Taking notes 49: Climate change: a moral call to social transformation


by Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

The realization that human activity is altering the earth’s climate assigns to human beings the gravest moral responsibility we have ever faced. It puts the destiny of the planet squarely in our own hands just at a time when we are inflicting near-lethal wounds on the surface of the earth. As an ethical issue, however, climate change should not be seen in isolation. To understand its ethical dimensions adequately, it is necessary to recognize the intimate links between climate change and a host of other issues—environmental, social, political, and economic—that initially may appear to have little to do with the disruptions affecting the earth’s geophysical processes.

The fact is that today we are facing not merely a climate crisis but a single multidimensional crisis whose diverse facets intersect and reinforce each other clear across the board. At its root, in all its dimensions, this crisis is moral and spiritual. It stems from distortions in our most fundamental perceptions and values, distortions that infiltrate our social systems and thereby drive predatory political, social, and economic policies. It is therefore partly a distortion to speak of climate change as a moral issue in any way that suggests moral decisions can be made that will remedy the climate crisis without requiring transformations all the way down the line. What we face is actually a systemic crisis with moral and spiritual dimensions, of which the climate crisis is just one particularly ominous manifestation.

Because the climate crisis has human origins, this lays on us a heavy burden, but it also should give us a glimpse of hope; for just as we have now acquired the capacity for self-obliteration, we also have the potential to change direction and reshape our collective destiny. Change, however, doesn’t come cheaply. Before we can repair the damage we’ve been inflicting on our planet—and on ourselves—we first have to recognize the pathologies inherent in the dominant social systems and the values and attitudes that underlie them. This calls for serious moral reflection as much as it does for the strength to alter the reigning paradigms whose inevitability we tend to take for granted.

clim_ File photo-AP

[Credit: File photo: AP.]

The climate crisis has a moral dimension because it stems from choices we make that pit the right against the expedient, the good against the profitable; it presents us with occasions where our own immediate benefit clashes with the need to safeguard the greater good of everyone, including ourselves. What makes climate change particularly daunting as a moral issue is the slow and incremental way escalating greenhouse gas emissions alter the climate. In contrast to such issues as gun control, human rights, wage increases, and voter suppression, climate change does not appear immediately on the horizon of direct perception. For the most part, it occurs beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. It wiggles its way into charts, tables, measurements, and computer models, manifesting in gradual changes in precipitation patterns, in smaller glacier masses, diminishing harvests, and slightly higher temperatures. Occasionally it strikes with bizarre weather events that cause terrible damage, but for those not directly affected, these can be shrugged off as just proof of the whims of the weather.

As a moral issue in the narrow sense, climate change pertains directly to the call for social justice. Our decisions regarding energy production, agricultural models, and investments don’t affect everyone alike but have crucial consequences for people considered marginal by those who sit in the halls of power. These decisions are not trivial. They determine whether these people and their loved ones will live or die, whether their communities will flourish or perish, whether they will retain their lands and homes or be cast into homelessness, facing an uncertain future.

While there have been droughts in California, heat waves in Europe, and violent hurricanes in New Orleans and New York, these have been less frequent and less persistent than the changes occurring in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America, where 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 further and renders large swaths of land uninhabitable.

Here in the United States as well climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor, particularly on communities of color. The damage already begins at the source. It is people of color who tend to live near coal-powered power plants, where they are exposed to toxic emissions. Again, it is people of color who live closest to oil refineries, and thus run the most risk of contracting disabling and even lethal illnesses from the pollutants discharged into the air they breathe and the water they drink. It is poor people who are most likely to live alongside the tracks where “train bombs” transport tar sands oils over long distances from their points of extraction to the refineries. And it is the indigenous peoples of Canada and the Arctic Circle who are witnessing their traditional homelands being pillaged and desecrated by the frenzied search for new reserves of oil, minerals, and natural gas.

clim_Credit-Karlis Dovnorovics

[Credit: Karlis Dovnorovics.]

Climate Change and Global Capitalism

The justice aspect of climate change is accentuated by the fact that historically climate change is intimately connected with the global capitalist system, a product of the West which now primarily benefits the economic elites of the North both in Asia and the West. The system operates on a premise that is bewildering to more traditional peoples, namely, that the economy takes precedence over every other domain of human activity. To comply with this premise, social relations, culture, education, politics, healthcare, and even the natural world are subordinated to the imperative of economic growth, which is blindly pursued to increase the assets and power of those who own and control the means of production. The system is kept in motion by a restless dynamism, a commitment to incessant change and innovation geared to ever-expanding production and consumption. To keep the wheels of production turning, enormous amounts of energy are required, energy obtained primarily by burning fossil fuels.

To maintain high levels of profitability, the corporate powerhouses at the heart of the global economic system often have to distort and suppress the truth about the impact of their products on the well-being of the general public. This marks another deviation from the decrees of moral integrity. For decades the tobacco corporations concealed the truth about the link between smoking and cancer, which they knew about well in advance of public disclosures. Pharmaceutical corporations routinely hide data about the harmful side effects of certain drugs. Chemical corporations withhold facts about the way plastics, pesticides, and herbicides enter our foods and accumulate in our bodies. Similar strategies of denial and doubt are deployed to obscure the truth about climate change, often drawing testimony from the same “merchants of doubt” involved in other attempts at industry-supported deception. Thus proposals to Congress to cut carbon emissions are rejected or diluted, while esteemed scientists are ignored, slandered, or ridiculed by charlatans. Public relations strategists foster confusion in a clueless citizenry to prevent a public outcry against the devastation of the earth’s vital support systems. Sadly, the people who fall for the deception fail to see that they themselves are the ultimate victims.

Since it is the cloak of untruth 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 ripping away the cloak of deception and affirming the clear scientific consensus that climate change is real and stems from human activity. The physical laws involved are simple, their efficacy invariable, and at the base is the burning of fossil fuels to run our industrial growth economy. To act responsibly, we must respect the boundaries set by the physical laws. It is perilous to disregard these laws in favor of wishful thinking.

clim_The Guardian

[Credit: The Guardian.]

The Broader Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change

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, dictating 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. 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.

We also need to view our situation from a temporal perspective, looking beyond the narrow confines of 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 generations that can provide no input into our decisions but must reckon with their outcome.


[Credit: ecoaffect.org.]

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 simultaneously 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. The objection is sometimes raised, however, that renewable energy is costly, while coal and natural gas are cheap and abundant. This objection is disingenuous. When what is at stake is the future of human life on earth, the only choice that’s too costly is inaction. Funding should not be an issue, for if we truly care for our long-term future we could easily shift the subsidies going to fossil fuels and the expenditures on new weapons systems to the expansion of clean energy enterprises.

clim_Glen Lowry

[Credit: Glen Lowry.]

The Need for a Paradigm Shift

What obstructs the transition is not shortages of funding but the powerful pressures exerted by the fossil fuel corporations and other major industries closely linked with the use of hydrocarbon energy. To resist these pressures therefore calls for moral strength and political determination. That is why to facilitate the transition to a clean energy economy, we must make changes not only in our policy preferences but in the ethical perceptions that guide our decisions and plans of action. To implement these changes with the degree of thoroughness required, we will have to nurture the emergence of 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 beset with too many pathologies to contribute to a sustainable economy. To avert calamity, we’ll eventually have to replace this model and the values that lie behind it with a new paradigm of the good life that prioritizes other things besides financial rewards and technological innovation.

In place of the worldview of corporate capitalism, which reduces every sphere of human activity to utilitarian value, we need a paradigm that affirms the intrinsic value of people and the natural world. Such a paradigm would help us appreciate the diversity of life forms, 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 repudiate the vicious utilitarian mindset that reduces people to means for generating wealth, to be employed when they are fit and then disposed of when they no longer serve that end.


Meeting this challenge requires re-envisioning the way the economy should work. It entails replacing an economy premised on 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 acknowledges, 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 realization. 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, in our mental dispositions and motivations. At present our minds habitually move along the tracks of greed, hatred, and ignorance, which spread out from their inward origins and shape our systems, institutions, and policies. Greed propels economies to voraciously consume fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods without batting an eye. Ignorance is the denial of reality, the propensity to favor ideas that reinforce our predilections, even when palpably false, among them the lies churned out by fossil-fuel publicists to block remedial action. To create a truly sustainable world, the principles and policies we adopt must instead 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 the whole above the claims of narrow and divisive self-interest.


[Credit: kalw.org.]

Effective Action is Urgent

Nevertheless, while in the long-run protecting the natural environment ultimately depends on a fundamental shift in values, to avert the worst and most imminent types of climate disruption we cannot postpone transformative action until a radical shift of consciousness takes place. Rather, we must start by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions. As the world’s attention turns to the Conference of the Parties that will meet in Paris this December, we must demonstrate global unity in the call for action. In a collective endeavor, we have to push the participating countries and their negotiators in the direction they must take if a congenial climate is to be preserved. This time around, the conference must culminate in an accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. Beyond a strong accord, with a compelling sense of urgency, we’ll also need to turn the global economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels to the employment of clean sources of energy.

If we continue on our current track, or adopt merely token reductions in emissions, the consequences will be catastrophic. Because the process of climate change is slow and gradual, the worst consequences of inaction can take decades to become manifest. For this reason, it’s easy for policy makers to succumb to the temptation to maintain the status quo, or to implement symbolic cuts that don’t involve real self-sacrifice. But real sacrifice is called for, to avoid more painful sacrifices down the road. If we don’t act with utmost urgency, the biosphere itself will inevitably hit irreversible tipping points that will exhaust the earth’s capacity for self-regeneration.


Shifting to clean and renewable energy can begin to reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy built upon more humane values than profit and power. Policy changes, however, should be only the beginning of a long process of renewal that, at a more fundamental level, needs to be inspired by fresh visions of the purpose of human life on earth. While we must ensure that all enjoy a satisfactory standard of living, we must also restore other values to a primary role. This means fostering human community, overcoming divisions based on nationality, ethnicity, and religion, and finding a deeper sense of purpose in our lives than the mere production of a never-ending stream of electronic gadgets.

At this point in time we stand facing two alternatives about our common future that lead in opposite directions. One leads deeper into a culture of death, toward increasing devastation and eventual social collapse; the other leads to a revitalization of our humanity, to the emergence of a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent. The resources for making the necessary transition are at our disposal. What is missing is collective insight and unified will.


[Thank you indeed Bhikkhu Bodhi for this essay.]

The writer is an American Buddhist monk, translator of Pali Buddhist texts, and president of the Buddhist Association of the United States. He is the founder of Buddhist Global Relief and a spiritual ambassador for OurVoices, an organization dedicated to bringing faith traditions to climate advocacy.

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