I'm sure you don't need to be reminded that this has been one very hot summer. Not only has Ontario faced weeks of record high temperatures, but drought has hit the already hard-pressed farmers of Saskatchewan. In the last few years extreme weather events have become more and more common, from typhoons to droughts, floods, hurricanes and other storms. Disturbing reports continue to come out of the Canadian Arctic of permafrost melting, caribou dieing and the invasion of southern insect species. The UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released its Third Assessment Report, and its conclusions were sobering and unambiguous. Global warming is real, it's man-made and its happening faster than previously thought. ( A very good source for the science of climate change is the web-site of the Union of Concerned Scientists www.ucsusa.org )
If the process continues we can expect to see more agricultural disasters like this year's drought, more weather disasters and a steadily rising sea-level that will inundate whole island nations by mid-century. In the face of this mounting crisis, the world's response has been partial and halting. Following the negotiations over the renewed Kyoto accord, it seems like everyone admits there is a problem but everyone wants someone else to deal with it. Canada's position seemed especially dishonest. Wanting to claim "carbon credits" for having trees seems like a dodge, allowing us to get the public relations points for meeting our Kyoto targets without any pain. At least the American position, if equally irresponsible, was more honest. President Bush didn't want to take on any targets that would threaten "the American way of life."
This is the kind of thing that makes one want to despair about the human race. It seems sometimes that as a species we are unable to rise above our stupidity, greed and selfishness, even for self-preservation. But we are capable of higher things. This is where there may be a role for religion. Buddhist teachings, for example, speak about the interdependence of all life and about responsibility for our actions. The environmentalist slogan "think globally, act locally" fits in easily with Buddhist beliefs and ethics. We are taught to have compassion for all living things, and to be careful and midful with our actions which make karma.
There are many proposals for new technologies that will help reduce carbon emissions, particularly alternate fuels such as bio-diesel, hydrogen and so forth. These might help, but they inevitably carry a price as well. Bio-diesel, the burning of vegetable oils, would require vast amounts of arable land dedicated to producing the crops to be made into oil. How would that affect food production or wild lands conservation? Hydrogen requires that water be broken down in the first place, and that in turn requires increased electrical consumption. Where would that energy come from?
The real answer is one that few are ready to face. If we are going to make a serious dint in the problem it is going to involve serious lifestyle changes. We are going to have to use less energy, period. Less use of private automobiles, less air-travel, less creature comforts like air-conditioning. And not only that, but the chief sacrifices must be made by the rich countries and not laid as an added burden on the poor struggling just to get by.
Here the only force strong enough to motivate people to overcome their laziness and greed may be spiritual. Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on the virtues of contentment, simplicity and generosity. Other religions teach similar things. Religious teachers can make a real contribution to healing the planet by reminding people of the lasting value of these virtues. Something is certainly needed to counteract the prominence of greed in contemporary culture.