Climate Justice: A Central Topic in the Upcoming April Climate Change Course

by Christine Muller, faculty for Climate Change

Are you unsure about climate change and baffled about contradicting coverage by the media? Are you wondering how the Bahá’í teachings can provide you with guidance to address the issue? The current time of social crisis might be a good time to enroll in the Wilmette Institute’s course on Climate Change. Perhaps some thoughts about the relationship between climate and justice will give you a new perspective.

The words of Bahá’u’lláh shed light on our moral responsibility to limit global warming and its disastrous impacts on the climate:

Whoso cleaveth to justice, can, under no circumstances, transgress the limits of moderation. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities, when the Tongue of Grandeur will proclaim: “The Kingdom is God’s, the Almighty, the All-Praised!” —Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh CLXIV: 342–43

Who Is Suffering from Climate Change? Worldwide, the poor are suffering first and the most. For example, poor farmers in Africa are already being strongly affected by increasingly severe heat waves, droughts, and unpredictable rainfall, all of which result in malnutrition and hunger. According to The Guardian, dwindling natural resources such as water and food have contributed to the disastrous civil war in Sudan. On February 22, 2017, the New York Times reported that the United Nations had declared famine in a patch of South Sudan. In another article on February 20, 2017, the New York Times also reported that meteorologists are anticipating that in 2017 it will be “especially hot and dry across much of eastern Africa,” a situation that will likely worsen the situation. Because of climate-induced crop failures, rising food prices are increasingly affecting the poor all over the world.

Inhabitants of small islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are suffering from rising sea levels. Their islands are shrinking, houses are frequently flooded, their precious fresh water is contaminated with salt water, and their crops are failing. As a result, their future is uncertain. Some have already left their islands, and many more will have to leave their homes and abandon their cultures in the next years and decades. If you are wondering why sea levels are rising, the reasons are these. About 90 percent of the increased heat energy caused by global warming has been going into the ocean. Water expands as it warms. Also, ice is melting almost everywhere on the planet.

The well-being of future generations is severely threatened by climate change. If humankind continues its current way of life, global average temperature will likely rise to at least 4°C (7.2°F), and sea-levels, by several feet by the end of the century, causing flooding of many huge coastal cities such as Guangzhou (China); Mumbai and Kolkata (India); New York, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Miami, Florida (USA); and Abidjan (Ivory Coast).

The warming and corresponding sea-level rise will continue for many centuries. At the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders realized that climate change would jeopardize the survival of human civilization and agreed that everything must be done to keep the warming “well below 2°C [3.6°F]” compared to “pre-industrial levels” and as close to 1.5°C as possible. However, even if all the countries of the world keep their promise given in Paris to cut emissions, the Earth will likely warm to almost 3°C, a scenario in which Small Island States will be doomed, and many places around the world will become inhabitable. 

Who is Responsible for Climate Change. Human beings cause global warming, which comes from greenhouse gas emissions released by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—and from deforestation and agriculture, especially the raising of livestock. While some poor people are forced to cut down forests for survival, it is the rich people of the world who are primarily responsible for climate change. It is a good thing that there have never been such large numbers of people who have escaped poverty. However, the huge and growing number of people driving cars, flying to vacations, and buying lots of clothing, meat, electronic gadgets, and other stuff are overburdening the Earth’s natural systems. Civilization has already “transgressed” planetary “limits” and is bringing “great evil upon men.” The world’s rich, with their activities and their consumption continue to be the drivers of climate change.

Those who are most vulnerable are least responsible for it: the poor, people of color, and indigenous people. Future generations will be the heirs of our current follies. Therefore, climate change is foremost an issue of justice.

Applying the Healing Medicine of the Bahá’í Faith. Humanity has already overleapt “the bounds of moderation in civilization” in many ways. Justice demands that we live with more moderation. The problem is that most of us living in developed countries are embedded in a culture of materialism and consumerism. We have lost a sense of what a moderate life-style should entail, and we are, to a large part unknowingly, contributing to the misery of others and ourselves by participating in what we consider to be the “normal” life of our society. The Universal House of Justice writes in its March 1, 2017, letter about the path to global economic well-being that “The enervating influence of materialism seeps into every culture, and all Bahá’ís recognize that, unless they strive to remain conscious of its effects, they may to one degree or another unwittingly adopt its ways of seeing the world” (par. 9).

In the same message, the House of Justice elaborates:

contentment and moderation, benevolence and fellow feeling, sacrifice and reliance on the Almighty are qualities that befit the God-fearing soul. (par. 7)

The forces of materialism promote a quite contrary line of thinking: that happiness comes from constant acquisition, that the more one has the better, that worry for the environment is for another day. (par. 8)

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbors’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. (par. 2) 

Many who are aware of the scope of the impact of climate change and of the human suffering it will cause are very pessimistic about the future. As Bahá’ís, we have the bounty of the guidance of Bahá’u’lláh, and we are empowered to act. There are many things we can do:

  • Learn more about climate change and how it affects people and the planet, and stand up for the truth.
  • Raise awareness of our spiritual obligation to work for justice.
  • Moderate our own life-styles by buying less stuff and consuming responsibly.
  • Promote environmentally friendly practices in Bahá’í activities.
  • Support meaningful climate action in our community or country.

How to Sign Up for the Climate Change Course. The Wilmette Institute’s course on Climate Change starts on April 15, 2017. In it we will discuss these topics and others, and learners are sure to take away insights not only applicable in their personal lives but also in all their core activities and generally in Bahá’í community life. Click here to sign up.

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