Oxford conference on climate change stresses global collective action

October 2, 2006
Arthur Dahl, president of the International Environment Forum, displays the front page of The Independent, published on 16 September 2006, with a major story about climate change. (Photograph by Gemma Parsons)

OXFORD, England — The challenges posed by global warming will require a far higher level of collective action and international cooperation than is currently practiced.

That was among the conclusions at a conference at Balliol College here 15-17 September 2006 that sought to explore the relationship between "Science, Faith and Climate Change."

Climate change is "testing mankind's ability to deal with a collective challenge," said Halldor Thorgeirsson, deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC). "The solution itself will fundamentally change how governments cooperate."

In an address titled "The international community's response to climate change," Dr. Thorgeirsson said the role of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, in global warming is now well established scientifically and "sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action."

"When it comes to climate change it will not be solved by any one actor on its own," said Dr. Thorgeirsson.

The conference was organised by the Baha'i Agency for Social and Economic Development (BASED-UK) and the International Environment Forum (IEF), a Baha'i-inspired organization. More than 60 people from seven countries attended, while another 115 signed up for online participation via the Internet.

The event featured specialists from a variety of disciplines, including natural science, economics, political science and psychology, both from within and outside the Baha'i community, who sought to explore issues surrounding climate change from an interdisciplinary perspective.

IEF President Arthur Dahl said the purpose of the conference was "to unify these perspectives, relate them to each other" and to "engage the Baha'i community in the process of applying spiritual principles to the practical problems of the world."

Dr. Dahl, a former deputy assistant executive director of the United Nation Environment Program, delivered the keynote presentation on "scientific and faith perspectives" on climate change, saying that most scientists have now concluded that there will be significant warming in the coming years.

Poppy Villiers-Stuart, a training officer specializing in sustainable development at the University of Brighton, gives a presentation about community empowerment at the "Science, Faith and Climate Change" at Oxford, 15-17 September 2006. (Photograph by Gemma Parsons) Slideshow
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Poppy Villiers-Stuart, a training officer specializing in sustainable development at the University of Brighton, gives a presentation about community empowerment at the "Science, Faith and Climate Change" at Oxford, 15-17 September 2006. (Photograph by Gemma Parsons)

"Climate change is going to force humanity to recognize its oneness," said Dr. Dahl. "Whole ecosystems will shift over long distances, if they can move fast enough."

"We are looking at a scale of change this planet has not seen before," said Dr. Dahl. "Sea level has been going up and the scenarios show the trend to continue. It will bring other impacts: food insecurity, water shortages."

Such changes, said Dr. Dahl, will require more than technical solutions. Rather, he said, they will require the application of ethical and spiritual principles so as to create "new value-based economic models" that seek to create a "dynamic, just and thriving social order."

Religion, said Dr. Dahl, can play a key role in strengthening the ethical framework for action on climate change by educating people "about values and global responsibility," creating "motivation for change," and encouraging the sacrifices that will be needed to create sustainable development.

Other presentations focused on specific aspects of climate change, such as its likely effects on various regions and sectors of society, and how mitigating global warming will require various transformations in society and individual actions, such as in energy production and use.

Lars Friberg, a research fellow at the University of Potsdam, addressed the impact of climate change on developing countries. "Africa will be worst hit by climate change," said Mr. Friberg. "One model shows warming of 1.8 to 2.6 degrees will lead to a precipitation decrease by 40 percent in Africa."

Minu Hemmati, a clinical psychologist, addressed how women around the world are likely to be affected by climate change. She noted that some 60 to 75 percent of the world's poor are women.

"Poor people are more affected by climate change," said Dr. Hemmati. "Therefore women will be mostly affected."

However, she said, women are "more risk sensitive and that applies to their perception of climate change. They will be more ready to consider that we have to change our lifestyle."

Peter Luff, who works for Action for a Global Climate Community, discussed the need for more cooperation between the north and the south.

"Europe understands collective action," said Mr Luff. "The question is: Can Europe link up to countries in the south?"

Augusto Lopez-Claros, the chief economist and director of the Global Competitiveness Program at the World Economic Forum (WEF), gave a presentation entitled "What economic systems and policies are compatible with protection of the environment?"

Drawing on data from studies he has done for the WEF, Dr. Lopez-Claros noted that the top 20 countries in terms of environmentally responsible polices are also among the top countries in terms of global economic success.

"There is a positive correlation between environmental and social responsibility and economic competitiveness," said Dr. Lopez-Claros.

George Marshall, who works for the Climate Outreach Information Network, addressed ways to help get people more engaged with the issue.

Mr. Marshall said it is not enough to give people information about climate change as "people disconnect information from action." Rather, he said, "if we can get people to take action, they will start to engage with the issue."

Poppy Villiers-Stuart, a training officer specializing in sustainable development at the University of Brighton, gave a presentation about "community empowerment" and said that "these issues of climate change need to be integrated into the grassroots dialogue of the Baha'i community."

"The pivot of the Baha'i teachings is oneness," said Ms. Villiers-Stuart. "Every part of the universe is connected. If we could explore the teachings of the faith to value the role of the earth in our spiritual development, this will naturally make us want to love and be connected to it, which will help sustainable development."

One way to "inspire this kind of connection" in young people, Ms. Villiers-Stuart suggested, is through the "junior youth animator course," a spiritual empowerment course for 11-15 year olds. Young people, she suggested, are "most idealistic and have the energy to make change. It is young people who will be able to embody these ideals."

-- Reported by Jody Koomen