State of the Planet

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Methane, Modern Science and the Dalai Lama

Weber speaks with the Dalai Lama, as he peruses the "Guide to the Psychology of Climate Change Communication," produced by her center.

Last week, 10 scientists met with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist leaders in Dharamsala, India, to discuss the relation between modern environmental issues and ancient contemplative traditions–the 23rd such annual meeting. Among them was psychologist Elke Weber, codirector of the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Enivronmental Decisions. Weber, who studies how people think about climate change and other issues, sat next to the Dalai Lama to give him and other guests an hourlong presentation on why people fail to act on environmental problems.

 Among other points, Weber told him that studies show people are easily swayed by other concerns including ideology, and develop “blind spots.” “We’re very rich in goals and intentions [but] we have very little attention,” she said. The Dalai Lama listened attentively the whole time, asking occasional questions. In a following discussion about highly polarized attitudes over such issues as climate change, he concluded that humanity must pay more attention to science. “Buddha himself expressed: All my followers and scholars and monks should not exercise my teachings out of faith and devotion, but rather through thorough investigation and experiment. So, this is a very scientific approach,” he said.

The annual event is organized by the Mind & Life Institute. Other presentations came from an industrial ecologist, an ethicist, a public-health expert and a Christian theologian; listeners included some 35 monks and nuns and 50 other assorted guests. Weber and geographer Diana Liverman, codirector of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Enivronment, described the meeting in a “postcard” to the New York Times’ dotEarth blog: The Dalai Lama “has a great sense of humor, whether in relation to the exact way livestock emit methane or his complicated relationship with the mosquito,” they wrote.They added that some of their favorite times were Q&As with the monks, who were “fascinated by the science, asking questions about the climate history of the Tibetan plateau and the chances of reaching environmental tipping points. … the Dalai Lama, himself a master of the scientific method in his search for analytical insight, shows enormous respect for science and scientists.” Among other topics that came up: guidelines for building sustainable monasteries; an analysis of human climate vulnerability and Buddhist concepts of compassion; and the role of diet in reducing carbon emissions.

View Weber’s talk with the Dalai Lama

View all the presentations


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