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Wikileak: Dalai Lama says climate change in Tibet more urgent than political solution. Why? #climate

Global Climate Change
January 26, 2011

In a Wikileak-exposed secret cable, the US ambassador to India said:

The Dalai Lama argued that the political agenda should be sidelined for five to ten years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation, and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that "cannot wait."

What exactly is happening to the Tibetan Plateau to cause such immediate concern? Who is responsible? What can be done? And how might the Buddhist teachings of compassion speak to solving this urgent threat?

Fragile Tibetan Ecosystem Unravelling

Tibet, courtesy of Reurinkjan on Flickr

The Tibetan Plateau is home to one of Eurasia's most pristine grasslands. The combination of its immense size and its location near the tropics make it "one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on Earth." The World Wildlife Fund describes the Tibetan Plateau as :

"The highest and largest plateau on earth. It shelters a wide array of unique species, including the Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, wild yak, blue sheep, snow leopard, brown bear, Bengal tiger and black-necked crane. The Tibetan Plateau is also the source of almost all of Asia's major rivers: the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween, the Indus, and the Yarlung Tsangpo, which downstream becomes the Brahmaputra. Because of its high elevation (ave. elev. 4000m), the ecosystem here is extremely fragile. Once damaged, it is extremely difficult to reverse."

Today that vast, fragile and unique ecosystem is over-heating at a destabilizing rate: 0.32 C every decade since 1961. Qin Dahe, the former head of the China Meteorological Administration, stated:

"Temperatures are rising four times faster than elsewhere in China, and the Tibetan glaciers are retreating at a higher speed than in any other part of the world." "In the short term, this will cause lakes to expand and bring floods and mudflows." "In the long run, the glaciers are vital lifelines for Asian rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. Once they vanish, water supplies in those regions will be in peril."

A three year study for the China Geological Survey found a billion cubic meters of water had disappeared from the glaciers feeding the Yangtze, China's longest river. It also found that in some regions melting glaciers are flooding prime pasture lands posing a severe threat to local peoples and their economy. In other regions, disappearing smaller glaciers are creating drinking water crises.

A Science Daily report delved deeper:

"If I compare this land to what it used to be in the 1960s, it is difficult for me to recognize it," recalls Qi Mei Duo Jie, a 71-year-old nomadic herder from Yanshiping in China's central-western Qinghai Province. "Glaciers are melting, temperatures are rising and rainy seasons have become unpredictable."

"In the last 20 years, larger portions of frozen ground have melted during summer," says Professor Li Shijie from Nanjing's Institute of Geography and Limnology. "With less water and more sand on the ground, desertification is just one step away." "With warmer weather, evaporation is happening at a rate faster than the melting of the glaciers that supplies water to the river. Overall, this means a smaller water supply for local inhabitants." "Warming temperatures will certainly continue, but weather events such as rain, snow and wind are becoming less predictable," adds Professor Li.

Experts today agree on one trend: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands and lakes all elements of the fragile high-altitude ecosystem are being altered at a speed never seen before.

"Once destroyed, it will be extremely difficult to restore the high-altitude ecosystems," adds WWF's Dr. Li Lin.

The China Daily newspaper reported that increased desertification alone is causing $126 million per year in direct losses.

Who is causing it?

Bill McKibben tells a story in the opening of his excellent new book "Eaarth":

"When I read these accounts, I flash back to a tiny village, remote even by Tibetan standards, where I visited a few years ago. A gangly young man guided me a mile up a riverbank for a view of the enormous glacier whose snout towered over the valley. A black rock the size of an apartment tower struck out from the middle of the wall of ice. My guide said it had appeared only the year before and now grew larger daily as its dark surface absorbed the sun's heat. We were a hundred miles from a school, far from TV; no one in the village was literate. So out of curiosity I asked the young man: "Why is it melting?" I don't know what I expected some story about angry gods? He looked at me as if I was visiting from the planet Moron. "Global Warming," he said. "Too many factories." No confusion there.

As most readers can probably guess, Tibetans have not been the ones causing the climate warming and destabilization that is threatening the Tibetan people and ecosystems. Hao Peng, vice-chairman of the Tibet autonomous regional government makes it clear that: "Given its underdeveloped industry, Tibet's own carbon emissions are very low and the deteriorating environment is mainly due to global climate change."

"Very low" is a huge understatement.

Our planet's climate crisis is fuelled by the cumulative amount of fossil fuel CO2 that humanity has spewed into our air and oceans. While the impacts are shared by all nations, just 9 of the earth's 195 nations are responsible for 70% of the climate-disrupting, fossil-fuel pollution that is creating the problem: the "Dirty-9."

The "Dirty-9" are the ones forcing the climate to destabilize so abruptly in Tibet and worldwide.

Canada, despite our small population, is one of these global "Dirty-9". In fact, on a per person basis we are the fourth worst in the bunch, dumping 400 times more climate pollution than the average Tibetan.

What can be done to stop it?

Dr Li Lin, Head of Conservation Strategies at WWF China bluntly says:

"It is only by reducing greenhouse gases across the country, as well as worldwide, that vulnerable ecosystems can be preserved and continue to function as a source of livelihood for people living here and downstream."

Clearly the emerging collapse of Tibetan ecosystems, as well as ecosystems worldwide, will only be slowed and stopped when we in the "Dirty-9" nations accept our responsibility for causing the problem and then take effective steps to dramatically reduce our climate pollution levels. That means all of us here in Canada, in BC and in Vancouver.

The Role of Compassion?

Tibetan girl, courtesy of Watchsmart on Flickr

Vancouver's Dalai Lama Center has reported on the Dalai Lama's international tours in recent years in which he says the climate change threat should be a "number one" issue:

"Here at the DLC, we're accustomed to hearing His Holiness talking about His concerns about the human condition and its capacity for kindness, but it's not often we hear Him discuss our planet's condition and its capacity for survival. It raises an interesting question: what is the relation, if any, between compassion and climate change?"

It's been nearly two years since the DNC posed this question, so I asked them if they had anything more to say on the relationship between compassion and climate change or on how the Dalai Lama's teachings on climate change have affected the activities of the Vancouver Dalai Lama center. The DLC responded that they did not want to discuss these issues.

In Canada we have been failing badly for years in our moral duty to cut back on our oversized emissions.

What will finally move us as individuals and a nation to rein in our climate- destabilizing pollution levels?

Can compassion for the damage we are doing to others far away make us change course?

Or will it take something more?

How much damage are we willing to do before we stop?

Barry Saxifrage

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