By Pat Sherman
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was in good spirits during a visit to UC San Diego April 18, where he frequently told jokes, chuckled and even gave UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox an affectionate head-butt.
The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism was at UCSD to discuss climate change before heading to the University of San Diego to talk about cultivating peace through justice. Both events were sold out, as was an address at San Diego State University on April 19.
Opening the event at RIMAC Arena, eBay founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar noted that the Dalai Lama has previously stated his belief that when scientific facts contradict Buddhist beliefs, “those beliefs must be discarded.”
A 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama was discussing climate change with UCSD professors Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Richard Somerville.
During his opening remarks, Somerville said the Earth’s climate has always changed from natural causes. What is different today, he said, is that human activities have become the dominant factor.
“Our generation today now controls what the climate will be for our children and grandchildren,” Somerville said. “We did not seek this power but we have it because we have long used the atmosphere as a free dump for the side effects and waste products of human activities.
“The case for urgency” in dealing with climate change is “scientific, not ideological or political,” Somerville said.
Ramanathan began by offering a “scientific message of hope.”
“There is a practical and proven way to slow down global warming considerably in our lifetime,” he said. “In fact, we can cut down expected warming over the coming decades by almost half and thus slow down the melting of the glaciers and snow packs, particularly in the Tibetan glaciers, which are referred to as ‘the water fountain of Asia.’ ”
Spiritual leaders, such as the Dalai Lama and the Pope, have the “moral authority” to demand cleaner climate practices, Ramanathan said. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of nations setting aside “national economic interest” and coming together with the “full force of cooperation” to slow global warming.
“The world belongs to humanity,” said the 76-year-old spiritual leader, who sported a UCSD Tritons visor for the discussion. “America belongs to the people … not to Republicans or Democrats.”
Climate change, said the Dalai Lama, “is a question of our life, our survival. … This is something, very, very serious.”
While the toll war and violence takes on humanity is evident through widespread imagery, climate pollution is often an “invisible,” yet omnipresent killer, the Dalai Lama said.
“This blue, small planet is our only home, no other planet,” he said. “We have to take care of it.”
Stressing the importance of education and awareness, the Dalai Lama said that if mankind can work together to reduce the threat of nuclear warfare, it can do the same to reduce greenhouse gas-emitting pollutants. The future of the planet depends on the “oneness of humanity,” said. Somerville called for educating political leaders on the problem of global warming, though adding, “I am optimistic about what technology can do, (but) guardedly optimistic” about what politics can do to solve the problem.
“We have to sensitize our economists … that changes are happening now,” Ramanathan said.
While advocating respect for long-held traditions, the Dalai Lama said humanity also must face “today’s reality,” and care for the planet in the same way a bird would its nest.
“Our survival depends on it,” he said. “It is wrong just to exploit as much as possible without care.”
Asked by a member of the audience how one can have a calm, rational debate about climate change with those who deny its existence, the Dalai Lama said the key is to “have respect” and “listen” to the other side.
During the UCSD event, the Dalai Lama occasionally consulted a translator by his side. Though portions of his talk were lost in translation, the audience seemed to comprehend the general message he wished to convey.
“It’s kind of like listening to Shakespeare, where your ear adjusts, and then you get it,” said Michelle Tiernan, following the UCSD event.
University donor Blake Harper said he has long admired the Dalai Lama and found the presentation “fantastic.”
“The two scientists were so brilliant in their thinking on environmental issues, and the Dalai Lama just brought a whole different attitude (with his) spiritual background,” Harper said.
Tiernan said she admired how the Dalai Lama brought “secular education in line with people’s religious beliefs, “honoring all paths and all faiths.”
Environmental engineering student Kingston Hon said he was surprised by how informed the Dalai Lama is on climate change.
“I didn’t know what knowledge he could bring to the table about environmental issues, but surprisingly enough, he did have a lot of wisdom pertaining to the situation we’re in,” Hon said.
“I always thought he would be kind of distant from everybody, but you could sort of relate (to him), like your grandfather. He has an aura about him that you just respect, but at the same time he’s still very humble, still very human,”
“He’s like Yoda,” added UCSD political science major Hannah Bernabe.
Sierra Stevens-McGeever, who is studying marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said she liked that the Dalai Lama repeatedly underscored the concept of shared humanity. “Some people are starving and some people are trying to get the biggest, baddest house and the craziest car, but it’s not really what’s important when it comes down to it,” she said. “We do share this world and our pollution is affecting people in other parts of the world that don’t have the luxury of driving a car around, but they’re still breathing in polluted air.”
Student Jesse Traller, who is studying algae biofuel research, said she liked that the Dalai Lama called for engaging in civil discourse with climate change denialists. “As long as you address them in a harsh way, like I found myself doing last night — (while) talking to somebody about global warming — nothing’s going to ever come across and you’ll never work through your issues,” she said. “I think the first key is to respect others.
“Like what Richard Somerville said: Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” Stevens-McGeever added.
—City News Service contributed to this report.