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On the VERGE

When Greta Thunberg met the Dalai Lama

The wisdom that emerged from a rather iconic convergence of science and spirituality is as simple as it is profound.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Greta Thunberg

One of the world's most recognizable individuals, a global leader to millions, whose spirit and vision has inspired countless followers across generations — recently met the Dalai Lama.

That’s why I tuned in live over the weekend to a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and young climate activist Greta Thunberg, who were joined by two leading climate scientists for a discussion titled "The Crisis of Climate Feedback Loops." 

The wisdom that emerged from a rather iconic convergence of science and spirituality is as simple as it is profound, and their collective call to action too clear and compelling to ignore — especially for those of us committed to accelerating a clean economy and ensuring a future for life on earth that works for all.

'Our Only Home'

His Holiness was endearingly reverent of Thunberg throughout the event — honoring the courage that she and millions of young people around the world are demonstrating by standing up for and demanding climate justice.

In fact, the foreword of his new book, "Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World," begins with an open letter to Thunberg — the impetus for this unlikely pairing.

"The past is the past. Now, the future depends on you, the younger generation," the Dalai Lama said to Thunberg in his opening remarks. "Our generation created a lot of problems, now we let you solve them," he chuckled heartily at himself, as he so endearingly does.

Of course, this playful intergenerational passing of the buck couldn’t be farther from the truth of the Dalai Lama’s core philosophy about what’s needed now to address the climate emergency.

His primary message throughout the event was that all 7.8 billion humans need to act as a single community and shed our habit of thinking of ourselves as part of a small circle of individuals. He spoke to the simple yet undeniable truth that our lives have become more interconnected than ever before in human history and that the time has come for us to think and act as one human community.

"According to today’s reality, thinking in terms of ‘my self, my family, my nation’ has become unrealistic. An individual’s future is now linked to the entire humanity and planet," he said, reinforcing how encouraging it is that young people such as Thunberg are rising up as a global community to demand their birthright to a livable planet.

"Now, in reality, taking care of yourself means taking care of the whole world," he said. "This is not religious. This is practical."

Practical is one approach from which Thunberg doesn’t shy, and her call to action throughout this event was no exception.

She focused her remarks on one of the most important and yet least represented facets of the climate emergency: feedback loops and tipping points — underscoring the importance of educating ourselves about them, and ensuring that business and government leaders incorporate this understanding into decision making.

Positively negative

In that spirit, let’s level-set with some Climate Science 101.

Climate feedback loops are processes that either can amplify or diminish global warming — referred to as "positive" or "negative" feedback loops, respectively. As Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project puts it in an accessible primer, "Think of it like dominos lined up in an infinite spiral — once one domino falls, it creates a reaction that pushes over another and then another right on down the line."

The falling-domino analogy is imperfect, as dominoes are all the same size and magnitude. Feedback loops are not. Indeed, positive feedback loops can set into motion frighteningly negative outcomes — ones that leave scientists convinced that we have far less time to act than we realize.

The weekend event featured two such scientists — William Moomaw, a lead author on reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Susan Natali, a renowned Arctic scientist — and integrated clips from a new short film series, aptly called "Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops," which I urge you to watch.

Here are three examples of climate feedback loops they say are critical to understand:  

  • Permafrost: As the frozen expanses of permafrost across the Northern Hemisphere begin to melt, microscopic animals are feeding on the carbon stored in previously frozen vegetation and animal remains, releasing greenhouse gases in the process. These emissions warm the atmosphere, further accelerating the melting of permafrost in a dangerous feedback loop. Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere — or, as Natali explained, three times more carbon than is in every tree in every forest on the planet
  • Arctic Ice Melt: Polar ice and snow reflect the sun. It’s known as the albedo effect and is one of Earth’s most important cooling mechanisms. But global warming has melted much of this ice and snow, reducing reflectivity drastically, setting off a dangerous warming loop: As more arctic ice and snow melt, the albedo effect decreases as the polar regions absorb more heat, warming the Arctic further and melting more ice and snow. The volume of arctic ice already has shrunk 75 percent in the past 40 years, and scientists predict that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free during the summer months by the end of the century, something that hasn’t happened for millions of years
  • Forests: The world’s forests are responsible for removing a quarter of all human carbon emissions from the atmosphere and are essential for cooling the planet. According to Moomaw, while 11 billion tons of CO2 are released by human activity each year, the increase in atmospheric carbon is only 5 billion tons, because trees, plants and the ocean absorb the excess. But that fraction is shrinking as the world’s three major types of forests — tropical, boreal and temperate — become less-effective carbon sinks due to climate-related causes. The resulting tree dieback threatens to tip forests from net carbon absorbers to net carbon emitters — heating rather than cooling the planet.

Why uncomplete is inadequate

Thunberg was invited to ask the scientists questions. After a deep sigh, in her enchantingly straightforward way, she argued that all the net-zero by 2050 commitments being made by companies and governments are, in essence, based on incomplete and therefore inaccurate carbon budgets — which means we actually have a dramatically lower probability of staying below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius than we already think.

"Is there a risk in this being so misunderstood and miscommunicated — and what can we do about it?" Thunberg asked.

"Yes, there is huge risk," Natali was quick to respond. She embraced Thunberg’s leading question by encouraging the audience to educate themselves about the science being left out of mainstream conversations and to be even more ambitious in our advocacy and action.

All four speakers underscored the importance of nature-based solutions as critical for rebalancing the climate. Indeed, in concert with halting use of fossil fuels and achieving net-zero emissions as quickly as possible, one of our most promising pathways to reverse climate feedback loops and avoid irreversible tipping points is to protect, restore and fund natural ecosystems.

"Restoring nature is not only a solution to the climate crisis but also to the biodiversity crisis and so on," Thunberg said. "It's not a small task, but it's something that we simply need to do because there's no other option."

It’s a message that echoes across generations, cultures and borders — perhaps the greatest challenge we humans will face.

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