority of scientists everywhere. The new report  by the IPCC's Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” “It is virtually certain that globally the troposphere has warmed since the mid-20th century.” The footnote explains the probability of “virtually certain” as 99–100%.
The report also says that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” “Extremely likely” is defined as 95 – 100%. “The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models,” explains a recent IPCC press release. Most leading religious institutions have called for action on climate change as a moral responsibility including the institutions of the Baha'i Faith.
The purpose of this course is to give a very basic introduction to the science of climate change. Based on that knowledge, we will apply spiritual principles and ethical standards as found in the scriptures of the world's religions. After establishing that foundation, we will be ready for a consultation about what we could do as individuals and religious communities to make a contribution to mitigate climate change. The objective of the course is not to debate whether climate change is happening or not.
Science and Religion in this Course
This course is based on both science and religion. Whenever the perspective of religion is used, quotations from religious scriptures are presented because they provide the ethical foundation. Moreover, the Word of God has the power to change human hearts. Similarly, when the perspective of science is used, scientific facts and direct statements from scientists are presented. These numbers, graphs and details don't need to be memorized; they are included to provide depth to our understanding and to illustrate the scope of the problems discussed.
“Religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone, he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.” (33) `Abdu’l-Bahá
Watch the video "Home", about 1 1/2 hours
1. Psalm 19:11
2. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, XXVII
3. Jesus, King James Bible, John 1 – 4
4. Revelations 4:11
5. Gatha Ushtavaiti 44.4
6. Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7 http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm
7. Baha'u'llah, Tablets from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 140-142 (Lawh-i-Hikmat)
8. Islam, The Qur'an (E.H. Palmer tr), Sura 55 - The Merciful)
9.;  Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 156
10. Seventh Unitarian Principle
11. ‘Abdu'l-Baha (Compilations, Huququ'llah, No. 61)
12. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CIX
13. The Brundtland Commission
14. International Environment Forum http://iefworld.org/spcapacity.htm
15. Global Footprint Network http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/
16. from the Great Law of Peace of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, http://www.solarhaven.org/Quotes.htm
17. Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 44
18. `Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace (2nd edition). Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1982, p. 31
19. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, XXXIV
20. Baha'u'llah, quoted in The Promise of World Peace (The Universal House of Justice, 1985)
21. Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, Ishraqat, p. 125
22. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 186
23.Baha'i International Community, 1994 Aug 24, Role of Religion in Social Development
24. The Universal House of Justice / 3 January 1979 - To the Participants in the Baha'i Studies Seminar held in Cambridge on 30 September and 1 October 1978
25.`Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization (2nd edition). Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1983, p. 16
26. ‘Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.130
27. Baha'u'llah, Tabernacle of Unity, p. 39,
28. Jesus, King James Bible, Luke 6:27/28
29. Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, XLIII
30. 'Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 103. St. St. James Methodist Church, p. 134
31. Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, 4. Tarazat, p. 39
33. `Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, Page: 143