The first ethical precept undertaken by followers of the Dharma is not to do harm to any living being. This precept becomes quite complicated in a globally connected world, where everything you do has effects that touch all beings on earth. Physicist Robert Fraser describes how the effects of our actions will be especially significant in the case of climate change.
The evidence is overwhelming that we are in the midst of a climate crisis due to the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases. Nearly every climate scientist is in agreement that the increase in these gases over the last 250 years is mainly the result of fossil fuel use and altered land management (e.g., deforestation). They also agree that this increase in greenhouse gases will have serious impacts on the planet and most of its inhabitants, unless we take an energy path that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels through conservation, energy efficiency and renewable technologies.
What can an individual do in the face of such a global crisis?
An earth-friendly path is certainly consistent with Buddhist practice. Such a path involves compassion for the earth and its ecosystems and for the human inhabitants in some of the poorest countries who would be most likely to suffer from the impacts of climate change. On the personal level it means we live a simpler life: using less energy when possible (walk, cycle, ride public transportation, use energy-efficient lighting, etc.) and living with fewer energy-consuming gadgets. On the collective level it means supporting legislation, and elected officials that ensure we implement policies that reduce the production of greenhouse gases.
This last point is most important: taking collective action. Buddhist practice involves mindfulness on a personal level, but developing an earth-friendly energy policy involves a collective mindfulness as well. Our individual actions are important, but our collective action is absolutely essential.
It is only on a national and international scale that the climate crisis can be addressed most effectively. For example, national policies should include supporting new low-carbon energy technologies and a carbon tax that helps pay for the true cost of fossil fuel energy use, including the health and environmental costs. At the local level there are programs that support sustainable development and green energy. If we developed these policies in the U.S. (as some European countries have done) the new energy giants China, India and Brazil may follow suit in their own self-interest.
To get started on collective action, visit www.350.org, where Bill McKibben has various planned and ongoing activities that educate the public and bring the issues to the attention of politicians and other policy makers. McKibben was recently joined by James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, in a protest in Washington D.C. Hansen’s scientific papers addressing the issue in layman’s terms can be found on the website as well. Another highly recommended website that features group action and current insights into the issues is Joe Romm’s blog, Climate Progress (www.thinkprogress.org).
NASA has a website that lists over forty major global climate change websites (https://gcmd.gsfc.nasa.gov/add/portals.html). If you prefer to act locally, your city may have an office devoted to climate and energy issues. For example in Berkeley, California, the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development (www.cityofberkeley.info/sustainable/), offers information about green energy and their citywide sustainability programs.
The stakes are high. Many scientific panels, academies, and agencies have described the impacts due to climate change that we are seeing now and may see with much greater intensity in the future. These impacts include:
We are seeing most of these impacts now to at least a moderate extent with only 1.4˚F of average global temperature rise since the mid-twentieth century. If we continue with business-as-usual use of fossil fuels and deforestation, then we can expect an average temperature rise of 10˚F or more and up to double that in some areas by the end of this century and corresponding impacts of much greater intensity. The hopeful message is that we have time to change the business-as-usual scenario to one that encourages energy efficiency and the development and use of new low-carbon technologies. In this more earth-friendly scenario the average temperature rise could be kept under 3–4˚F by the end of the century, thus avoiding the worst of the climate impacts.
Our efforts will meet with strong resistance from fossil energy lobbies, anti-tax sentiments, and just plain resignation. By working together in groups we can maximize our efforts for saner energy policies and kinder treatment of our planet.
If there were ever a time for collective mindfulness, it is now!
For further links on climate change, see this issue’s Climate Karma Resource List.