Global Warming and Humanism: Part 4

Humanists, Activism and Global Warming

Why should Humanists actively campaign to restrict global warming to 1.5C by 2030, individually, through Humanists societies, across the globe and in conjunction with other like-minded organisations?


Humanists Recognise We Are On Our Own

Humanists do not believe in a divine power or any other supernatural force, that can intervene when times get tough and solve our problems for us.  While chance may shape our lives and over some things, like natural disasters, we have little control, we can determine how we respond to such events. Therefore, from a Humanist perspective, it is up to us to solve the problem of global warming, especially as global warming is not a natural disaster, it is a growing catastrophe that is entirely of our own making.  

Humanists Accept Responsibility

If we do not believe in ‘fate’ or miracles, how can we expect global warming to fix itself?  Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. And if we do believe in taking personal responsibility for those things for which we are responsible then we cannot leave it to others to tackle global warming. Every Humanists should be prepared to do as much as they possibly can to tackle global warming because everyone of us are consumers, polluters and takes advantage of the benefits of technology and science. Many of us have enjoyed the benefits of living in a developed country with a high standard of living, often at hidden cost to those living in poorer countries.

Humanists Protect The Natural World

Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society. It also recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Whilst many Humanists are keen environmentalists and have tried to protect the natural world, the truth of the matter is that by allowing global warming to continue to rise, we have put in jeopardy the entire biome of the planet. There are many examples of how global warming is affecting animals and plants, and ecosystems in the world. The reduction of ice cover in the Arctic is having a detrimental effect on polar bear populations, forests in Canada and Alaska are being devastated by the pine beetle, the breeding success of penguins in Antarctica has been threatened, whales in Alaska may face starvation if glaciers continue to retreat, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying. If Humanists truly care about the natural world then we must act to keep the rise in global warming to 1.5C. Ecosystems are all about balance, if you tip them too far they cannot recover.

Humanists Want a Civil Society For Everyone

Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated in its milestone report this year that limiting global warming in the necessary timeframe will require transformative change in our economy and society. It would require a reduction in our CO2 emissions and cutting the use of coal-powered electricity and produce considerable disruption to our normal way of life. Whilst such a transition is bound to require sacrifices by the general population, Humanists need to make their voices heard to ensure that any transition does not occur at the expense of civil society especially as Humanism supports democracy and human rights and wants to offer an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times.

Humanists Behave In An Ethical Way

Humanism means having a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations with a morality based on an understanding and a concern for others. The United Nations report on climate change shows that a 1.5C rise in global temperature is enough to unleash climate mayhem. Already alarming effects of global warming have been detected. According to the report, the world stands on the brink of failure when it comes to holding climate change to moderate levels and that there is only a decade to try and cut emissions. Humanists have a moral imperative to reduce the impact of global warming on people living today, especially those people who will suffer greatly from the effects of global warming while they contributed very little to its cause. Likewise, Humanists should act to protect future generations who, if global warming is left unchecked, will suffer greatly.

Humanists Respect Others

Humanism affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have compassion for others based on our shared humanity. From that comes the idea that we should value and respect people for their own sake, and treat them ethically, as equals. And that we should speak respectfully to others even when we disagree.

The biggest obstacle to limiting global warming to moderate levels is human nature. The ignorance, fears, self-interest, hate and prejudices of others can blind them to the serious nature of global warming. Humanist philosophy places Humanists in an excellent position to have conversations with people from all walks of life. Humanists can acknowledge where people are coming from. People will have to give up much to address global warming and we need to be honest about that. Humanists can exchange ideas and information about the challenges global warming poses. This process is very important. Facts are unlikely to alter people’s views if the motivation for holding those views is emotional or historical. The compassion and humanity of Humanists can help people re-examine their position on this issue. This under-rated, but essential skill, is surely the cornerstone of the open-mindedness that Humanists espouse. This is a journey that cannot be completed by a few good people acting alone, it must be a mass movement to be effective.

Humanists Are Rational

Humanism seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. Continued global warming will have a shocking impact on human welfare. Humanists can support the use of evidence provided by scientists and experts to ameliorate the impact of global warming not only on people but all living things.

Humanists can confidently support the science behind global warming. A consensus of over 97% experts in a scientific field is amazingly high, not to mention all the other bodies that concur and all the reports and inquiries that say the same thing. If such consensus occurred in any other area of scientific endeavour it would be considered a fact.

The overwhelming evidence is that our planet is in big trouble and our response to this fact is inadequate. This is not a pleasant idea but Humanists can make sure the evidence is heard and champion scientists and other experts who are warning us about the situation. When people hear bad news they sometimes try to denigrate the messenger, deny what they hear, ignore, or accept it but downplay it. With global warming it is easy to understand our peril intellectually but not internalise it enough to do what needs to be done. Humanists, with their rationalist approach can embrace the hard reality of global warming, and act on the facts as presented to us now.

As rational people Humanists beliefs are based on the best possible evidence but with an awareness that new evidence might emerge in the future which may mean we have to modify our beliefs or change them altogether. This doesn’t mean that anything goes in science; it just means that we are open to possibilities. People who believe in ideologies, dogma and religion find it hard, if not impossible, to change their beliefs in light of new evidence or through logical argument. Others simply try to rationalise the unpalatable. To those who say global warming is not serious nor requiring urgent action Humanists can apply Ockham’s Razor and expect such extraordinary suggestions to be based on extraordinary evidence, as strong as the evidence to the contrary. (I believe that one of the reasons that some extreme religious people oppose science and education so much is because they make extraordinary claims and do not want them to be tested.)

Some Actions That Humanists Can Do To Help Ameliorate Global Warming

This list is not comprehensive, nor does it take into account the efforts that Humanists and their organisations are already undertaking to help reduce the impact the global warming.  For example, I understand that the President of the Council of Australian Humanists Societies (CAHS) is working on the concept of setting up Human Unions and climate change is no doubt a possible subject for consideration.  

Recognition Of The Urgency Of Action On Global Warming

Given the dangers of global warming there is a need for urgent action.

  1. Humanist organisations could make reducing global warming their number one priority and the focus of the majority of their actions over the next decade.

  2. CAHS and Humanist societies could make a statement presenting their stance on global warming and demonstrating their commitment to reducing its impact

Advocacy For Evidence-Based Action On Global Warming

As a movement that prides itself on taking a rational and reasoned approach to problems and values science and evidence-based decision making, Humanist organisations could support the scientists, experts, and bodies that provide evidence that we should be taking drastic action to address global warming.

  1. Humanists need to understand the evidence for global warming and its impact and the need for urgent action to address it

  2. On its website, and that of its members, the Council of Australian Humanists Societies CAHS could provide links to all the major recent science-based reports on global warming such as the report by the United Nations

  3. CAHS and Humanist societies could develop a set of fact sheets on the scientific evidence for global warming for use by Humanists Societies and individual members, which could be put on websites or printed.

  4. CAHS and Humanist societies could develop a set of sheets that counter some of the arguments used by people to advocate little or no action to address global warming. For example: we may only produce around 1% of global CO2 emissions but countries that produce 2% or less collectively produce more than 40% of global CO2 emissions. We also export fossil fuels to enable other countries to pollute the atmosphere and per capita we are one of the highest producers of CO2 emissions.  We are one of the countries in world with the high median wealth so we can afford to invest in reducing CO2 emissions before it is too late.

  5. CAHS and individual societies could spread the word about the importance of action on global warming through its websites, magazines and newsletters, through meetings, interviews and specific events.

  6. CASH Humanist societies and individual Humanists need to take on an advocacy role to show their support for various scientific and advisory bodies that undertake research on global warming as these organisations are often under attack by anti-climate change organisations, including some governments.  

  7. Humanist organisations could lobby governments to provide funding for organisations undertaking this work, and agitate to ensure advisory bodies are properly resourced

  8. Humanist organisations could publicise successful actions that have been undertaken to ameliorate the impact of global warming

Demonstration Of Commitment To Change

As difficult as it will be, if we are going to tackle global warming before it is too late, we will need to give up quite a bit. We may have to give up our cars if they run on fossil fuels, we may have to pay considerably more for petrol or electricity. We may have to limit our consumption and reduce our standard of living. Travel may be more expensive and limited. We may need to pay more taxes and put more effort into providing some of our own energy and food. Waste will need to become a thing of the past. We may experience some discomfort and dislocation. Nonetheless we cannot continue as we are. On an optimistic note, most people in the past and most people today have lived on much less than we in developed countries currently enjoy, and we are fortunate because we have clever technology to help us out.

  1. Humanist organisations must be prepared to advocate that we need to make sacrifices and that the economy and society needs to change if we are going to address the urgent challenge of global warming

  2. Individual Humanists need to support changes that will significantly reduce our carbon footprint even if it comes at a personal price

  3. CAHS and Humanist societies could organise an online pledge campaign where people could pledge to do something that will help the global warming problem. For example, people could pledge to use public transport during the working week, to carshare, to only have one car per household, or to buy an electric car.

  4. There are myriads of actions that could be taken, big and small – suggestions could be provided on Humanist websites and the pledges monitored.

Intervention To Motivate People To Support Action

Support for action on global warming needs to be a mass movement to make a difference.

CAHS and Humanist organisations could undertake an intervention campaign where members are encouraged to undertake interventions to raise awareness on global warming, to challenge and change views of people who are rationalising the situation, ignoring it or denying it. CAHS and Humanist societies would need to help people to undertake this task. A target could be set, such as 500 interventions, and people could report back online on their success and any issues they had.

  1. Individual interventions could include:

    • Having a conversation about global warming, with family and friends

    • Quietly and safely challenging statements made about global warming that are not correct

    • Contacting their local member or senator, local government representative, writing to government members etc

    • Writing to newspapers

    • Posting articles on global warming onto the internet

    • Handing out flyers

    • Attending meetings and events on global warming

  2. CAHS and Humanists organisations could produce a resource and run sessions to help people undertake these interventions in a respectful, non-confrontational way.

Involvement To Ensure That The Welfare And Rights Of People Are Given A High Priority

Humanists want to have a fair, democratic and self-actualising society.  Changes required in our economy and society to address the challenge of global warming may threaten this.

  1. CAHS and Humanist organisations could develop a strategy to help deal with the transformative change proposed to protect the most vulnerable and to protect and promote a civil society.

  2. CAHS and Humanist organisations would then be in a good position to lobby governments and other institutions and organisations to consider this strategy when dealing with global warming.  For example, what if the government decided that investors who make a lot of money from fossil fuel production should be compensated for present and future losses by government payouts which would amount to a considerable tax burden on ordinary people? How would Humanists respond to that situation?

Communication With Understanding and Compassion

If we follow Humanist philosophy we recognise that we should treat everyone with compassion because of our shared humanity and because in different circumstances we might be walking in another’s shoes with the same ignorance, prejudices or self-interest as they have.  Also, if we keep an open and non-judgemental mindset we might learn from people who have different views to ours. Their life journey may have something to offer us, if at the very least, an insight as to why they hold the opinions which they do.

  1. Humanist organisations and individual Humanists should listen carefully, show genuine interest in the other side of the issue, refrain from labelling people or organisations, and treat others with respect when dealing with them on the issue of global warming

  2. We need to acknowledge that people who are motivated to oppose change on this issue may have genuine fears and concerns that need to be addressed, and we should not be afraid to acknowledge that we are asking people to move out of their comfort zone and make sacrifices for the long-term survival of humanity

  3. There will be some people who will not be able to see beyond their own short-term interests and Humanist organisations will need to go around them.  Where these people are particularly powerful it may be worth considering exposing their selfishness. For example, CAHS or other Humanist organisations could produce a one-page bio on such people eg. 100 faces of self-interest series.

  4. Humanists also need to get their own house in order when engaging in communication with each other on difficult issues.

  5. Such an approach to global warming could be used as a model for dealing with other issues of concern to Humanist organisations.

Working Collaboratively With Other Organisations

Humanism emphasises the value of working cooperatively with other people.  Humanist organisations cannot solve global warming on their own, it needs to be a massive, worldwide, cooperative movement.

  1. CAHS and other Humanist organisations could form alliances with other organisations who are working on this issue.

  2. CAHS and other Humanist organisations could establish a virtual global community of activists to pursue this issue with the understanding that action cannot wait until a comprehensive plan is developed to address global warming.


Are we capable of immediately, globally, nationally and locally, as individuals and groups, of doing whatever we need to do to prevent the world-wide catastrophic events that will result from global warming and which will severely disrupt our lives and limit our ability to continue to live on the planet?  If we go on the evidence of how people have reacted so far to the threat it is hard to be optimistic.

The problems we face are multiple, complex, interwoven and dangerous to our future and to the survival of all living things on this planet.  But we, in a typical human way, often insist on categorising them and putting them into a hierarchy that we can work through just like a to do list.  Where would global warming sit in this list?

We seem to externalise problems so that we think that we should change, convert or fight others to solve the problem.  We think that if we wage war on one problem or another we will solve them. But we fail to realise that we are the problem, every single one of us.  We are always looking elsewhere for the solution to the world’s problems but until we look inward into our very nature nothing will fundamentally change.  We may win a few battles but lose the war in the long term. History will keep repeating itself – for as long as we live on Earth.

We might think that we are good, reasonable people trying to do the right thing, but the reality is that most of us are not activists in any serious way.  We simply are unwilling to give up as much as is needed to secure a happy future for the world.  This is strange when the stakes are so high, but it is a thoroughly human response.

We do not tackle our own motivations at a subconscious level.  We do not master ourselves and we slip readily into outdated but comfortable modes of discourse. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being rational and secular often forget the need to base our actions on the best available evidence.   And when we form groups we often don’t put any effort into understanding and implementing strategies that would help the group achieve its objectives and maintain the highest ethical and rational standards over the long term. Look at any group; members may start off with high ideas and a commitment to being inclusive but the group usually ends up governed by basic human behaviour.  

Very rare visionaries have tried to transcend human behaviour, they are amazing people because changing our nature is not easy.  Not many animals are ever able to break free of their basic programming, so why should people be able to do so? We have language and therefore a history that can be transmitted from one generation to the next, and we have some insight into ourselves and yet even so we find it hard to learn from our past mistakes at an individual and collective level.

Followers of enlightened people soon become corrupted and stray away from enlightenment.  We see this in the history of religious groups and in all organisations including rationalist groups.  I see it happening in the global movements I support.

The enemy is within us, in the best of us not just the worst of us.  We need to fundamentally change, that is our challenge. It is no one’s fault but it should be everyone’s imperative!

Elizabeth Dangerfield

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash