Climate change and religion in flooded Bangkok

Saleemul Huq's picture
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20 October 2011

I have been attending a meeting of around forty Archbishops and Bishops from all over Asia for several days now at Assumption University on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand surrounded by flood waters approaching the country’s low-lying capital city.

It has been quite a surreal experience discussing and listening to theological arguments of the Bishops and scientific presentations from eminent international scientists on climate change, while at the same time wondering whether we’ll have to evacuate the building due to flooding! The real impact of climate change linked to more spiritual issues of my own personal moral responsibility have never been so closely aligned for me before.

I was asked to speak to the Bishops about climate change science and policy and told them that in my view the story of climate change, and how we respond to it, has evolved through three "eras" over the past few decades. Each era involved different sets of actors who framed the problems and solutions to climate change in a different way.

First era

This started in the early nineties with the publication of the first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which led to the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. Climate change was framed as an "environmental" problem of green house gas emissions; the solution identified was to reduce these emissions through mitigation. This framing lasted through the second assessment report of the IPCC in 1995 and the subsequent agreement of the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC in 1997, which was all about mitigation targets.

Second era

This started with the publication of the IPCC's third assessment report in 2001 where they said that the efforts to avoid climate change through mitigation had been too little too late and that a certain amount of climate change was now inevitable and unavoidable over the next 10 to 20 years (due to the long lags in the atmospheric system). The  only response identified was to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The third IPCC assessment report also made the point that the near-term adverse impacts of climate change would fall first and foremost on poor developing countries and communities.

In this second era climate change became a "development" problem (in addition to also remaining an environmental one) and actors engaged in development and poverty alleviation became engaged in adapting to climate change.

Third era

This can be traced to the IPCC's fourth assessment report in 2007 and the Copenhagen  climate summit in 2009, when it became a "justice" (or strictly speaking an "injustice") problem. This is because climate change is caused mainly due to the emissions of the rich (countries and people) while the adverse impacts will be (and are already being) felt by the poor (countries and people).

This new era brings many new actors on board – including the representatives of major religions –  as it is an issue of morality and ethics, and no longer just of environment or development alone.

My subsequent discussions with the clergy and other eminent international scientists, such as professor Ottmar Edenhoffer from the Potsdam Institute for Climate and Professor Ernst Weizsaeker from Germany and Dr Martin Khor from the South Centre in Geneva revolved around the moral responsibility of each and every one of us towards our fellow human beings and our environment.

The meeting  ended with a strong declaration from the Bishops and filled me with inspiration that with committed individuals like these there is still hope for mankind.

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