How Should Bahá’ís Talk about Climate Change? Applying Recent Institutional Guidance
by Christine Muller
The Universal House of Justice and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States have provided Bahá’ís with clear guidelines about engaging in public discourse and social action and avoiding partisan politics. In practice, how can we apply that guidance? Specifically, how can we apply the guidance to the issue of climate change, which has been in the news a great deal lately because of the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement?
Background on the Politicizing of Climate Change. Let’s be frank—in the United States, climate change has become a partisan political issue. You can inform yourself about how this happened with Merchants of Doubt, the 2010 book and 2015 documentary film by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University (she coauthored the book with Eric M. Conway, another historian of science). The book and the documentary cover the origins of why people have shed doubt on the science of climate change. A detailed article in the New York Times reports about more recent development in the United States where climate change has gone from an issue supported by both parties to a partisan political issue.
How Should Bahá’ís Respond? What can we do as Bahá’ís in this highly charged political situation? Should we just ignore climate change and turn our vision inward? The clear answer is no. The April 27, 2017, letter from the Universal House of Justice’s Department of the Secretariat states that “There can be no question . . . that Bahá’ís are committed to efforts toward social transformation” and calls on them to avoid the false dichotomy “that one must choose either non-involvement or social action” (par. 6, 12). The Universal House of Justice, in the same letter, also makes it quite clear that climate change belongs to the category of issues in which Bahá’ís should be engaged:
Individual Bahá’ís are free to participate in those efforts and activities, such as peaceful rallies, that uphold constructive aims in consonance with the Bahá’í teachings, for example, the advancement of women, the promotion of social justice, the protection of the environment, the elimination of all forms of discrimination, and the safeguarding of human rights. (par. 6, emphasis added)
While it is obvious to most people that climate change is the environmental problem with the most severe and long-lasting consequences, not everyone would make the connection that climate change is a human-rights issue.
Why Is Climate Change an Issue of Human Rights? The right to life is a fundamental human right, but climate change is already a contributing factor in causing many people to lose their lives—for example, in more severe storms. Climate change also seriously threatens the right to life of future generations because it destroys the natural systems that support human life. In addition, climate change threatens the right to an adequate standard of living, another fundamental human right, by limiting access to food, housing, and sufficient clean water and by exacerbating water scarcity.
In most places, climate change impacts are harmful to agriculture, and they displace people from their homes because of storms, floods, and sea level rise. Many refugees have already had to abandon their countries at least partly because of climate change. In the not very distant future, climate change will likely displace hundreds of millions of people.
In addition to more recent guidance, the Universal House of Justice, already in its Ridván 2010 message, pointed to climate change as a topic of public discourse:
At the level of the cluster, involvement in public discourse can range from an act as simple as introducing Bahá’í ideas into everyday conversation to more formal activities such as the preparation of articles and attendance at gatherings, dedicated to themes of social concern—climate change and the environment, governance and human rights, to mention a few. (par. 30, emphasis added)
Avoiding Partisan Politics While Discussing Climate Change. How can we avoid being drawn into partisan politics while discussing climate change with family and friends? The Universal House of Justice, through its Department of the Secretariat, provides practical guidelines in its April 27, 2017, letter (par. 3–4): Bahá’ís should never use partisan language, should avoid referring “to political figures in their public remarks, whether in criticism or support,” should “be obedient to the government of their land,” and should never engage in civil disobedience. Adhering to these rules will set a Bahá’í on a path of constructive involvement in all civil discourse and social action, including climate change.
Participating in Constructive Discussions. There are many ways in which Bahá’ís can raise public discourse above divisive and futile debates to a level of constructive discussion. One principle that Bahá’ís can use in such discussions is the importance of justice. While poor and indigenous people are suffering first and the most from the impacts of climate change, they are the least responsible for the increase in carbon concentrations in the atmosphere that cause global warming. Rich people are most responsible for enormous carbon emissions and are, at least for the time being, less affected by the impacts of climate change or have the means to, for example, move to another place if their houses are flooded or destroyed by a storm.
Another principle Bahá’ís can bring to constructive conversations is the oneness of humankind and the importance of a just world order in tackling global problems, including climate change. Some with whom Bahá’ís talk may raise the issue of the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. While only future historians will be able to determine the significance of the Paris Agreement, it may likely go down in history as a milestone in humanity’s movement toward a peaceful global order, because it was the first time ever that 195 countries agreed on an issue. But the Paris Climate Agreement is not perfect. It does not even come close to the strong reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Of course, Bahá’ís and Bahá’í institutions do not endorse any specific actions governments are taking, but they could see the spirit moving toward global unification at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP 21). In conversations, Bahá’ís can point out that Bahá’u’lláh said “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 181: 286). Peace and global collaboration are vital to address climate change and all other global issue.
Bahá’ís can also tell their friends that the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) has sent delegates to all international climate change conferences with the goal of presenting the Bahá’í perspectives on the topics being discussed and infusing the discourse with spiritual and ethical principles. For the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, BIC wrote Shared Vision, Shared Volition: Choosing Our Global Future Together, a statement elaborating on the oneness of humankind and explaining that our relationship with the Earth and its natural systems correlate with our relationship with each other.
In addition, Bahá’ís can find positive sides in every situation. After the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, several states in the United States proclaimed their adherence to it, and now many cities and towns are following suit. Even many businesses have spoken out in favor of the Agreement. The reality is that everyone must become involved in reducing carbon emissions, whether there is a Paris Agreement or not. Bahá’ís can applaud the raising awareness and the actions taken by governments, the private sector, and individuals.
Bahá’ís can also support reasonable climate actions “with all lawful means” as the Universal House of Justice, through its Department of the Secretariat, explains in its April 27, 2017, letter (par. 5):
The principles of non-involvement in politics and obedience to government, far from being obstacles to social change, are aspects of an approach set forth in the Bahá’í writings to implement effective remedies for and address the root causes of the ills afflicting society. This approach includes active involvement in the life of society as well as the possibility of influencing and contributing to the social policies of government by all lawful means.
Therefore, Bahá’ís may contact local, state, and national representatives, write letters, sign petitions, and participate in peaceful, nonpolitical demonstrations.
Bahá’ís can especially become more involved in interfaith efforts to mitigate climate change. People of all faiths realize that climate change is a threat to human civilization, which is unprecedented in its scope and a deeply moral issue. The representative of the Office of Sustainability at the U.S. Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs has collaborated on the national level with GreenFaith (an interfaith coalition for the environment), Interfaith Power & Light (a religious response to global warming), and the Parliament of the World’s Religion (one of the purposes of which is cherishing, protecting, healing, and restoring the Earth and all life). A number of Bahá’ís have also collaborated with such organizations on the national, state, and local levels. Bahá’í participation in the annual Faith Climate Action Week held by Interfaith Power & Light has been very high, especially considering the small size of the Bahá’í community.
Bahá’ís can also choose from many other areas in which to serve. The Universal House of Justice, through its Department of the Secretariat, writes in its April 27, 2017, letter, par. 13, that “The friends are called to three simultaneous, overlapping, and coherent areas of action: community-building efforts in clusters; projects and activities for social action; and involvement in the discourses of society. . . .”
For Bahá’ís who do not believe in climate science, there are other services one can render, as the Universal House of Justice advised an individual in this situation:
If you feel your personal views on environmental issues do not accord with the plans and activities being pursued by Bahá’í institutions related to these matters, it would be entirely acceptable for you not to participate in those activities and to, instead, turn your attention to the many other avenues of service open for promoting the interests of the Faith and the well-being of society. (The Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat, letter to individual, December 25, 2014, par. 3)
Being Supportive and Unified. Whatever area of service a Bahá’í chooses, it is important that they support each other’s efforts and to strive for unity. Bahá’ís are all working to build strong and vibrant communities and to fulfill the goals of the current Five Year Plan. As individuals, each Bahá’í will have to decide how best to serve the Cause, considering his or her special circumstances and capacities, the needs of the local Bahá’í community and circle of interest, the opportunities for public discourse, and the needs in the area for social action. The level of engagement in public discourse and social action may vary for each Bahá’í.
Of course, Bahá’ís should distinguish themselves with environmentally responsible everyday actions and by expressing Bahá’í values both in their relationships with other people as well as in how they treat the Earth. Their public discourse as well as their teaching efforts will stand and fall by the way they apply the spiritual teachings of our Faith in their lives and in the activities in their communities.
Bahá’ís’ commitments to reducing climate change ties in perfectly with the admonishment of the Universal House of Justice in its March 1, 2017, letter (par. 7–8) that they turn away from materialism and consumerism:
At all times, contentment and moderation, benevolence and fellow feeling, sacrifice and reliance on the Almighty are qualities that befit the God-fearing soul.
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.
Leading a simpler and more environmentally responsible life is good for everyone’s soul as well as for the planet. Bahá’ís have the great challenge and blessing to be a testimony to this truth in word and deed.