ECOPINION: My take-aways from the Dalai Lama's talk on climate change

Photo by Emily Scher. The Dalai Lama sits with Walter Munk, a renowned oceanographer as he discusses climate change with other experts and leaders.
Photo by Emily Scher. The Dalai Lama sits with Walter Munk, a renowned oceanographer as he discusses climate change with other experts and leaders.

by Lan Nguyen The Dalai Lama celebrated his 80th birthday by hosting the Global Compassion Summit, a three-day event from July 6-8 in Orange County, California. But rather than throwing a big get-together with bingo and prune juice like many of those his age might do, the spiritual and political leader held talks to encourage discussion of art, climate change, wisdom and education.

Photo by Emily Scher. As a birthday gift, panelists present the Dalai Lama with a plaque showing an underwater animal that was named after him.

Birthday wishes from religious followers, supporters and celebrities flooded social media. And of course, no birthday celebration would be complete without gifts. Audience members lined up after his talks to give the Dalai Lama presents despite the fact that it was restricted by security protocol. And they weren’t the only ones. Representatives from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego also presented the Dalai Lama a unique gift: they named a newly discovered underwater species after him.

The Dalai Lama seemed very thankful for all the gifts, but he made sure to tell audience members what he wanted most from everyone as a birthday gift: the theme of the summit, compassion.

He explained that he wanted to see a more compassionate world, which is why he chose to lead discussions about the topic for his birthday celebration.

I attended the climate change panel, "His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Compassionate Planet", which featured seven speakers who play a key role in fighting climate change, along with the Dalai Lama. Here are my take-aways from the event:

1. Religion, politics, and science need to intersect and work together to fight climate change.

The panel included various key players who impact environmental policies, including a congresswoman, climate scientists, an environmental justice activist, university professors, and of course, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Seeing these different people come together for a common purpose made me realize that the responsibility for fighting climate change doesn’t fall on the shoulders of any single sector of society – it has to be tackled with a united front. We need politicians to pass legislation against harmful action. We need scientists to develop sustainable technologies. We need activists to push the public to be environmentally conscious. Everyone plays a role in fighting climate change, so it’s important for us to all come together and create new ideas as a team.

2. In order to be compassionate toward other humans, we must be compassionate toward the planet.

There is a common conception that being an environmentalist is exclusive to only the most privileged members of society. If you think about it, you wouldn’t have time to hug trees if you didn’t even know where your next meal is coming from. But the Dalai Lama tackled this misconception by talking about how those who contribute the least to climate change will suffer the most from its impacts. People in areas emitting the least amount of carbon in the atmosphere will also likely be victims of forced relocation due to consequences like sea level rise. The earth provides resources for people such as water, food and shelter. Therefore, damaging the earth also means harming the people who depends on these resources.

“Taking care of our planet is like taking care of our own home,” the Dalai Lama said. And since the earth is home to everyone, taking care of it will also mean taking care of the home of others.

3. Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction.

There is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to climate change. We can’t be 100 percent sure of how the planet will change, or in what ways we have to adapt, or even about if there’s anything we can do about it. Some people think humans play no impact in the warming of the planet. Some people think we are pushed so far off the edge that there’s no point in trying to fix it.

When asked if we can do anything to change the future of the planet, the Dalai Lama chuckled and said, “I don’t know.” After everyone had a good laugh, the Dalai Lama continued with his thought.

“I don’t know, but really, we have to make an effort no matter how difficult it is,” he said. “We cannot be scared of failure. It doesn’t matter how many times we fail… we have to try.”

4. Helping the world as a whole will help oneself.

The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of thinking holistically when discussing global politics. He talked about how working to make the entire world a better place will in turn make individual nations stronger as well.

“Industrialized nations take interests of their own nation first before global interests,” he said. “But they should take global interests into consideration first, because if each nation serves humanity as a whole, they’ll get national benefits.”

5. It’s time to think positively.

In discussions of climate change, it can often be hard to stay positive. There are so many articles that talk about how “it’s too late” or how “we should have done something decades ago.” A lot of times, the fight against climate change seems hopeless and discouraging. I’ve walked out of way too many environmental policy lectures feeling down on myself and frustrated with the industrialized world.

But hearing the Dalai Lama speak about climate change showed me a different way to think about climate change. Rather than focusing on all the harmful things being done to the planet and to humanity, it’s better to think about the potential for good.

The Dalai Lama talked about how amazed he was at technologies that have developed over the course of his 80 years on earth. He spoke about desalinization and solar energy and firmly said that these things are signs of a better future. In times like these, we must have hope about fighting climate change, because without hope, there’s not a lot of room for action.

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