Climate Change as a Moral Call to Social Transformation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Climate change is the greatest and most urgent crisis humanity has ever faced. The climate crisis is more than a simple policy issue that can be solved by developing new technologies. It confronts us as nothing less than a challenge to the value system that underlies the global economy. The climate crisis entails two specific moral obligations: one is to act swiftly to avert the unprecedented disasters that have been striking with increasing frequency. The other is to overcome the deep underlying structural roots of climate change, a project that will require the emergence of new social systems and a new paradigm of the good life. This paradigm must be guided by codes of universal moral values that can easily be found in the ethical teachings of Buddhism. These, above all, are wisdom, compassion, generosity, and contentment.

The first step in dealing with climate change is a commitment to truth–what has been called “climate truth.” This we may see as an aspect of wisdom. In Buddhism we define wisdom as “seeing things as they really are,” without distortions and illusions. The task of wisdom is to penetrate the darkness of delusion that conceals “things as they are.” Scientists already began to understand the principles responsible for climate change as far back as the 1950s, and even the major petroleum corporations sponsored scientists to investigate the results of burning

fossil fuels as far back as the 1970s. They learned that burning oil, gas, and coal would have a dangerous impact on the climate; but rather than change their business practices and turn to developing other sources of energy, they launched a coordinated campaign to deceive the public about climate change. This was a serious case of putting profits above the demands of moral responsibility. As a result, proposals to Congress to cut carbon emissions have been rejected or diluted, while esteemed scientists are ignored, slandered, or ridiculed. Public relations strategists foster confusion among the general public to prevent people from recognizing the dangers in the continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Since it is falsehood and deception that allows the fossil fuel corporations and their allies to continue with business as usual, confronting the climate crisis must begin with an act of truth, by affirming the clear scientific consensus that climate change is real and stems from human activity. The physical laws involved are simple, and at the base is the burning of fossil fuels to run our industrial growth economy.

What makes climate change particularly difficult to deal with is the slow way increasing carbon emissions alter the climate. Occasionally climate change strikes with erratic weather events that cause terrible damage, such as heat waves, heavy floods, and wild fires; but too often we regard these destructive events as just results of natural variations in the weather. We try to justify to ourselves our unwillingness to act, rather than see such things as signs that the climate is being fundamentally altered by human activity.

But wisdom requires that we see the climate crisis as an overwhelming existential threat, one that puts the very existence of human civilization, as we know it, in danger. If we do not take effective action, the consequences could be catastrophic. Today we are already seeing some of the impacts of a changing climate in the form of more violent hurricanes, longer heat waves, more intense floods, and raging wild fires. But this is just the beginning of what is to follow, and if we continue with business as usual, or with merely symbolic steps, the future for humanity looks bleak. The effects of climate disruption do not simply develop in a linear way, rising

gradually over time. Rather, they reinforce each other and increase suddenly, as tipping points are passed and feedback loops begin to operate.

As a moral issue, climate change pertains directly to the call for social justice. Our decisions regarding energy production don’t affect everyone alike but have the most severe impacts on people that those in privileged positions regard as “marginal.” Here in the United States climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor, particularly on communities of color. In the Northern Plains, in Canada and Alaska and inside the Arctic Circle, it is indigenous peoples who are witnessing their traditional homelands being desecrated by the search for new reserves of oil, minerals, and natural gas.

While it is the West that has been responsible for the greatest cumulative amount of carbon emissions, the strongest impacts of rising emissions are affecting those with the smallest carbon footprint: the people of Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. In these regions people are already facing devastating floods, infernal heat waves, food shortages, dwindling water supplies, and even the loss of their homelands. These trends are bound to accelerate as the climate alters still more and renders whole regions uninhabitable. This will set off vast waves of migration to Europe and other lands, increasing regional tensions and sparking conflict and even warfare—as we already see signs of in Syria and Sudan.

We also need to view our situation from a temporal perspective, looking beyond the present and considering how our choices will affect future generations. The decisions we make today have consequences for tomorrow, and next year, and the next decade. Indeed, their effects will ripple down the future for centuries to come. The changes we are initiating run the constant risk of reaching the point of irreversibility, sealing the fate of later generations.

The choices we make in dealing with climate change—whether at the regional, national, or global levels—are inescapably ethical in a still wider way than that connected to climate justice in the narrow sense. The impact of our choices extend beyond any particular ethnic groups or geographical regions and determine nothing less than whether human civilization itself will thrive or collapse. These choices extend even beyond the human. They govern the fate of all terrestrial life forms, determining whether ancient species will vanish from the face of the earth and even whether the delicate, interdependent web of life will be so fatally damaged that

whole biosystems will collapse. Already thousands of species are becoming extinct; half the species of birds in North America are in danger of extinction. Human beings have become a threat to all forms of life! In making our choices, therefore, we have to take into account their impact not only on ourselves and our own communities but on all who share the planet with us, both human and nonhuman.

In regard to energy policy, we face two primary moral obligations, which at first blush appear to pull in contrary directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty who struggle each day to obtain adequate food, housing, health care, and other basic provisions. The other is to preserve the sustaining power of the planet, so that our use of its resources won’t disrupt its capacity for self-regeneration. We must address both fronts of the moral struggle: on the one hand, to adopt new modes of energy production that will help us avoid runaway climate change; on the other, to transform our economic system to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, the conditions for a shared prosperity.

A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy has the potential to meet both moral demands, combining social justice with ecological sustainability.

At present, the cost of electricity derived from wind and solar power has dropped significantly.

Onshore wind energy is now cost-competitive, even cheaper, than coal, and within a few years the cost of solar is bound to decline at similar rates.

To facilitate the transition to a clean energy economy, we must make changes not only in our economic policies but in the ethical ideas that guide our decisions and actions. To implement these changes, we will have to envision new models of social and economic organization. The present model of corporate capitalism—with its narrow focus on economic growth, ever-expanding profits, and concentrated political power—is largely responsible for the climate crisis. To avoid disaster, we’ll eventually have to replace this model and the values that lie behind it with a new model of the good life that gives priority to other things besides monetary profit and economic dominance.

In place of the worldview of corporate capitalism, we need a paradigm that cherishes the rich diversity of life forms and esteems the splendor of the natural world. Such a paradigm would stop the distressing tide of species extinctions and safeguard animals from the brutal treatment to which they are so often subjected. It would enable us to recover a sense of awe for the beauty of the earth and reverence for the inconceivable majesty of the cosmos. And most challenging, it would affirm the inviolable dignity of the human person and thus reject the vicious mindset that reduces people to means for generating wealth.

Meeting this challenge requires new ways of thinking about how the economy should work. It entails replacing an economy based on the ideal of infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, with a “steady-state economy” governed by the principle of sufficiency. The principle of sufficiency recognizes the limits of material affluence to bring fulfillment. It realizes, of course, that certain standards of material prosperity are essential to well-being, and that people cannot thrive if they lack adequate housing, nutritious food, clean air, and medical care. But once a satisfactory material standard of living is reached, to find deeper satisfaction we must give priority to other things beyond the material: to meaningful personal relationships, service to others, aesthetic and intellectual pursuits, and spiritual

cultivation. These, and not mere quantitative wealth, are the measure of the good life.

Making the transition to a steady-state economy requires not merely outward change in institutions but also changes in the functioning of our minds. At present our minds habitually move along the tracks of greed, hatred, and ignorance, which spread outward and shape our social systems and policies. Greed propels economies to consume vast amounts of fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, filling the earth with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and violence but also the indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods. Ignorance is the denial of reality, the refusal to recognize the

truth. To create a truly sustainable world, the principles and policies we adopt must be guided by a clear recognition of hard truths, which can inspire a magnanimous spirit of generosity and compassion, a willingness to put the interests of all humanity and all sentient beings above the narrow claims of selfish craving.

As Buddhists, we should see the effort to create a sustainable world as part of the practice of our four great vows:

Sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to rescue them.

Defilements are inexhaustible, I vow to abandon them.

Dharma doors are measureless, I vow to study them.

The Buddha Way is supreme, I vow to accomplish it.


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