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In 2015, something completely new happened: all the nations of the Earth came together to sign a treaty designed to protect the environmental commons.
What does that mean? Well, the “commons,” as the international community of nations defines them, are the natural, cultural and environmental resources available to everyone. The commons comprise the seas, the air, the water, the soils, the plant and animal life, our intellectual and cultural heritage, and ultimately this one habitable planet that no one can own—but that all of us share.
The term comes from ancient Rome, where res communis referred to things everyone owned and could enjoy. The related word commonwealth—a federation of states or nations—implies the same shared ownership.
The Paris Climate Accords, signed by the world’s countries in 2015, represent the first global attempt to guard and protect our planet’s commons.
This historic agreement—which has never before occurred in the history of the world—marked not only a unique achievement but a remarkable paradigm shift in our planetary consciousness. We recognized, unanimously, that the commons of our Earth belonged to all, and that they benefit all. We recognized, even further, the essential unity of the planet. As the Baha’i teachings say:
… let us try with heart and soul that unity may dwell in the world, that all the peoples may become one people, and that the whole surface of the earth may be like one country — for the Sun of Truth shines on all alike.
The Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected global governing body of the Baha’i Faith, acknowledged the enormous significance of this unprecedented worldwide environmental treaty in their November 2017 letter on climate change:
A phenomenon as complex as climate change cannot be reduced to simple propositions or simplistic policy prescriptions. Even when there is agreement on some underlying facts, there may be a diversity of views about what to do in response to those facts, and the problem is compounded when uncertainty exists or when basic facts are contested for partisan reasons. But while there may indeed be a localized and highly charged political component to the public discussion, more remarkable is the fact that at a time when nations have difficulty reaching agreement on many important issues, the governments of nearly every country on earth have reached political consensus on a joint framework, in the Paris accord, to respond to climate change in a manner that is anticipated to evolve over time as experience accumulates.
More than a century ago, Abdu’l-Baha referred to “unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed.” The recently adopted international agreement on climate change, irrespective of any shortcomings and limitations it may have, offers another noteworthy demonstration of that development anticipated by Abdu’l-Baha.
The agreement represents a starting point for constructive thought and action that can be refined or revised on the basis of experience and new findings over time. While as a fundamental principle Baha’is do not engage in partisan political affairs, this should not be interpreted in a manner that prevents the [Baha’is] from full and active participation in the search for solutions to the pressing problems facing humanity.
Given that the question of climate change gives rise to social, economic, and environmental concerns across the world, interested Baha’is and Baha’i institutions and agencies have naturally addressed it, whether at local, regional, national, or international levels. However, this does not mean that conclusions about scientific findings on climate change associated with such initiatives should be construed or presented as matters of religious conviction or obligation. Different Baha’is will, given their range of backgrounds, understand ideas about science and climate change in different ways and feel impelled to act differently, and there is no obligation for them to have uniformity of thought in such matters. – The Universal House of Justice, 29 November 2017, to a group of individual Baha’is.
This flexible, open approach to the subject doesn’t require any Baha’i to adopt a “party line” on the subject of climate change. It does, however, ask everyone to deeply consider how to “achieve unity of thought and action:”
Whenever Baha’is do participate in activities associated with this topic in the wider society, they can help to contribute to a constructive process by elevating the discourse above partisan concerns and self-interest to strive to achieve unity of thought and action. A range of Baha’i concepts can inform these efforts; the letter of the House of Justice dated 1 March 2017, for example, addresses moral questions of consumption and excessive materialism that are associated with the exploitation and degradation of the environment. At the start, there are no doubt many uncontroversial areas of overlap where the effort to address the question of anthropogenic climate change corresponds with widely accepted approaches to improving the environment. Areas for collaboration with others could broaden as experience and learning unfolds. – Ibid.
Ultimately, as the Universal House of Justice points out, climate change is inextricably linked to “questions of consumption and excessive materialism.” How we use the Earth’s resources determines whether the planet can sustain our consumption in the long term. Here, the House of Justice makes a simple, easily implementable suggestion: we can all, regardless of our views on climate change, begin to address the issue by taking action to improve the natural environment.