I am a professor of earth sciences at the University of New Mexico, where I study the Earth’s changing climate. Last summer I was part of a two-week-long research expedition to the Peruvian Andes to study the Quelccaya Ice Cap, the largest glacier in the tropics. It is rapidly melting, and we were there to study that process.
For most of us, most of the time, climate change is a set of ideas floating around in our heads, and exists only from the neck up. This trip took place pretty much from the neck down, and the mind was just along for the ride. The ice cap is at an altitude of 18,600 feet, so acclimatizing physically was a major challenge.
I was pretty sick on our hike up to the base camp. If I tried to walk too fast, or focused on when we were going to reach camp, I would lose my breath and feel overwhelmed by the difficulty. But I found that if I practiced slow walking meditation, I could keep going at a steady pace. This step. Now, this step. The world shrank down to the path, the guide ahead of me, and this step, this breath. Later on, when I talked with the guides about how much this reminded me of Buddhist walking meditation, they knew exactly what I meant. It seems that mountaineering and Zen practice take us to the same place, somehow.
I was lucky to be able to spend most of a day by myself at the margin of the glacier, where ice meets bedrock, about a half-hour’s hike from the base camp. This ice cap, even though it is rapidly melting, is many, many miles across. The experience of being in the presence of this glacier was one of immensity and deep, deep silence. Sitting there, I saw that the glacier is not involved in our busy, spinning ideas about climate change and greenhouse gases and who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat.
The glacier is clearly melting; I experienced it in terms of the most basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence: all conditioned things arise, abide for a time, and pass away. As far as we can tell, this particular glacier has completely melted and regrown many times over the last hundreds of thousands of years. And this impermanence is impersonal. It doesn’t matter what we think about it, or how we feel about it, or how we vote, or what kind of car we drive. This impermanence is simply the nature of things. It is awesome.
Unfortunately, we don’t usually see this fundamentally flowing, impermanent nature of things, especially things like mountains and glaciers, which seem like they should be more reliable. When we meditate, we can start to see how this flowing quality is inherent in our own minds, but can we see that this is truly the nature of absolutely everything?
Since change is the nature of all things, including Earth’s climate, shouldn’t we just accept climate change, man-made or not? If all things arise, abide for a time, and pass away, doesn’t that apply to the human race as a whole? Why make any effort on this issue if it is hopeless anyway?
Recall our bodhisattva vow: sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Set aside for the moment the idea of whether or not mountains and glaciers are sentient beings. Don’t be too concerned for the Earth, which endures continuous ongoing change, or for the glacier, which has come and gone many times in the past and will likely do so into the future.
But for sure, we should be concerned about our fellow humans. Climate change is likely to create a lot of additional suffering for a lot of people. That is where our practice meets climate change. As the glaciers melt, there will certainly be suffering. What can we do to help ease the suffering of our fellow humans? How can we engage with society to ameliorate this suffering?
One answer may entail passing legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions, so that the glaciers stop melting and the people have enough water. It might mean working with local communities to ensure stable water and food supplies. For sure, it means not using climate change as a stick to beat others with. Don’t use climate change as a wedge against others. There is enough suffering in the world without our self-righteousness.
For certain, it means, as practitioners, being present with kindness and compassion as we meet the difficulties that arise in each moment, and responding with a full, open heart to whatever is taking place.