Volume 18, Issue 4 / January-March 2007
Perspective: Climate change and the oneness of humanity
With the release in February of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there remains little doubt about the reality of global warming.
“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level,” wrote a committee of international scientists, known as Working Group I, in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report.
Moreover, there seems little doubt that global warming is caused by human activity. IPCC scientists — an international group that has long been known for its relatively conservative approach — are now more than 90 percent confident that humanity is bringing climate change upon itself, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide, the primary “greenhouse gas” that is understood as responsible for warming.
The potential dangers of global warming have long been known, of course, albeit sometimes intensely debated. But in April, a second group of IPCC scientists attached specific probabilities to various outcomes from warming.
They identified warming effects and associated trends, all with an 80 percent or greater probability, that include: increasingly severe weather, including stronger storms and greater drought; a significant rise in the level of the oceans; and shifts in the range of various terrestrial plant and animal species, along with increased extinctions in ecologically sensitive areas. There will also likely be increased spread of disease, significant localized crop failure, especially in Africa, and increased cross-border refugees.
Since before the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Bahá’í International Community has repeatedly called attention to humanity’s increasing impact on the environment and its potential consequences. Whether discussing ocean pollution, deforestation or greenhouse gas emissions, Bahá’í statements have focused on the global nature of such problems, raising this question:
“Can humanity, with its entrenched patterns of conflict, self-interest, and short-sighted behavior, commit itself to enlightened cooperation and long-range planning on a global scale?”
In the short term, the answer clearly remains in doubt. In the long term, however, the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith offer much hope — and a basis for both immediate and sustained action.
More than a century ago, Bahá’u’lláh explained that humanity is moving inexorably into an age when its underlying oneness and the need for unity and collaboration in virtually all spheres of endeavor will eventually be universally recognized — and that from that recognition the long promised age of peace and security for all humanity will ultimately be realized.
For Bahá’ís, then, the growing scientific consensus on climate change and its wider public discussion offer an urgent reason for humanity to examine its underlying interdependence and oneness, which is the fundamental reality of the human condition today. The challenge of global warming, moreover, highlights the degree to which humanity must swiftly move towards unity of action at the global level if it is to thrive and, perhaps, even survive.
In previous statements, the Bahá’í International Community has identified a number of key principles needed to create sustainable development on a global scale. These principles include a mandate for justice above all else, a commitment to world citizenship, and an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. Principles such as the equality of women and men, an emphasis on moral education, and the creation of a new system of global governance have also been held up as prerequisites to the creation of “an ever-advancing civilization,” as Bahá’u’lláh phrased it.
Within the context of sustainable development, what makes climate change especially intractable is the way in which its many inputs are so small, and so deeply interwoven into the fabric of modern life, and yet are set against an overall long time frame in which changes, whether positive or negative, will take decades to show results.
Today, with few exceptions, every time someone somewhere turns on a light, rides in a motor vehicle, purchases an industrial artifact, or heats his or her home, more carbon dioxide is produced, and, according to the current understanding, the potential for global warming goes up by a tiny increment.
he accumulation of these tiny inputs of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has taken on the characteristics of a long but slowly accelerating freight train: the momentum has been building for a long time and it will now take considerable time and effort to slow it down.
The imperative for action, then, extends from the highest political levels — at which broad policies can be implemented to stem warming — to the choices that each person around the world makes every day at home or in work.
It is in this regard that religion and religious belief offer a critically important venue for reflection, transformation, and action. For, as has increasingly been recognized by activists in the approach to other environmental problems, there is perhaps no more powerful impetus for social change at the grass roots than religion.
As the most recent of the independent world religions, the Bahá’í Faith offers principles and ideas that appeal to the contemporary mind and establish a framework for fruitful action.
As noted, foremost among these principles is the oneness of humanity, which, the Bahá’í writings state, “implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced.” And at the heart of this change stands Bahá’u’lláh’s imperative: “Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.”
The Bahá’í writings also tell us that such unity cannot be created without justice. “There is no force on earth that can equal in its conquering power the force of justice and wisdom,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh. “The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men.”
Both principles, unity and justice, are essential if international negotiations over things like carbon limits, emissions trading, the sharing of alternative technologies, and the elimination of poverty (which has a very real effect on greenhouse gas production, as when the poor are impelled to burn down forests to create farmland) are to succeed.
Once such principles are firmly adopted at the highest levels, it will be easier to motivate ordinary citizens at the lowest levels — who in many places are already at the forefront of action — to make whatever further changes that may be required in their own lives to ameliorate global warming.
Another key principle of the Bahá’í writings that can broadly illuminate new directions in addressing climate change is the understanding that science and spirituality are not antagonistic but, in fact, are complementary in their descriptions of reality.
Too often, of course, advancing technology has been the cause of unintended pollution or social harm. “If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation,” warned Bahá’u’lláh. On the other hand, traditional religion has too often delayed or hindered the adoption of new ideas and technologies that could be of benefit.
Bahá’ís believe that once a human-oriented basis for scientific endeavor has been established, built first and foremost upon the principles of unity and justice, the possibilities for fruitful scientific endeavor are limitless. In the case of climate change, Bahá’ís have no that doubt that science, animated by such values, could lead to the creation and adoption of such technologies and alternative economic structures that will permit a high and sustained level of global prosperity in which everyone can lead materially and spiritually satisfying lives.
Bahá’u’lláh warned that humanity would face an increasing number of severe and unprecedented calamities until it recognized and fully embraced its underlying unity. The threat posed by global warming offers yet another opportunity to discover within ourselves the fundamental reality upon which the peace, security and well being of the entire planet depend.