When I was in Australia recently, a good friend—someone I know to be very well informed as well as very generous—accused me of “squawking” about climate change, and of being one of those people who go around trying to frighten people by talking about a coming apocalypse, while ignoring the fact that as much is being done as is politically possible.
Like more and more people now, I do in fact think that the disruption of the world’s climate caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases is the greatest challenge humankind faces and perhaps has ever faced, and our response to date has been woefully inadequate. But I am clearly not very skillful when it comes to talking about it, perhaps because it is one of the very few topics that can get me really worked up and even angry.
If I look at where the anger comes from, there seems to be mixture of fear, frustration and guilt. I feel fear when I read the scientific consensus about the probable outcomes of a failure to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. I feel frustration when I can’t get others to see facts that to me seem blindingly obvious, and I feel guilt at being someone who has known about the problem for quite long time but done nothing significant about it. Such emotions are of course not very healthy or helpful.
This year seems to have been nothing but a succession of extreme weather events: wildfires of unprecedented scope and ferocity, persistent droughts, floods, devastating hurricanes and super typhoons. And early last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that spelled out the likely consequences of a failure to limit the rise in average world temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
It seems that even a rise to 2C is likely to result in millions more people being affected by sea level rises, and becoming at risk of climate-related poverty and food scarcity. However, the world is actually currently on track for a 3C rise at least! A relatively optimistic part of the report is the conclusion that limiting global warming to 1.5C is still possible. However, it will require “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” (IPCC Press Release 8 October)
How should we personally respond to the challenge? I can understand why some people say that whatever we do as individuals will have no significant effect. The kinds of changes that need to be made will clearly require government regulation, international agreements, the hard work and ingenuity of scientists and engineers, the challenging of vested interests and the cooperation of multi-national corporations.
I still don’t think all this absolves us of individual responsibility. Democratic governments will not take difficult decisions, such as levying a carbon tax high enough to really make a difference, if there is no clear expression of support from the electorate and, to be straightforward, vested interests like the fossil fuel industry and media barons (as was demonstrated in Australia). Innovations by scientists and engineers are not much use unless there is the political will to implement them, and corporations are unlikely to change course without pressure from the consumers of their goods and services and from their shareholders.
Buddhistdoor put it very well in their special issue on climate change last year:
Private-public collaboration is a common model for crisis management, but the grassroots—the yet-to-be-mobilized masses of concerned citizenry—is a third force that could be an additional incentive for governments and businesses. We need to activate and sustain decentralized movements that capture a sense of personal investment in addressing ecological problems, albeit oriented towards local ecosystems and environments.
Such a “concerned citizenry” is made up of individuals, and mass movements start from individuals. Around the world there are in fact already many concerned citizens and grassroots activists working together to put pressure on governments and businesses, challenging pipelines, fracking and the opening up of new oil and gas fields, as well as committing personally to reducing their own carbon footprints. However, they don’t yet seem to have worked up a sufficient head of steam to bring about the depth of changes that are necessary to keep within the 1.5C increase in global warming.
Buddhists would seem to be best placed to take the lead in this movement. Working to develop compassion for all sentient beings, we should be alive to the immense suffering that our disruption of the climate will bring. Mindful of how greed and grasping arise in the mind, we can understand how we become addicted to behavior that makes us complicit in an unsustainable economic systems. Aware of the power of delusion, we should be able to look at the realities of climate change squarely in the face, and accepting impermanence we should not easily be fooled into assuming that things in the future are going to continue more or less as they are now. Also, whatever our understand of karma may be, I think all Buddhists would agree that even our smallest mental, physical and verbal actions can have significant consequences.
Many influential Buddhist leaders, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama and Bhikkhu Bodhi, have indeed spoken out on this topic, often clearly and eloquently, and in Paris, November 2015, the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective, representing thousands of Buddhist practitioners, presented The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change Influential Buddhist media such as Tricycle and Buddhistdoor also provide regular and informative discussions of the issue.
However, I still don’t see a mass movement among grass roots Buddhists the world over.
But I now need to turn the torchlight back onto myself, which always provides a corrective to any tendency to get preachy or “squawking.” My efforts towards trying to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem have been pretty feeble. I don’t run a car, I don’t eat meat, and I tend to use air conditioning only when I have visitors or on the few nights when it really does get too hot to sleep. I also give some help and support (not very much) to a couple of environmental organisations.
However, my biggest ecological “sin” is an addiction to travel, specifically travel by air. There seems to be general agreement among the experts that travelling by air has a greater climate impact per passenger kilometer than taking buses or trains, even over long distances. Estimates differ over the exact contribution of aviation to human-activity related climate change, but some put it as high as 9 per cent, and it is growing rapidly. Over the last decade I have tended to take at least one long haul flight to Europe or Australia every year, plus one, two or even three regional flights. I can come up with excuses, such as the fact that I have family and friends in Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia. But the fact that my family and friends are so scattered is the result of choices I have made over the years.
I am trying to cut down on flying. The development of China’s high-speed train network means that I can now travel relatively quickly and comfortably to most of the major cities in China without jumping onto a plane. I have also discovered that the overland routes from Hong Kong to the neighboring countries of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand—and from there down to Malaysia and Singapore—are not only feasible but also enjoyable (if you have the time). And there is the trans-Siberian train route to Europe, which I hope to try soon. But I know that this is not the real issue. The real issue is my attachment to travel. I can think of no reason why someone of my age should be unable to sit quietly in a room alone. And yet…
Maybe others have some thoughts on this.