Buddhism and Climate Change: Political Fads vs. Pursuit of Truth
As the second wave of Climategate emails gums-up the Durban Climate Change Conference, it’s instructive to revisit the Buddhist position on climate change. In May of 2009 just before the first batch of Climategate emails hit, a group of 20 Buddhist teachers from all traditions released The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.
The authors urged members of the international Buddhist community to sign the document in the run-up to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. The Dalai Lama was the first to sign, endorsing a “sustainable” atmospheric carbon dioxide limit of no more than 350 parts per million.
The declaration is a peculiar document. At its core, Buddhism is the practice of cultivating compassion to dissipate preoccupation with one’s self -- to experience the truth of impermanence by surrendering attachment to things, feelings, and perceptions.
Does the declaration mesh with Buddhism?
The declaration makes note of the “overwhelming” scientific consensus that human activity is triggering environmental breakdown on a global scale. It states with assurance that if humans continue on their current energy-consuming ways, half the species on the planet will be extinct by the end of this century.
To avert catastrophe, the declaration urges fundamental changes in Western civilization. It insists we “de-carbonize” energy systems “by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources that are limitless, benign, and harmonious with nature.” It calls for an end to all coal plant construction.
The document stresses that wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power are sufficient to meet all of the world’s energy needs. If political leaders refuse to make these changes, putting the long-term good of humankind above the short-term benefits of fossil-fuel corporations, the declaration calls for “sustained campaigns of citizen action.”
The crisis is so pressing that the Dalai Lama indicated he would shelve the issue of Tibetan independence and Chinese oppression, and instead focus on the threats climate change poses to the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau. This is according to leaked diplomatic cables between “His Holiness” and Timothy Roemer, U.S. ambassador to India.
The most disturbing aspect of this unwavering Buddhist stance is not so much the blindness it exhibits to the corruption, data manipulation and suppression, willful deception, intolerance, and even violent sadism infecting the climate change movement. It’s not even the scientific and evidentiary fallacies embedded in the declaration itself. (Example: The Himalayan glacier “crisis” the Dalai Lama notes was based largely on an environmental activist group’s press report and a typo. While some Himalayan glaciers appear to be in retreat, others are expanding, and there is no evidence to suggest that they will disappear by the end of this century as some climate alarmists argue.)
Also contrary to the declaration, science is never certain and isn’t the result of “consensus.” The latest findings from CERN indicating that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light potentially upend the “consensus” of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
The declaration insists that alternative energy sources are “benign.” Far from being “limitless” and “sustainable,” wind, geothermal, and solar power systems consume vast amounts of very limited land and groundwater resources. Windmill and solar panel manufacturing and maintenance are energy-intensive, generate toxic chemicals, and require mining processes that are often environmentally destructive. Windmills also kill thousands of birds annually.
While the declaration’s suggested abolition of carbon-based fuels might thrill most Buddhists, in reality it would likely unleash a plague of famine and disease to rival the darkest scenarios posited by the climate change alarmists. Fertilizers and pesticides that maintain global food supplies are almost exclusively derived from petroleum. As are virtually all of the life-saving drugs and many of the medical supplies used to treat injury and disease.
Also: fossil fuels are crucial to providing reliable base load power, or the minimum amount of energy required to power essential services such as hospitals, water treatment plants, communications, and traffic signals and airports. Would the Buddhist community accept mass starvation, chaos, injury, infection, and disease as the price of assuaging its offense over widespread fossil fuel use?
The most disturbing element of the declaration: it is in direct conflict with Buddhism itself.
Among the central tenets of Buddhism is the reality of impermanence and the ignorance generated by ego-consciousness. The ego not only attempts to cement experience into permanence, it strives for control over its surroundings, struggling to conform reality to its personal perceptions. This leads to suffering.
But while the term “climate change” acknowledges impermanence -- the climate after all is constantly in flux -- the movement itself obsesses over maintaining ill-defined or arbitrary points of stability. The core implication of the climate change movement is that there exists some ideal average global temperature that we must strive at all costs to maintain. What is this temperature? No one ever says. Most likely it’s the average global temperature measured in 1967 -- the Summer of Love -- since the climate change priesthood consists mostly of Baby Boomers who seem reflexively nostalgic for their “Youthquake” years.
The declaration also implies that humans have the capability via massive citizen action to dramatically alter the Earth’s climate -- to stop planetary change through the sheer force of human effort. What is this if not the height of conceit -- ego on steroids?
It’s a conceit that assumes we know far more about the ebbs and flows of the planet than we actually do; one that presumes the narrow parameters that describe the Earth at this moment are the benchmark of how the Earth must always be -- “sustainability.”
Example: the declaration assigns a “sustainable” atmospheric CO2 limit of 350 parts per million. Yet over the course of geological history, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have varied widely, reaching as high as 2,000 parts per million during the Jurassic Period, for example. The declaration’s 350 ppm limit is actually a low-end outlier in the context of geological history.
In fact for much of the 19th century CO2 concentrations were higher -- at times more than 400 ppm -- than they are today. Yet the Earth and life survived, even thrived, during these episodes. Far from an awareness of impermanence, the declaration seems to reflect a fetish for contrived stasis.
Our “ecological emergency” stems from a sense of disconnection from the Earth itself, the declaration states -- from the illusion of separateness. But doesn’t the declaration reinforce that sense of separateness by emphasizing the illusion that humans can control the climate? Doesn’t it “disconnect” humans from the Earth by suggesting they are a disturbance in the natural order rather than a part of it? If the Earth is indeed becoming “sick” (whatever that means) as a result of human activity, isn’t that simply another manifestation of the planet’s dynamism and impermanence?
After all, the Earth has “sickened” itself many times over the course of geological history. Massive toxic gas releases from its bowels via supervolcanoes have resulted in catastrophic destruction and mass extinctions. “Ecological emergencies” far more severe than anything envisioned by the climate change movement are a regular feature of the global lifecycle. Far from extraordinary, species extinction is a constant: 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are extinct. Virtually all became extinct without the disturbances of human activity.
To reach the conclusions posited in the Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, you must discard the Buddhist principles of the truth of impermanence and the illusions of ego. The alleged climate change crisis stems from the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion, notes the declaration. It is disheartening that the Buddhist community seems unaware of these festering poisons in the climate change movement.