Redefining the challenge of climate change

[Editor's note: The following Perspective editorial is adapted from a working paper of the Bahá'í International Community titled, "Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change," which was presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held 1-12 December 2008 in Poznan, Poland. The full paper can be read at]

Decades of research, advocacy and policy-making have provided a strong scientific basis for action on climate change, have raised public awareness, and have provided norms and principles to guide decision-making. Building on this foundation, the governments of the world have embarked on a major negotiating effort aimed at charting the course of cooperative action on climate change. The negotiations focus on a shared vision for long-term cooperative action as well as a long-term global goal for emission reductions, which is to be met through mitigation of climate change, adaptation to its impacts and the mobilization of technological and financial resources.

Yet, in the face of the destructive impacts of climate change - exacerbated by the extremes of wealth and poverty - a need for new approaches centered on the principles of justice and equity is apparent. The challenge before the world community is not only a technical one but a moral one, which calls for the transformation of thoughts and behaviors so as to allow our economic and social structures to extend the benefits of development to all people.

We assert that the principle of the oneness of humankind must become the ruling principle of international life. This principle does not seek to undermine national autonomy or suppress cultural or intellectual diversity. Rather, it makes it possible to view the climate change challenge through a new lens - one that perceives humanity as a unified whole, not unlike the cells of the human body, infinitely differentiated in form and function yet united in a common purpose which exceeds that of its component parts. This principle constitutes more than a call for cooperation; it seeks to remold anachronistic and unjust patterns of human interaction in a manner that reflects the relationships that bind us as members of one human race.

A response to climate change will require profound changes at the level of the individual, the community, and the nations of the world. To complement the processes of change already underway, we consider the concrete ways in which the principle of the oneness of humanity could be operationalized at these levels in facing the challenges of climate change.

The Individual Level: Engaging children and youth. A fundamental component of resolving the climate change challenge will be the cultivation of values, attitudes and skills that give rise to just and sustainable patterns of human interaction with the environment. The engagement of children and youth will be particularly important as this population will be called upon to exercise leadership and address the dramatic and complex challenges of climate change in the decades to come. It is at a young age that new mindsets and habits can be most effectively cultivated.

In practical terms, this means that girls and boys must be afforded access to the same curricula, with priority given to the girl child who will one day assume the role of educating future generations. The curriculum itself must seek to develop in children the capacity to think in terms of systems, processes and relationships rather than in terms of isolated disciplines. Students must also be given the concrete skills to translate their awareness into action. This can be accomplished, in part, through incorporating an element of public service into curricula, thereby helping students to develop the ability to initiate projects, to inspire action, to engage in collective decision-making, and to cultivate their sense of dignity and self-worth.

The Community Level: Advancing gender equality and engaging religious communities. On the community rests the challenge of providing the setting in which decision-making can occur peacefully and individual capabilities can be channeled through collective action. One of the most pervasive social challenges besetting communities around the world is the marginalization of girls and women - a condition further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Around the world, women are largely responsible for securing food, water, and energy for cooking and heating. Scarcity of resources arising from climate change intensifies the woman's burden and leaves less time to earn an income, attend school or care for the family. Moreover, natural disasters exact a heavier toll on women given their lack of access to information and resources, and, in some cases, their inability to swim, drive or even leave the house alone. It would be a mistake, however, to cast women as the victims or simply as under-resourced members of society; they represent perhaps the greatest source of untapped potential in the global effort to overcome the challenges of climate change. Their responsibilities in families, in communities, as farmers, and as stewards of natural resources make them uniquely positioned to develop strategies for adapting to changing environmental conditions. Women's distinct knowledge and needs complement those of men, and must be duly considered in all arenas of community decision-making. In light of this reality, the United Nations must give more attention to the gender dimensions of climate change.

As well, religious communities and their leaders bear an inescapable and weighty role in the climate change arena, especially given their tremendous capacity to mobilize public opinion and their extensive reach in the most remote communities around the world. By many measures, increasing numbers of religious communities are consistently lending their voice and resources to efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change - they are educating their constituencies, providing a scriptural basis for ethical action, and leading or participating in efforts at the national and international levels. This role, however, must now unfold in the context of an emerging conversation - a rapprochement - between the discourses of science and religion. The time has come for the entrenched dichotomy between these two systems of knowledge to be earnestly re-examined. Both are needed to mobilize and direct human energies to the resolution of the problem at hand: methods of science facilitate a more objective and systematic approach to problem solving while religion concerns itself with those moral inclinations that motivate action for the common good.

The National and International Levels: Building foundations for cooperative action. At a basic level, governments bear the responsibility of adhering to stated commitments and abiding by the rule of law. This level of commitment is essential for the cultivation of trust and relationship-building among nations, particularly as governments embark on the negotiation of a new global climate change agreement.

While it is acknowledged that any effective climate change policy needs to be rooted in a global perspective, even this enlargement of the sphere of responsibility has not sufficiently moved governments to act. This perspective must now evolve to reflect the essential connectedness and common fate of a humanity that for too long has struggled against a worldview that emphasized sovereignty, ascendancy, and competition. Efforts to reconceptualize sovereignty, from an absolute right to a responsibility, signal that a shift in consciousness towards greater degrees of global solidarity is already underway. The solution to climate change exceeds the capacities and resources of any one nation and requires the full cooperation of all nations, each according to their means.

Governments now need to forge an agreement commensurate with the problem at hand and one that meets the needs of societies most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The agreement needs to put in place the requisite institutional frameworks as well as establish international mechanisms capable of mobilizing financial resources and accelerating innovation needed to transition to a low carbon society. The more economically developed nations need to display leadership consistent with their historic responsibility and economic capacity and commit to significant emission reductions. Developing nations, in a manner consistent with their capacities and development aspirations, must contribute through efforts to transition to cleaner development pathways. This is the time for leaders from all spheres of human endeavor to exercise their influence to identify solutions, which makes it possible for mankind to address this challenge and, in so doing, chart a sustainable course to global prosperity.