A Conversation on the Crisis of Climate Feedback Loops
January 10, 2021
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – Susan Bauer-Wu, President of the Mind & Life Institute opened a conversation that was to take place between His Holiness the Dalai Lama, climate activist Greta Thunberg and scientists Susan Natali and William Moomaw. She asked His Holiness, “How are you?” He laughed and answered, “Look at my face. My body is getting old, but I’m quite fit. And because I have peace of mind, I can smile. I’m the servant of the seven billion human beings alive today, dedicated to their well-being. The pandemic has made it difficult for us to travel, but this online technology has become very helpful.”
Bauer-Wu welcomed the participants, viewers and listeners to an auspicious global gathering to raise awareness of climate feedback loops through science, secular ethics and social action. She announced that the event was also the official launch of a series of short films focussed on climate emergency feedback loops in the hope of inspiring people to take action.
Diana Chapman Walsh, moderator of the morning’s conversation, stated that feedback loops were behind two important terms — emergency and possibility. Since scientists are worried about the implications of feedback loops, there is a need to wake people up to those implications. We have to learn about feedback loops, she said, and that the forces of nature are also forces of possibility. And we have to learn how we can be part of a solution.
She mentioned that His Holiness and Greta both respect science and are both moved by how urgent things have become. They are two visionaries calling for action.
Chapman Walsh quoted parts of a letter His Holiness wrote to Greta Thunberg that are included in his new book with Franz Alt — Our Only Home. In his letter he made this important point: “We humans are the only species with the power to destroy the earth as we know it. Yet, if we have the capacity to destroy the earth, so, too, do we have the capacity to protect it.” Chapman Walsh asked what his thoughts were when he wrote it.
“When I heard about what this young girl thought about the environment and climate change and what she was doing about it,” he replied, “I was filled with admiration. I felt that for someone so young to have such concern for the planet was a really hopeful sign.
“Everybody wants to live a happy life. Not only human beings, but animals and insects too. Everyone is concerned about their own existence. Our human brains are something special, something remarkable, but if you look at our world today, human beings are the biggest trouble-makers. Other animals just eat, sleep and have sex, but we human beings think about ‘us’ and ‘them’. We create many good things, but we also cause a lot of problems. We think about ourselves, focussing on my nation, my country and my family in ever diminishing circles. And yet individuals’ lives depend on the community in which they live. These days all seven billion human beings are our community. We have to be concerned about the whole of humanity, because we all depend on each other.”
Greta Thunberg opened her remarks with words of thanks, first to the organizers for hosting the event and secondly to His Holiness for being such a staunch advocate of the need to be aware of the environment and climate change. “We young people want to say thank you for standing up for us. There may be differences of age between us, but our shared goal is to protect the planet. “
She acknowledged that the extract from her speech to the UN, featured in the clip that was about to be shown, was dramatic. “However,” she said, “there is a lack of awareness. Science is not discussed enough. We need to spread awareness, because people don’t know what’s happening. Most people, for example, don’t understand feedback loops.
“Our actions have consequences. We have such a lack of respect for nature that we don’t even consider the consequences.”
His Holiness responded, “Human nature can be self-centred, but each one of us depends on our community to survive; and today our community is the whole of humanity. If we want to look after ourselves, we also have to think about what our community needs. We have to take a practical view of the whole of humanity and this planet which is our only home.”
Before the first video clip was shown, Diana Chapman Walsh explained that feedback loops relate to cause and effect. Greenhouse gas emissions are the cause that gives rise to the warming of the planet. This in turn causes more greenhouse gases to be released in an accelerating loop.
The clip shows Greta Thunberg telling a UN meeting, “The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in ten years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees… but those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution.”
The narrator explained, “Emissions from fossil fuels are the input which add heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, raising Earth’s temperature, and setting in motion self-perpetuating warming loops. As the climate warms, forests, once removers of carbon, release it back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. These are the kinds of feedback loops that lead to further warming and they are spinning out of control.”
Chapman Walsh introduced two scientists, Susan Natali who works in the rapidly warming Arctic and her colleague whose expertise is in forests, William Moomaw. Natali showed a second clip about permafrost. She declared that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. As the permafrost melts the ground collapses, so not only does it impact the climate through the release of greenhouse gases, it can entirely transform the landscape. Natali’s findings are that if action is taken, if we substantially reduce fossil fuel emissions and protect our forests, the rate of warming in the Arctic, and also on the Tibetan plateau, could be cut by half.
William Moomaw’s field of expertise is forests. These featured in the third clip. The narrator explained, “It comes down to how we manage temperate forests. Human activity has kicked off natural warming loops, human ingenuity could reverse their direction, turning them into cooling feedbacks instead. It would mean protecting and expanding forests, preserving marshes, grasslands and all natural habitats…”
Moomaw pointed out that carbon dioxide emissions began to increase after 1750 and the beginnings of industrialization. However, half of all human sourced emissions have taken place since the first climate treaty in 1992. Halting emissions is essential, but to change our trajectory in the direction of a more benign climate, we need to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests are the most powerful way to do that. However, change is happening because forests like the Amazon are accumulating less carbon than they did ten years ago.
George Woodwell, an early pioneer warning about fossil fuel use, has said, “We have to be very progressive in our transition away from fossil fuels and into a new, green world. But it takes imagination.” Moomaw concluded, “We can’t allow action to come too late.”
Diana Chapman Walsh invited His Holiness and Greta Thunberg to put questions to the scientists, starting with Greta. “There is so much to ask,” she said. “Why is it, as you have clarified, that feedback loops are not included in global carbon estimates.” Susan Natali replied that sometimes scientists just move slowly. She did, however, suggest that even rough numbers can be enough to show how serious things are.
“So,” Greta continued, “announcements about cutting carbon emissions are based on incomplete findings. What are we to do to fix this?”
“Since there is a risk of underestimating the significance of feedback loops, Natali told her, we need to be more ambitious and make our voices heard.”
Invited to comment, His Holiness remarked, “We already have solar power and wind power and we are putting them to use. Now, we need more effort. We have to pay attention to deforestation; we have to protect the environment better. In my own life I have witnessed the decline in snowfall, first in Tibet and later in Dharamsala. Some scientists have told me that there is a risk of places like Tibet eventually becoming deserts. That’s why I’m committed to speaking out for the protection of Tibet’s environment. We have to cultivate more trees.
“So much depends on education. For a thousand years we’ve behaved in one way, but now global warming and climate change force us to take our relationship with nature more seriously. We recognise that the melting of the Arctic is important, but what can we do to protect it? At least we can switch to using clean energy.
“I have a dream that it might be possible to employ solar power to drive desalination plants on the coast of North Africa and the whole coast of Australia in order to produce clean water to green the Sahara and the Australian hinterland.”
Chapman Walsh recalled that His Holiness mentioned the pressing global concern with the environment during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Since then, new science has developed and with it new ways to enlist nature as an ally in solving the problem of feedback loops. Decision makers are not paying attention, she said, so those of us who understand have to act together as one community. She called on Greta to voice her call to action.
“We are nearly out of time,” she declared. “We need to educate ourselves. We need awareness. We need to understand what is happening, as well as what is not happening.
“Please educate yourselves — there is so much information — and share what you learn with others. If enough people demand change, they will reach a critical mass who cannot be ignored.
“Focus on solutions. Restoring nature is a solution to the climate crisis and the bio-diversity crisis. We have to do everything we can. Let’s change the rate of change. I’d like to thank everyone who has taken part in this conversation as well as everyone who has watched it.
William Moomaw stated that to achieve a safe climate we must cool the Arctic, which means stopping the feedback loops associated with it. It’s essential to curtail the release of heat-trapping gases, but feedback will continue even if we were to stop emissions today. In addition to stopping emissions, we must increase ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Since larger trees are most effective, deforestation must stop. But we must also reforest, change grazing patterns, review how we deal with wetlands and generally improve agriculture.
His Holiness was asked to sum up. “It seems that as human life has evolved over millions of years,” he observed, “we have taken everything for granted. We’ve used nature’s resources without thinking and have created problems. We must educate ourselves to understand how our life-style today has to change. We need to use natural resources differently. We have to think seriously about the reality of the situation we currently find ourselves in.
“Education and the efforts of young leaders can raise awareness that things are serious. In contrast to this, we tend to take our usual way of doing things for granted. We have instead to take the reality of our predicament seriously. We have to protect our world.
“In the past when people faced problems of this magnitude, depending on their faith, they would turn to God or the Buddha for help. But prayer is not sufficient, we have to act. What happens depends on what we do. We face problems that are a result of our own behaviour, therefore we have to find our own solutions.”
Diana Chapman Walsh concurred. “You’re right. We must take responsibility and act. There has to be social and climate justice. We need social feedback loops to meet the looming threat. We must demand that our leaders act as if the house was on fire. We should remember that working together with others is a way of dealing with whatever anxiety we may feel about what is going on.
“We thank you all for being with us. Thank you, Your Holiness, thank you Greta. Finally, I’d like to thank the Mind & Life Institute for hosting this event.”
His Holiness had the last word: “This occasion has given me the opportunity to see many old friends’ faces once again. This matter is everyone’s responsibility and I make a commitment to continue to work for a solution. I’d like to thank Greta for taking the issue so seriously that she encourages the rest of us and gives us hope.
“When I met President Obama and we held discussions, I told him, ‘You are younger than me, I hope that you will continue to take these ideas forward after I’m gone’, and he agreed. So, similarly, I appeal to you, my younger Swedish sister, to continue to take responsibility for humanity and the world. Thank you.”