Playing with Smoke and Fire

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Yesterday evening, when I sat down to check out the news, I immediately came across two articles that almost blew the nonexistent hair off my head. The first, on Common Dreams, announced: “Canada Vows Plunder in the Arctic.According to the report, Canada has just assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a consortium of states bordering the Arctic which met in Sweden this past week to discuss the region’s future. One would think the leaders of these nations, alarmed by the melting of the Arctic ice that takes place for ever longer periods each summer, have been anxiously discussing how we can preserve this natural wonderland and prevent its pristine beauty from being further defiled by the greedy hands of man. But let’s not fool ourselves. With global demand for oil and natural gas on the rise, they have other visions swimming around in their heads: of ships plowing the Arctic seas and previously inaccessible reserves of minerals, gas, and oil suddenly coming straight into their pockets.

The ostensible purpose of the Arctic Council is “to promote cooperation on environmental protection,” but it doesn’t take a PhD in economics to detect a wolf in lamb’s clothing. The council’s principal membership—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—should give the lie to any sweet protests of environmental concern that might be voiced by the group. I can’t speak about the smaller Nordic nations, but are we to trust Canada with the future of the Arctic after it has turned its Alberta forests into a lunar landscape in order to extract tar sands oil? Or can we trust Russia, the world’s largest non-OPEC oil producer, home of the world’s second largest coal reserves, the largest exporter of natural gas? And least of all, can we trust the U.S., whose tentacles reach everywhere for more oil— from the Alaskan wilderness to the Persian Gulf to offshore ocean depths—ever thirsty for more energy to maintain its global dominance?  Greenpeace certainly doesn’t trust these nations but has thrown its weight behind the Indigenous peoples who also sat in the conference hall, vowing to stand “shoulder to shoulder with them on this issue to protect the Arctic from destructive oil exploration.”

The second article to blow my brain across the room appeared on the informative website Climate Progress, written by Deputy Editor Ryan Koronowski. The headline may beg belief, but I’m not playing a practical joke on you: Industry Groups Urge Supreme Court To Ban EPA From Regulating CO2. Really! According to the article, “conservative states, business groups, fossil fuel companies, and global-warming denying politicians are petitioning the Supreme Court to reverse Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on greenhouse gases and to weaken the Clean Air Act.” Nine petitions were submitted to the Court over the past few months seeking review of EPA regulations: “Don’t let that damn agency protect our environment!” Petitioners include such states as Texas, Alaska, and Virginia; industry groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers; and fossil fuel companies like Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company.

Ironically, these events occur right on the heels of another major event that should have been blazed forth by banner headlines on every newspaper on earth, but in most cases probably squeaked by with a back-page article at best. Last week the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, as measured by the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, passed “the climate’s grim milestone,” the mark of 400 parts per million (ppm). Numbers, of course, are mere abstractions along a continuum, but this figure portends serious consequences for our collective future. It is said to be the first time in at least three million years that the CO2 concentration has reached this level.

Before the Industrial Age, CO2 concentration was 280 ppm. The figure rose steadily with the onset of industrialization and then escalated sharply over the past half-century. According to leading climate scientist James Hansen, the maximum amount of CO2 the atmosphere can safely hold is 350 ppm. Beyond 350 ppm, the worst impacts of climate change become unavoidable. And we’re already 50 ppm over the mark and well on our way to 450 ppm. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Hence more CO2 in the air means a hotter planet, and a hotter planet means ever more frequent, more destructive weather events.

Do we really think we can play with fire without getting burnt? Do we think we can play in the smoke without choking? Over the past decade we’ve already gotten a foretaste of what’s in store for us: disastrous floods, deadly heat waves, harsher droughts, raging wildfires, more devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, and super-storms. Even if we were to cut our carbon emissions by half overnight, the trajectory of warming we’re already on would still continue for decades before leveling off. But don’t count your luck. Since we’ve been doing little to reduce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels—and since the fuel corporations, politicians, and a supine press are doing their utmost to keep the public happy and oblivious—the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is likely to continue unchecked for a long, long time to come. As Bill McKibben has pointed out in his book Eaarth, we’re ushering in a radically different planet.

Since extreme changes in the weather strongly influence food production and food prices, curbing global warming is intimately connected to the work of BGR. Weather disasters strike and food supplies dwindle. Smaller food reserves mean higher prices, which in turn mean more hunger, illness, death, and despair. If we’re going to reduce global hunger, we’ve got to stop climate change. If we’re going to give people a fresh lease on life, we’ve got to ensure that their environment remains stable. Sadly, the most severe repercussions of global warming hit those in the global South, populations least responsible for it. Yet no one on earth is safe. There’s no place one can hide to escape the shocks to be unleashed when the planet’s mean temperature exceeds the range congenial to human life. We’re all vulnerable to floods and tornadoes; to droughts wilting our essential crops; to strange pests appearing out of the blue and ravaging our food supply. We’ll all have to face a future in which famished children in relief camps look up at us with hollow eyes, desperate populations migrate to our shores, and states descend into conflict, chaos, and perhaps regional wars.

Our moral responsibility extends both horizontally and vertically: horizontally, to our contemporaries throughout the world, who are already suffering under the impact of a warmer, stranger, more violent planet; and vertically, to our descendants, who will have to bear the weight of the legacy we leave to them. As Buddhists, we’re constantly enjoined to cultivate compassion to all sentient beings, above all to our fellow human beings. But compassion is not a luxury we can leave behind when we get up from the cushion. Under our present circumstances, the supreme gesture of compassion is to act—to act courageously, to act decisively, to act unrelentingly to protect the planet, to protect the poor and needy, to protect the voiceless species facing extinction, to keep the earth viable for present and future generations.

We can’t expect politicians to act without a strong push, no matter how bright their smiles and how eloquent their words. Far too many of our elected representatives are pawns of the corporations, whose contributions feed their campaign chests and gratify their ambitions. Even less can we expect the CEOS of the oil, gas, and coal corporations to take our side. Despite their lovely endorsements of environmental ethics, they know what sells, and their eyes are so glazed over by delusion that they can’t even see how their policies have thrown into jeopardy their own future and the future of their children.

It is we ourselves who must act—without procrastination, fear, or the despondent thought that we are powerless. In numbers there is power; in collective action there’s hope for change. Opportunities to act are sprouting up all around us. We need only open our eyes to see them. A search on the internet will turn up plenty of ways to act, many ways to take a stand. Already several campaigns are set to launch this summer, among them the Summer Heat campaign of and the June Week of Action of Fearless Summer. It’s our collective future that’s at stake, so let’s get to work.

One response to “Playing with Smoke and Fire

  1. Thank you for this article,full of clarity and determination. It is a challenge not to despair so I appreciate your recognition that we each have the power to act.