Climate Ethics Session Report – Part II

See also Climate Ethics Session Report – Part I

Case Studies referenced below and other supplementary materials can be found with the Abstract

Carol Curtis’s PowerPoint on the Marshall Islands can be downloaded here as a PowerPoint (27.0 MB) or viewed below via Scribd.

The accompanying paper can be downloaded here.

(Submitted by Alissa Emmel)

[Note: Please also see Carol Curtis’s comments which follow this report.]

Over 60 people attended this session that Carol Curtis shared with Tahirih Naylor.  While Ms. Naylor considered the macro level, looking at the importance of including ethics in the discussion of climate change and the Bahá’í contribution to the climate change discourse, Ms. Curtis focused on the micro level, specifically the threat that climate change poses to the Marshall Islands. Curtis noted that perhaps our biggest challenge is that our spiritual, cultural and social customs will have to change. The Marshall Islands are atoll islands, and are extremely vulnerable.  Atolls are ring shaped islands that nearly or completely surround a lagoon. Therefore most of these islands are only slightly above sea level, so a slight increase in sea level dramatically affects the island.  Curtis showed pictures of the islands, of the beautiful white sandy beaches, of the indescribable sunsets, of the swinging palm trees, of the children laughing and playing ~ all whose very existence is threatened.  Her talk focused on the people, because of course what happens to these islands is much more than just about the land. These people will loose their culture, their language, their way of life. The question was raised, what would you do if you knew that in the next 20 years, your country, culture and way of life would disappear?

Lae Atoll has .56 miles of land that surrounds 6.8 miles of water. This is a photograph of one of the Marshall Islands.  All together there are 93 islands, which comprise a total of 6.33 square miles of land. Around 12,000 people live on these almost 80 square acres.  Yet the threat that climate change poses is not only from rising water levels, it is also from the rise in the temperature of the water. Atolls, and those who live on the atolls, can not exist without coral reefs. As the water temperature rises and the coral reefs die, so will the populations on these islands.  Curtis showed photographs demonstrating the erosion of some of the trees.  Life is pretty simple on the islands and is supported mostly by subsistence fishing. Planes and boats come every few weeks, but since their stops are irregular, the locals can’t count on outside resources.

Curtis noted that the United Nations and world leaders haven’t even begun to address the issues of environmental refugees.  Should the Geneva Convention regarding human rights be expanded, so that the definition of a refugee could include fleeing a country due to fears of starvation and drowning?  Would climate change, then, actually be considered a form of environmental persecution? (The Geneva Convention defines a refugee as someone outside the country of his nationality due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted and who is unable or unwilling, as a result of such fear, to return).

Curtis raised questions such as, “Can an entire nation of people be relocated?”  “Would they be relocated to a “reservation” similar to what happed with Native Americans in the United States and in Canada?”  “How would issues of ‘sovereignty’ be addressed?  These questions and issues are huge, and will eventually affect millions if not billions of people.  For her the first step is acceptance of the oneness of mankind. Once we realize that we are all one, then climate change becomes an important issue for everyone. To aid in our discussion, Curtis shared three quotes from messages from the Universal House of Justice and the Bahá’í International Community:

“Acceptance of the oneness of mankind is the first fundamental prerequisite for reorganization and administration of the world as one country, the home of humankind.”

“The ultimate function of economic systems should be to equip the peoples and institutions of the world with the means to achieve the real purpose of development: that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness.”

“At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is ‘the best beloved of all things’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbor or his group.”

It is then imperative that as Bahá’ís we are actively engaged in trying to better the world and that we take an active role in trying to combat the devastating effects of climate change.

Kiribati has over 100,000 Bahá’ís and has the highest percentage of Bahá’ís of any country.

After Carol Curtis’ presentation, the workshop participants broke into 6 groups to discuss some case studies. The case studies were from all over the world, Fiji, Bangladesh, the United States, Niger, Haiti, the Seychelles, etc.  Our instructions were to a) read the case study together b) identify the ethical issues embedded in the case studies, c) determine what an ethical responses might be and d) reflect upon what might be the responsibilities of the various individuals, groups or other entities involved.  Each group was then asked to report one or two key findings with a goal of learning how to approach ethical issues in climate change.

My group looked at an Inuit village of Kivalina Alaska. In 2008, this village filed a lawsuit against nine oil companies, fourteen power companies, and one coal company for damages related to climate change. They were suing for $40 million which was the estimated expense to relocate the village that was being threatened as a result of global warming.  Our group discussed not only who/what should be protected, who has the responsibility to protect and what rights should be considered, but we also discussed questions such as “Do you have the right to the same lifestyle given changes in the world?” “If we help victims of Tsunamis and victims of other ‘natural disasters’ which are beyond our control, do we have a greater obligation to act when we can blame some human act?” “Is it fair or just to put the full blame on companies which are just supplying an economic demand?” We talked about how we all have a responsibility, and those that have more (like corporations or those from wealthier countries) should give more, not as a punishment or in retribution, but because they can we must all take care of this planet.

We then reconvened and each group reported on one key discussion point. Below are the summaries from each group:

Fiji: This group determined that we are all responsible for climate change and therefore we all have a part to play to contribute to creating solutions.

Bangladesh:  This group spent a lot of time discussing who is most vulnerable, and then determined in the case they reviewed it was women and children.  They further felt that these populations were so vulnerable because of lifestyles and decisions made in our countries, and therefore we had a responsibility to places like Bangladesh.

Alaska: This group discussed how we all have a part to play, and how taking care of the Earth shouldn’t be seen as a punishment or retribution, but rather an obvious action, because the Earth does not belong to us, and we should act as loving and careful custodians.

Niger: This group agreed that the United States and other industrialized countries are responsible for most of the green house gases, not the people in Niger, so those countries responsible have an obligation to do something about it.

Haiti: This group determined that there are lots of people that are responsible; however we in the west have a special responsibility.  If each one of us makes ourselves aware of our carbon footprint and we take steps to reduce it significantly each year, we can make a difference.

Seychelles: This group reported that they found the specific cases to be very complex, with no clear cut answers.  They reiterated the importance of education, noting that many people might not even be aware of what is happening with the world’s climate.

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One response to “Climate Ethics Session Report – Part II

  1. Thank you Alissa for a very thorough report on my presentation. I just want to correct a few comments you made.

    Lae is just one very small atoll in the Marshall Islands, where I lived for five years, in a village of about 150 people. The 93 islands you mentioned are the islands that make up Kwajalein Atoll, which is the largest atoll in the world. The total land area of this atoll is 6.33 sq miles.

    The Marshall Islands consist of 1,225 individual very small islands, that make up 29 atolls and 5 solitary low coral islands.. The total land area for all these islands, which makes up the country of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is 69.84 sq, miles spread out in an ocean area of over 750,000 sq miles. The average elevation of the Marshall Islands is 7 ft, but many places where people live the land surface at high tide is only one foot or less above the water line.

    There are two urban areas, DUD, on Majuro Atoll, which is the government center, and Ebeye, which is an island in Kwajalein atoll where the U.S. has a missile base. Many of the people living on Ebeye, which is 80 acres with about 12,000 people, work at the missile base which is on another island in the atoll, 3 miles away.

    Other than these two urban areas where the vast majority of the population now lives, the rest of the country is made up of small villages, spread out on the various other atolls. There are regular plane and boat services to the two major urban areas, but the villages receive usually weekly plane service which is very expensive, and irregular boat service.

    Kiribati, which is directly south of the Marshall Islands has a total population of about 100,000 people and has the highest percentage of Baha’is in the world.

    Thank you again, I do appreciate the urgency you expressed in regards to the loss of a country, its people, and its culture.