Cornell University Press

Buddhism and Climate Change

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In November 2021 the COP26 climate change summit was held in Glasgow, Scotland. Highlighting the spiritual dimensions of ecological action, many religious groups attended the conference or engaged in peripheral activities. Buddhist participants included members from Japanese, Vietnamese, and even American forms of the religion, who together explored the linkages between Buddhism and climate change.

Collectively these Buddhists argued that their tradition offers great help in combating global warming.  Some practitioners, for instance, stated that mindfulness meditation can reduce our consumerist impulses and therefore our carbon footprints. Vegetarian Buddhists sought to eliminate nonhuman animals, and by extension the greenhouse gases they emit, from our dinner plates. Still others insisted that simply by embracing the Buddhist notion of an interconnected universe, one acts in more environmentally appropriate ways.

Ethical Limitations

There are some merits to these Buddhist outlooks regarding climate change, but representatives at COP26 did not always mention these views’ shortcomings. For instance, in 2020 Yale University’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy ranked 180 countries in terms of positive ecological performance. The average primarily Buddhist nation ranked 102 out of 180, with Burma’s finishing next to last at number 179. While diverse factors shape such rankings, these evaluations still make it difficult to accept some of the ecofriendly praises that Buddhism has received.

How do we then make sense of the relationship between Buddhism and climate change? In my book, Roaming Free like a Deer: Buddhism and the Natural World, I respond to this question by exploring Buddhist interactions with seven ecologies from ancient India to the contemporary United States. In the end I find that Buddhist green credentials are strongest in terms of the ethical protection of nonhuman animals. Buddhist abstention from meat, for example, although not universal within the tradition, provides one avenue through which useful action regarding climate change can arise. Moreover, explicit Buddhist calls to extend the same lovingkindness and compassion to nonhuman animals that we do to human ones also may carry valuable ecological effects.

Unfortunately, though, the Buddhist focus on benefiting animals, as laudable as it may be, blinds the tradition to other important ecological realities. Consider, for example, the important roles that plants and nonliving entities play in healthy environments. Plants, which are not considered available for rebirth, receive little Buddhist ethical regard outside of some minor rules for monastics. Further, nonliving manifestations such as stones enjoy virtually zero Buddhist ethical respect, as minerals exist simply in order to serve humanity. But battling climate change means turning to techniques such as carbon sequestration, in which carbon in the atmosphere is returned to the ground in the form of stone, perhaps via the medium of plants. A religion like Buddhism that recognizes only limited ethical significance in plants or stones cannot morally guide such carbon sequestration strategies, which by their nature involve valuation of flora and rocks.

Turning to the Future

The moral systems of many other religions struggle with the contours of climate change, too, since teachers of old like the Buddha never heard of global warming. Thus, Buddhism may be forgiven some of its current environmentalist shortcomings. Nonetheless, being uncritical of religious traditions provides no pragmatic advantage in the face of today’s ecological woes. It therefore benefits us all to recognize that Buddhism as a tradition exudes ethical strength in its treatment of animals but remains a less steady platform for working with plants or lifeless things. When world leaders meet next for the climate conference COP27, perhaps they can learn from these qualities of Buddhism as they chart a course to a greener world for us all.

Featured photo: A Buddhist family in Thailand compassionately feeds fish.  Photo by Daniel Capper.

Daniel Capper is a Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Southern Mississippi.  He specializes in dialogues between religion and science, which he then uses to shape environmental ethics in both Buddhist and world religions perspectives. 

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