Climate Change as a Moral Call to Social Transformation
The impending climate crisis is more than a simple policy conundrum or an incentive to develop new technologies. It confronts us as nothing less than a challenge to the ethics and value system that underlies the global economy. In the article below, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi delineates two specific moral obligations entailed in the climate crisis: one is to act swiftly to avert the unprecedented disasters that are bound to strike if climate change spirals out of control. The other is to overcome the deep underlying causes of climate change, a project that will require the emergence of new social systems and a new paradigm of the good life.
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 its surface and seas and instigating what has been called “the sixth great extinction.” As an ethical issue, however, climate change cannot be viewed in isolation. To understand its ethical aspects adequately, it is necessary to recognize the close links between climate change and a host of other factors that initially may appear to have little to do with the disruptions affecting the earth’s geophysical processes. Today we face not merely a climate emergency but a single multidimensional crisis whose diverse facets — environmental, social, political, and economic — intersect and reinforce each other with dizzying complexity.
The crisis has many manifestations. It can be seen in our commitment to interminable wars conducted with ruthless weaponry; in the rise of the all-seeing surveillance state; in the widening gulf between the super-rich economic elite and everyone else; in the brokenness of our political system, its subservience to the corporate oligarchs; and in the global hegemony of corporate capitalism as the primary determinant of global policy. In all these ramifications, however, the crisis we face is inescapably moral. 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. What we face, therefore, is actually a systemic crisis with moral and spiritual dimensions, of which the climate crisis is just one particularly ominous manifestation.
What underlies this multifaceted, interwoven, mutually reinforcing crisis in all its dimensions, even those that seem far-removed from climate issues, is a sweeping inversion of values that elevates the pursuit of financial wealth to a position of dominion over virtually all areas of human activity. This inversion allows purely monetary value to prey upon authentic, life-enriching value. It turns every other sphere of concern, social and natural, into a source of raw materials to be exploited to increase economic gain. As a result, we are undermining the stable natural order on which human civilization depends.
For practical purposes, the spheres of authentic value can be considered threefold: the inanimate natural world, the sphere of animate nonhuman beings, and the human world. These three constitute a pyramidal structure wherein each more refined and complex sphere depends on the more basic ones, but not conversely. Thus the well-being of animate creatures depends on a vibrant natural world, and human beings on the delicate web of nonhuman life forms. However, despite the fragility of these relationships, we have recklessly set about to conquer, colonize, and master each sphere of genuine value merely to extract the financial wealth it is capable of yielding. By making ever-rising levels of growth and ever-expanding profits the aim of the world economy, we are straining the earth’s regenerative capacity to its limits. By treating monetary wealth as the overriding objective of our economic undertakings, we are nullifying the prospects for genuine affluence.
While climate change is just one manifestation of the underlying inversion in values, this particular issue has become, in a sense, the window through which we can see most clearly the distortions at the core of the dominant system. It reveals to us just how senseless it is to elevate symbolic wealth—mere mathematical figures represented by configurations of electrons—above the treasures of a bountiful planet and the shared well-being of the human community as a whole. Looking through this window may set off moods of despair, but it should also show us that we have a choice, that we have the capacity to recognize our folly and reshape our collective destiny. Change, however, doesn’t come easily. Before we can repair the damage we’ve been inflicting on our planet—and on ourselves—we first have to discern the pathologies of the dominant social systems and the values and attitudes that guide them.
The Moral Dimension
The climate crisis acquires 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 pace at which escalating greenhouse gas emissions alter the climate. Unlike gun violence, human rights violations, police brutality, and voter suppression, climate change does not appear clear and distinct on the horizon of direct perception. Rather, it hides beneath the surface. It wiggles its way into charts, tables, metrics, and computer models. It shows up in gradual changes in precipitation patterns, smaller glacier masses, diminishing harvests, and slightly higher temperatures. Occasionally it strikes with force as storms and droughts and heat waves—but for those not directly affected, these can be shrugged off as just the whims of the weather.
As a moral issue in the narrow sense, climate change is closely interwoven with transgressions against the norms of social justice. Decisions regarding energy production, agricultural models, and waste disposal don’t affect everyone alike but have their most immediate consequences for those the power elite considers marginal. 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, perhaps forced to migrate to foreign lands.
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 climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor, particularly communities of color. The damage already begins at the source. It is people of color who tend to live near coal-fired power plants, where they are exposed to toxic emissions. Again, it is people of color who live closest to oil refineries, and thus unduly contract 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.
Climate Change and Global Capitalism
The implications of climate change for social justice are accentuated by the fact that the forces driving climate change are rooted in the global capitalist system. The system operates on a radical premise: namely, that the economy takes precedence over every other domain of human activity. To comply with this premise, education, politics, healthcare, labor relations, and even the natural world are subordinated to the imperative of economic growth, pursued to increase the assets and power of those who control the means of production. The system is sustained by a commitment to incessant change and innovation geared to ever-expanding production and consumption. For the wheels of production to be kept turning, enormous amounts of energy are required, energy obtained primarily by burning fossil fuels.
To maintain high levels of profitability, those at the command centers of the global economic system often have to distort and suppress the truth about the impact their products have on the general public. Such deception was earlier employed by the tobacco industry and is still resorted to by chemical corporations, food conglomerates, and other enterprises whose products bring harm to ordinary citizens. The same devious methods are used by the fossil fuel corporations. Strategies of denial and doubt are deployed to obscure the truth about the climate impact of their products, often drawing testimony from the same “merchants of doubt” who contributed to earlier attempts at industry-supported fraud and deception.
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 lies and affirming the clear scientific consensus that climate change is real and stems from human activity. The physical laws involved are simple and their efficacy invariable. At the base is the burning of hydrocarbons 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.
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 way that transcends narrower conceptions of social justice, for their impact extends beyond particular ethnic groups and geographical regions, determining nothing less than whether human civilization itself will thrive or collapse. These choices spread even beyond the human. They govern the fate of all terrestrial life forms, dictating whether ancient species will vanish forever 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. We must look beyond the narrow confines of the present and consider 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 risk of reaching the point of irreversibility, sealing the fate of generations as yet unborn that can provide no input into our decisions but must reckon with their outcome.
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, healthcare, and other basic provisions. The other is to preserve the sustaining power of the planet, so that we don’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 ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources and lay down 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 that renewable energy is costly, while coal and natural gas are cheap and abundant. This objection, however, is disingenuous. The first reason it is misleading is because it misrepresents comparative costs. At present, the cost of electricity derived from wind and solar power has dropped significantly. Onshore wind energy is now cost-competitive; it has become even cheaper than coal, and within a few years the cost of solar is bound to drop at similar rates. A second reason is that the costs of energy derived from fossil fuels are usually calculated without factoring in the external costs—the costs they entail for people’s health and the natural environment, not to speak of their accelerating impact on climate change. When these costs are included, fossil fuels turn out to be extremely costly indeed.
But all arguments in defense of fossil fuels pale beside the overriding fact that no savings can compensate for the danger that their continued use poses to the future of human life on earth. If we truly care for our long-term future we could easily shift the subsidies going to fossil fuels to the expansion of clean energy enterprises. Higher taxes on gas, oil, and coal corporations would also increase the revenues available for the great transition.
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 thoroughness required, 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, expanding profits, and concentrated political power — is beset with too many flaws 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 more authentic goods than 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 every person and the inviolability of the natural world. Such a paradigm would help us appreciate the diversity of life forms, restore to us a sense of awe for the beauty of the earth, and inspire reverence for the inconceivable majesty of the cosmos. Most challenging, it would affirm the dignity of the human person and thus repudiate the pernicious utilitarian mindset that reduces people to the role of workers and consumers, to be exploited when they contribute to the creation of profit and then disposed of when they no longer serve that purpose.
Meeting this challenge requires re-envisioning the way the economy should work. It involves 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 personal and communal fulfillment. It holds, of course, that certain standards of material well-being must be secured, 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 material wealth, should be recognized as 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 motives and ideals. 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 the finite resources of the earth and fill its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to routinely consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and degrading poverty. Ignorance is the denial of reality, the propensity to adopt ideas that reinforce our biases, 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, truths that 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.
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. We have to push for a climate 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, we’ll also urgently need to turn the global economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels and toward 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 manifest. For this reason, it’s easy for policymakers 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 promptly, 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 elevate 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.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk, ordained in Sri Lanka in 1972. Well known as a translator of Pali Buddhist texts, he is president of the Buddhist Association of the United States, the founder of Buddhist Global Relief, and a spiritual ambassador for OurVoices, an organization dedicated to bringing faith traditions to climate advocacy.