Around the Pier: Dalai Lama Chooses Dialogue on Climate in UCSD Visit


Climate change might affect the Dalai Lama’s home country of Tibet more catastrophically than just about any other country, but the spiritual leader delivered a message of “Compassion without Borders” during an April 18 visit to UC San Diego.

The man who is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and a Nobel Peace Prize winner revered by millions more non-Buddhists worldwide said that national interests must yield to global interests in a dialogue with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego climate researchers. More than 4,200 people  jammed RIMAC Arena to take in the message.

During negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s delegation, university organizers chose climate change and neuroscience as conversation topics during his UCSD visit. For the public event at RIMAC, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Science Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard Somerville offered their perspectives on the state of global warming research and the challenges standing in the way of action to slow dangerous trends in climate. Among those are the accelerated melt of glaciers in the Himalayas, which provide drinking water to billions of people in Tibet and several other Asian countries.

The scientists and the spiritual leader considered the human activities that have led to climate change and the ethical imperative to modify those activities for the health of the planet.  Ramanathan, who is also a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said the academy’s preparation of a report last year revealed to him the power that spiritual and religious leaders have in effecting change. He opened the dialogue with a request for the Dalai Lama’s opinion on how spiritual leaders can best exert their moral authority to spur climate change solutions among their followers. In response, the Dalai Lama cited the need for spiritual leaders to promote education as a vehicle for awareness and compassion.

“This small blue planet is our only home…for now,” said the Dalai Lama, noting the quest of scientists to find life-supporting planets elsewhere in the universe. “We must take care.”

The three speakers found several points of agreement. The inaction of countries to control emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming agents is often done in the name of protecting national economic interest. The scientists and the Buddhist leader, however, regarded the conflict between such concerns and concerns for global welfare to be a false one. A country protects its own interests when it acts for the general good.

Ramanathan has recently reported his finding that the pace of global warming can be significantly slowed in coming decades even if the chief global warming gas, carbon dioxide, is not controlled. Emissions of other greenhouse agents such as black carbon soot, halocarbons and methane can be reduced if technologies used in the developed world can be spread to poorer countries, he said, adding that such efforts would have the added benefit of saving millions of lives of people forced to damage their lungs using wood-burning cookstoves. The concept gained traction this February when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the formation of an international coalition to control so-called “short-lived climate forcers.”

Ramanathan also added that the different contributions to global warming coming from wealthier nations and the developing world need to be acknowledged as equitable solutions are engineered.

“We have left 2.7 billion people (in the developing world) behind,” Ramanathan told the audience. “Many people don’t even know what fossil fuels are.”

UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox escorted the Dalai Lama onstage for the public dialogue and at other campus events, including a brief press conference before the event. Afterward, the Dalai Lama extended an impromptu invitation to Ramanathan and Somerville to a lunch of Tibetan stews and dumplings prepared by members of San Diego’s Tibetan community, which was doing the cooking for the Dalai Lama during his time in the city.

Born Tenzin Gyatso in 1935 in northeastern Tibet, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama when he was two years old. After the Chinese government suppressed a Tibetan national uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama has lived in exile in Dharmsala, India. During his extensive travels since, he has visited more than 60 countries, engaging in dialogues with national and spiritual leaders.

Somerville expressed delight afterward at the spiritual leader’s personable nature and humor.

“This was a thrilling experience and a real privilege,” Somerville said. “He’s a trusted messenger and his opinions matter to millions of people.”

The Dalai Lama visited all three major San Diego universities even though he admitted at RIMAC that he was no expert on higher education, having had no experience of it himself. After his UCSD event, he moved on to the University of San Diego where he provided his insights on the topic of cultivating peace and justice. On Thursday morning, he addressed a San Diego State University audience in a talk entitled “Upholding Universal Ethics and Compassion in Challenging Times.” In all, an estimated 20,000 people attended the three events.

A discussion of another UCSD specialty, neuroscience, took place April 19  at the Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society and the Environment at Scripps.  Speakers V.S. Ramachandran from UCSD, Lawrence Hinman from USD and Jennifer Thomas of San Diego State joined the Dalai Lama for a discussion about the science of human consciousness and the origins of compassion.

During the public address at UCSD, the Dalai Lama, Somerville and Ramanathan expressed a shared optimism that the world could stop the problem of climate change.  Somerville noted that France weaned itself off fossil fuel as a primary energy source within one generation. Ramanathan quipped that when he began his career in the 1970s, the only person who would attend his lectures was his wife. Now, he said, he was in front of an audience of thousands pondering the problem with one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders.

“Change happens when people want it,” said Somerville, who suggested to an audience questioner that politicians react to the demands of their constituents and wouldn’t be able to ignore climate change if they perceived it as important to the voting public.

The Dalai Lama pointed out that in Buddhist tradition, new scientific evidence must be allowed to overrule religious beliefs if the beliefs are shown to be false. Scientists like Ramanathan and Somerville are rightly considered teachers and gurus who lead others to understand reality, he said.

To those wishing to effect change in the world, the Dalai Lama said “Your efforts must be realistic. We must not rely on appearances. We must do research to determine what is real. With no research, you can’t find reality.”

— Robert Monroe

For more on the Dalai Lama’s visit to San Diego, read a first-person account of putting a question to the spiritual leader.

Related Image Gallery: The Dalai Lama at UCSD

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.