Wikileaks: The Dalai Lama's Misplaced Climate Change Strategy

12/21/2010 11:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As disclosures from the Wikileaks scandal continue to reverberate, the public is learning about hidden U.S. diplomacy in all far corners of the globe. The latest unlikely story involves the Tibetan Dalai Lama no less, who spoke with American diplomats last year about climate change high atop the Himalayan Mountains. In a meeting with U.S. ambassador to India Timothy Roemer, the Dalai Lama argued that the U.S. should seek to employ a different strategy toward Tibet. Instead of pressuring Beijing on the political front, the Dalai Lama declared, Washington should seek to leverage environmental concerns in the hope of buying some relief for the Tibetan people.

News of the secret cable underscores the growing importance of climate change in Tibet and its severe impact upon local people. Indeed, from melting permafrost to changes in surface water on grasslands to disrupted rainfall patterns to the retreat of Himalayan glaciers, the signs of global warming are becoming more and more palpable. China meanwhile has exacerbated the overall environmental situation by pressing for rapid infrastructure development. As part of its effort to integrate Tibet, Beijing has spearheaded the exploitation of local timber and mineral resources as well as boondoggle hydropower development in the Himalayas.

Even worse, China encourages the inward migration of ethnic Han peoples into Tibet so as to extend its political influence throughout the region. Having taken control over the land, China then outrageously employs climate change as a wedge issue against the Tibetans by claiming that local nomads need to be resettled. The nomads, Beijing claims, are damaging grasslands through overgrazing and as a result this age-old way of life has become unsustainable. As they are resettled, the nomads are forced to live in bleak and isolated housing where they can't keep their animals and there are few other means of surviving economically.

Wikileaks cables reveal that the Dalai Lama is gravely concerned about such issues, and is seeking to re-frame the Tibet problem in environmental terms. Indeed, when speaking to ambassador Roemer the Dalai Lama remarked that the political agenda "should be sidelined for five to ten years" while the U.S. seeks to engage China on climate change and the environmental peril on the Tibetan plateau. Specifically, the Dalai Lama was concerned about melting glaciers, deforestation, and increasingly polluted water from mining projects. These problems, he explained, "cannot wait," adding that China's dams had displaced thousands of Tibetans while leaving temples and monasteries underwater. In addition, the Dalai Lama recommended that China compensate nomadic peoples by providing vocational training which would emphasize alternative skills like weaving.

Isabel Hilton of the London Guardian has remarked that the Dalai Lama's political comments are not likely to gain the Tibetan spiritual leader many friends amongst the exile community's fiery younger generation, which is less compromising and accommodating toward Beijing. Nevertheless, the paper adds that "if the concern is the survival of the nomadic peoples of the Tibetan plateau, then the Dalai Lama is right [to raise the climate change issue]."

I agree with Hilton, though I have a slightly different take on the matter. While talking to the U.S. ambassador cannot hurt his people's cause, I believe the Tibetan spiritual leader should do more to tackle the issue of global warming. If the Dalai Lama is serious about safeguarding Himalayan glaciers, then getting the U.S. (the world's second largest greenhouse gas emitter) to pressure China (the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter) is an exercise in futility. Indeed, as I've discussed earlier Washington has attempted to strong arm the rest of the world in advance of international climate summits as evidenced by further Wikileaks documents.

The climate change justice movement is in dire need of a high profile figure to advance its agenda, and the Dalai Lama is an ideal spokesman. Consider that glaciers are retreating not only in the Himalayas but also in the South American Andes. In my recent book I devote an entire chapter to the issue of glacier melt in Peru, where indigenous peoples are facing a social and environmental collapse. The Dalai Lama should be making these connections and adding an urgent voice to the debate. Perhaps, he might even consider spending significant time in Bolivia where Indians and the Evo Morales government have been pushing a radical climate change agenda.

To be sure, taking on the global warming issue carries some political risk. The U.S. has made it quite clear that it will not brook any dissent when it comes to ramming through its international agenda. When Bolivia criticized the Copenhagen accord, which was widely seen as an inadequate mechanism to rein in climate change, the United States severed its climate funding to the impoverished Andean nation. As a man of peace who has dedicated his life to the spreading of compassion, the Dalai Lama may not want to insert himself into such a polarized, or let's just say "heated," debate.

On the other hand, the Tibetan spiritual leader may not care about playing the diplomatic game anymore. The Dalai Lama is now 75 years old and has already announced imminent retirement. Perhaps, he has given some thought to what his long-term legacy might be and feels that he may not have much to lose by taking up an issue of key international importance. If he were to take a more active environmental role, then he would inspire many Buddhists in the developed world. Some forty years ago, there were only about a dozen Tibetan meditation centers in the entire world. Now, there is hardly any city or medium-sized town without one. What is more, if the Dalai Lama became more involved he would surely prompt an army of Hollywood stars to follow his lead.

Message to Dalai Lama: maybe it is time to stop the unproductive, backroom parlor games with the U.S. and get out in front on the climate change issue. The nomads who inhabit the Tibetan plateau and indigenous peoples of Bolivia need a more public spokesperson who will take up their cause within influential corridors of power.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) and Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Visit his website,