Love Humankind? Study Climate Change!

Christine Mullerby Christine Muller

As Bahá’ís, we believe that humankind is one and that all the peoples of the world are one family. These are often the first Bahá’í teachings we share with people who want to learn about the Bahá’í Faith. As individuals, we strive to implement these teachings in our social interactions. We work to abandon prejudices of all kinds and to accept people of all backgrounds as equal human beings. We engage in creating unity among people in various settings.

However, in the twenty-first century, such efforts are no longer sufficient. In countless ways, we are intricately connected with people all around the world. The way we live our lives affects people who may live far away from us and will have an even stronger impact on future generations. Here are two concepts to consider:

First, we must think about the people who are growing our food, manufacturing our clothing, mining the resources we use, producing our electronics, and so on. In many cases, such goods are produced by people who are suffering from exploitation and experiencing terrible working conditions. Often the local environment in which these people work is degraded in the process—for example by deforestation or pollution of water or land. Such environmental degradation further impoverishes the workers and often harms their health. As believers in the oneness of humankind, we should learn more about the origins of the products we are buying, for such knowledge will turn us into more responsible consumers and more attuned to our brothers and sisters worldwide.

Second—and even more important in the long term—we can no longer live our lives in alignment with the principle of the oneness of humankind without knowing the basics about climate change. Let’s look at that proposition: Human activities such as driving, flying, using electricity generated by coal or natural gas, heating our homes, and manufacturing the many things we need, or imagine we need, result in emissions of greenhouse gases. These greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, and a few others) enhance the natural “Greenhouse Effect.” Briefly, this is how it works: The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere let through to the Earth the short-wave radiation from the sun’s energy but trap some of the long-wave radiation that is reflected from the Earth’s surface. Thanks to this Greenhouse Effect, our Earth has been warm enough to allow life to develop. Without greenhouse gases, our Earth would be 0°F (–18°C)!

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1760, humankind has burned large quantities of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, which basically are stored ancient solar energy. The result has been that, since around the last quarter of the eighteenth century, atmospheric CO2, concentrations have increased by 40 percent, and the Earth has warmed on average almost 1°C (1.8°F). 1°C does not sound like a lot, but all over the world people have been noticing significant changes in climate: Precipitation patterns have been changing. Floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires are getting more severe. Storms are becoming stronger, as there is more energy in the climate system. Sea levels are rising because of the melting ice and because water expands as it warms. (Most of the heat has been absorbed by the oceans.)

As there is much inertia in the climate system, temperatures are expected to rise another 0.5°C (0.9°F), even without additional greenhouse-gas emissions. A rise of 2ºC (3.6ºF) would be a major disaster for low-lying coastal areas and Small Island Developing States, which would be lost to the ocean. That is why most participants at the COP 21 Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015 considered the goal of limiting global warming to 2ºC (3.6ºF) as too weak. If human activities continue on current trajectories, it is estimated that the global average temperature would rise 4ºC (7.2ºF) by the end of the century. That is the order of magnitude between our current climate and an ice age, but on the warm side. The pledges of the 195 countries at the Paris Climate Change Conference would lower the estimated temperature rise to only below 3ºC. The participants agreed that these pledges are not sufficient and that much more CO2 emissions reduction will be required by all countries.

Human beings already and will increasingly suffer from the impacts of climate change. Here just a few examples:

  • Worsening water scarcity and droughts damage agriculture. Poor African farmers have to put seeds in the ground repeatedly because the previously regular yearly rainfalls have become erratic. In many areas of Africa, people suffer from water scarcity, but in the rare cases of precipitation it rains “hippos and rhinos” as a Cameroonian participant put it in the Wilmette Institute course on Climate Change in 2015. Strong rains often destroy fields and cause landslides. In addition, because much of Africa is already hot, any increase in temperature reduces crop size and quality. There is only a narrow margin beyond which most crops can no longer be grown. Thus people suffer from malnutrition and famine as a result.
  • Indigenous people in Small Island Developing States are beginning to lose their homes, their ways of life, and their homelands, as their islands are becoming uninhabitable due to sea level rise.
  • In other areas of the world, people are seriously affected by stronger storms, droughts, and floods. Many people lose their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives.

Most of the people who are severely impacted by climate change are poor and have not contributed much to the increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

For the most part, people in the developed countries are responsible for the warming of the planet, because it does not matter where in the world greenhouse gases are emitted. They all escape into the same atmosphere.

Thus increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations and rising temperatures are making us to reevaluate what the oneness of humankind means. They imply that our everyday life decisions matter because they affect people across the globe. What we buy, how we transport ourselves, the size and location of our homes, our activities, even what we eat and wear has consequences for our brothers and sisters around the globe. Therefore, every citizen of the world must learn more about climate change so that we do not contribute to the suffering of others but, rather, become part of the solution. Knowledge about climate change helps us become active participants in building an environmentally sustainable civilization that allows all of humanity, including future generations, to flourish.

In short, learning about climate change is a practical expression of our love for humankind.

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The Wilmette Institute is offering the Climate Change course once again, starting on March 1 and running through April 26, with Christine Muller as lead faculty and Gary Colliver, Arthur Lyon Dahl, and Carole Flood, supporting faculty. Click here to sign up.

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