When man alters the Earth’s climate, who suffers? What does climate justice mean? The whole world has begun to grapple with those two questions.

World-wide, the poor suffer first and most from climate change. 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. 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 declared famine in a patch of South Sudan. Meteorologists anticipate an “especially hot and dry 2017 across much of eastern Africa” that will likely worsen the situation.

Rising food prices because of climate-induced crop failures increasingly affect the poor all over the world. Inhabitants of small islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu suffer from rising sea levels—their islands are shrinking, houses are frequently flooded, their precious freshwater is contaminated with salt water, and their crops are failing. As a result, they face an uncertain future–some have already left their islands, and many more will have to leave their homes and abandon their cultures in the coming years and decades.

If you wonder why sea levels are rising, these are the reasons: The world’s oceans absorb about 90 percent of the increased heat energy caused by global warming. Water expands as it warms. Also, ice is melting almost everywhere on the planet, and the meltwater naturally flows into the ocean.

Climate change threatens the well-being of future generations. If humankind simply continues its current way of life, global average temperature will likely rise by at least 4°C (7.2°F), and sea-levels will rise by several feet as the end of the century approaches, causing flooding of many huge coastal cities such as Guangzhou (China), Mumbai and Kolkata (India), New York City and Tampa, Florida (USA), and Abidjan (Ivory Coast). Even if humanity stops burning fossil fuels, the warming and corresponding sea-level rise will continue for many centuries, inundating coastal areas everywhere.

Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou, China

World leaders realized that climate change could jeopardize the survival of human civilization and agreed at the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris, 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 Paris Conference commitments to cut emissions, the Earth will likely warm by almost 3°C, a scenario in which Small Island States will be doomed, and many places around the world will become uninhabitable. 

Global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels–coal, oil, and gas—and from deforestation and agriculture, especially the raising of livestock. While there are some poor people who are forced to cut down forests for survival, it is the wealthier people of the world who are primarily responsible for climate change. The huge and growing number of people driving cars, flying to vacations, and buying lots of clothing, meat, electronic gadgets, and other stuff have overburdened the Earth’s natural systems. Humanity has overstepped our planet’s boundaries.

The world’s wealthiest, most developed, first-world nations, with their activities and consumption, continue to drive climate change. The most vulnerable are least responsible for it: the poor, people of color, and indigenous people. Future generations will bear the worst impacts. Therefore, climate change is foremost an issue of justice.

A century and a half ago, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, called on humankind to observe justice and not to allow material civilization to exceed the bounds of moderation:

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, … – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 342-343.

Since Baha’u’llah wrote these words, humanity has clearly overleapt “the bounds of moderation in civilization” in many ways—and now our material civilization is bringing “great evil upon men.” Justice demands that we live with more moderation.

The problem: most of us living in developed countries are embedded in a culture of materialism and consumerism. We have lost the sense of what a moderate life-style should entail, and we, to a large part unknowingly, contribute to the misery of others and ourselves by participating in what we consider to be the “normal” life of our society. That must change, and it can if we wake up and start promoting climate justice. 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 our family and community.
  • Support meaningful climate action in your community or country.

The Wilmette Institute will offer an 8-week online course on Climate Change starting 15 April. The course provides a basic scientific understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change, discusses its ethical challenges, and relates them to the spiritual teachings of the world’s religions, particularly the Baha’i Faith. Scholarships are available to those who need them. Everyone is welcome to join.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

7 Comments

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  • Hilton McConnell
    Mar 31, 2017
    we need changes, we are not allowed to raise deer which in witch we could keep the forests. In stead we have to cut them down and raise life stock that is not natural to our forests. If the goverment would let us work with nature and raise animals that natural to our area, we could eat meat with out destroying the forests. There are places in Canada where the deer have got so bad that they bring sharp shooters in to cull them in stead of letting people have them for food. Until we work with nature and ...raise what is natrual to the area we live in, land will be cut and turned into pastures. Many people would love to eat deer or moose rather than beef, but the goverment will not allow this . if I want to get moose I have to pay a guide $$$
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    • Christine Muller
      Mar 31, 2017
      I agree with you that climate change is a complex problem and needs to be addressed in all areas of human life. It is also an opportunity to restructure our society and to address the extreme disparity of wealth and poverty. Let's use the leather tanneries in Bangladesh as an example. If the manufacturing of the leather was done with best environmental regulations and safe and fair working conditions, the workers and their children would be healthier and the environment would not be polluted. In developed countries, people would have to pay more for the leather (and other products) and ...would not be able to consume that much anymore which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and benefit the climate.
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  • Melanie Black
    Mar 30, 2017
    Having read arguments for and against climate change bringing about environmental changes, I personally concluded that the majority of scientists are right on the subject, but it isn't a one size fits all conclusion. It is complex, like many problems, and will require complex answers from a great many people from many disciplines. I do know that we in the USA could learn to live much simpler lives, but this isn't going to happen overnight. Last evening on PBSNewshour I saw a horrific news story about leather tanners in Bangladesh. Despite that country's laws, leather tanneries operate close to major ...rivers, hire children, and expose its workers to toxic chemicals. Whole neighborhoods are affected. Much of the world uses this leather.
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  • Chris Cobb
    Mar 30, 2017
    The relationship between climate change/global warming and specific weather or climatic events like drought is often difficult to definitively prove. Otherwise there could be lawsuits. But when every flood, hurricane, drought, famine is blamed on climate change the accusation loses its currency.
    • Christine Muller
      Apr 01, 2017
      Chris, weather is extremely variable. It is not possible to say exactly to which extent global warming was responsible for a specific bad storm, flood, or drought. Global warming just makes the likelihood for more severe weather events greater. For example, most of the warming (about 90%) has gone into the ocean. So if there is a storm, it picks up the heat energy from the warm water and therefore becomes much stronger.
  • Charles Boyle
    Mar 30, 2017
    What we see is the decay of a priviledge of license to exploit our natural resources and bring them to market, into a presumed right to do so irrespective of consequence. We have foregone the safeguards and mechanisms necessary to protect our common interests either through oversight, or the deliberate dismantling in the specious interests of economic growth and employment.
    But simple observations are one thing; what then are we to DO?
  • Mar 30, 2017
    The poor will always suffer more, because the rich can buy their way out of any problem. In the long run, if we don't change business as usual, our unsustainable society will collapse and the rich will suffer also. I have worked for several companies that went under because all decisions were made to maximize short term profits. We need to get away from that custom - individuals, businesses, and government.