The compassion and climate change connection

Earlier this week the Dalai Lama told the Swiss press that one of his greatest concerns these days is climate change as rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayas are posing a great threat to Tibet and the many surrounding Asian countries that rely on its rivers.

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?

Looking at matters practically, one can quite easily see the connection between compassion’s antithesis – war and oppression – and climate change. As the world’s food supply continues to founder in the wake of climate change (shortage of water resources in Asia, for example, are affecting the region’s ability to irrigate rice, the world’s second biggest crop, behind corn) violence is on the rise in many starved countries.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the Darfur conflict, possibly the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of this generation, has direct connections to climate change and food shortage. He has called it, "a conflict that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation, and a scarcity of resources."

And what about tragedies that do not come at the hands of war? What about “acts of God”? It’s a term that has been met with increased skepticism over the last decade. Is it a coincidence that countries in the South Pacific continue to face displacement in the throws of extreme weather conditions? Or can we can ignore the fact that Australia is under constant threat of wildfires and that we are no longer surprised when they happen? Climate change – man-made or not – has clearly had an effect on the lives of many in this world.

So then, can we say that we can be compassionate by caring about climate change? For every light we leave off, for every piece of meat we choose not to eat, for every shower we end two minutes earlier – can we not look at these acts as acts of compassion towards everyone living in those regions that are so clearly suffering from the most deleterious effects of climate change?

The Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA) thinks so. Their TckTckTck campaign is asking people to reframe how they look at climate change and consider the human element that is sometimes overlooked.

“Climate change is already costing lives. The poorest countries are suffering the most even though they didn’t create the problem,” the campaign states on its web site. Looking at those words, one could easily replace the words “climate change” with the word “war” and be equally correct. If compassion is one of the ways we can end war, then maybe it’s also one of the answers to climate change.

While the GCCA is asking us to consider the human side of climate change, we are, of course, not the only creature with the capacity to suffer and not the only creature responsible, for want of a better term, for climate change. Animals are also succumbing to the perils of climate change as many are losing either their habitats to rising temperatures, their source of food to biodiversity losses, or both. And, in turn, as animals continue to be farmed for meat, their environmental footprint continues to grow.

Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming recognizes this doubly troubling aspect of climate change. His organization is devoted to promoting a vision that is “kind to animals; caring for the environment and consumer health; and honestly labelled.”

These words of compassion, kindness, and caring cannot be missed in connection to what is essentially an issue of climate change. Groups like The Global Campaign for Climate Action and Compassion in World Farming believe there is a direct link between compassion and climate change. And perhaps there is.

So maybe the next time we hear the Dalai Lama express his concerns for the environment, we’re really just hearing him deliver another message on the importance, or perhaps the necessity, of compassion.

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