The Dalai Lama on Surviving the Climate Crisis Together

For the sake of future generations, the Dalai Lama tells journalist and activist Franz Alt, we must develop a sense of universal responsibility — for the earth and all humanity.

Franz Alt
24 November 2020
Photo by Norbu Gyachung

Franz Alt: Your Holiness, dear friend, fifteen years ago you said to me in an interview: “The twenty-first century could become the happiest and most peaceful one in human history. I hope so for the youth.” Do you still cherish that hope?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I am hopeful that the twenty-first century could become the most important century in human history. The twentieth century experienced immense destruction, human suffering, and unprecedented environmental damage. The challenge before us, therefore, is to make the twenty-first century a century of dialogue and promotion of the sense of oneness of humanity.

As a Buddhist monk, I appeal to all human beings to practice compassion—the source of happiness. Our survival depends on hope. Hope means something good. I believe the purpose of life is to be happy.

The world’s seven billion human beings must learn to work together. This is no longer a time to think only of “my nation” or “our continent” alone. There is a real need for a greater sense of global responsibility.

I feel optimistic about the future because humanity seems to be growing more mature; scientists are paying more attention to our inner values, training of the mind and the emotions. There is a clear desire for peace and concern for the environment.

In our previous book, The Way to Peace in a Time of Division, you expressed the idea that “ethics is more important than religion.” What does that mean as far as environmental policy is concerned?

Religion should not be just limited to praying. Ethical action is more important than prayers. What are Buddha, Allah, or Christ supposed to do if we human beings destroy our earth, fill the oceans with plastic so that fish, seals, and whales perish, cause rapid increase of desertification and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere?

Christ, Allah, or Buddha is not responsible for the climate change and the destruction of the environment. It is a man-made problem. Therefore, we must take responsibility and find solutions to the problems. That is why we need environmental ethics that focus on action and compassion for all sentient beings.

The Paris Climate Summit at the end of 2015 was the beginning of a new reality. For the first time, the world may have seen itself as a world family. Are you still optimistic? Can the Paris Agreement still be achieved?

I hope and pray that the 2015 Paris Agreement will finally bring tangible results. Egotism, nationalism, and violence are fundamentally wrong.

America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is very sad. It is important for scientists to continuously speak up about the dangers we face and alert the public. Here, the media has an important responsibility in educating the people. The gap between rich and poor is also very serious, and we have to take steps to close it by helping the poor.

What happens on this blue planet affects us all. It is not sufficient to just express views and hold conferences. We must set a timetable for change.

Any human activity should be carried out with a sense of responsibility, commitment, and discipline. But if our activities are carried out with short-sightedness and for short-term gains for money or power, then they all become negative and destructive activities. Protecting our environment is not a luxury we can choose to enjoy, but it is a matter of survival.

The questions of the environment and climate change are a global issue, not just of concern to Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas. What happens on this blue planet affects us all. It is not sufficient to just express views and hold conferences. We must set a timetable for change.

As early as 1992 you said, “Universal responsibility is the key to human survival.” What does that mean in concrete and practical terms?

The seven billion human beings are social animals and must learn to live together. This is no longer a time to think only of “my country,” “my people,” “us,” and “them.” We live in a globalized world. Countries think about their own national interests rather than global interests, and that needs to change because the environment is a global issue. In order to protect global environmental issues, some sacrifice of national interests is needed.

Nationalism has been shaping our history for centuries. Is there really a possibility to overcome nationalist thinking?

Wherever I go I emphasize that all seven billion human beings are physically, mentally, and emotionally the same. Everybody wants to live a happy life free from problems. Even insects, birds, and animals want to be happy.

In order to ensure a more peaceful world and a healthier environment, we sometimes point a finger at others, saying they should do this or that. But change must start with us as individuals. If one individual becomes more compassionate, it will influence others, and so we will change the world. Scientists say our basic nature is compassionate. This is very positive.

When I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1989, I called upon the world to assume universal responsibility. We have to learn that we are all brothers and sisters and live on one earth and under the same sun.

Our mother earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility.

Unless we all work together, no solution can be found. Therefore, our key responsibility is to commit ourselves to the ethical principles of universal responsibility beyond profit and religion, and to place the well-being of all sentient beings and future generations above our egoism.

Climate change is an issue that affects the whole of humanity. But if we have a genuine sense of universal responsibility as our central motivation, then our relations with the environment will be well balanced, and so will our relations with our neighbors. Our mother earth is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility.

Therefore, each of us as individuals has a responsibility to ensure that the world will be safe for future generations, for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Is global warming just a political problem or can every individual do something about it?

According to scientists, we human beings are responsible for global warming and the change in weather conditions. Logically this means that we human beings have a responsibility to solve problems that we have created.

On an individual level, we should change our lifestyles, consume less water and electricity, plant trees, and reduce the use of fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form. Fossil fuels are nonreusable energy; therefore, we must use renewable energy like solar, wind, and geothermal.

As a boy studying Buddhism, I was taught the importance of a caring attitude toward the environment. Our practice of nonviolence applies not just to human beings but to all sentient beings.

What distinguishes human beings from animals? It is our specific capacity for long-term thinking. Animals only live from one day to the next, whereas our brain can think ten or even a hundred years ahead. In consequence we are equipped to make preparations for the future and plan for the long term.

But is it only our short-sightedness that prevents us from treating our natural environment carefully?

Destruction of nature and its resources results from ignorance, greed, and lack of respect for the earth’s living things. Today, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to the coming generations.

Resolving the environmental crisis is not just a question of ethics but a question of our own survival. The natural environment is very important not only for those of us alive now but also for future generations. If we exploit it in extreme ways, even though we may get money or other benefits from it now, in the long run we ourselves and future generations will suffer. When the environment changes, climatic conditions also change. When they change dramatically, the economy and many other things change as well. Even our physical health can be greatly affected.

In the past, people needed protection from their environment. Today it is the other way round. Scientists tell us that without humans the earth would be doing better.

As someone born in Tibet, the rooftop of the world, where the world’s highest peaks are to be found and Asia’s great rivers originate, I have loved nature since my childhood. I have made environmental conservation one of my life’s commitments and advocate protection of the environment wherever I go. Therefore, I called on all to speak out about global warming, which affects the future.

This blue planet of ours is a beautiful habitat. Its life is our life; its future our future. Indeed, the earth acts like a mother to us all. Like children, we are dependent on her. Our world is deeply interdependent, both in terms of our economies and the problems like climate change that challenge us all.

When we see photographs of the earth from space, we see no boundaries between us, just this beautiful blue planet. This is no longer a time to think only of “my nation” or “our continent” alone. There is a real need for a greater sense of global responsibility based on the oneness of humanity.


Adapted from Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Franz Alt. © 2020 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Franz Alt, used with permission of Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

Franz Alt

Franz Alt

Franz Alt, born in 1938, studied theology in Freiburg and Heidelberg. In his long-term career as a journalist, he has repeatedly made his mark as a critical spirit who questions current interpretation of environmental and peace policy issues.