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Wikileak: Dalai Lama says climate change in Tibet more urgent than political solution. Why?

In a Wikileak-exposed secret cable, the US ambassador to India said:

The Dalai Lama argued that the political agenda should be sidelined for five to ten years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation, and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that "cannot wait."

What exactly is happening to the Tibetan Plateau to cause such immediate concern? Who is responsible? What can be done? And how might the Buddhist teachings of compassion speak to solving this urgent threat?

Fragile Tibetan Ecosystem Unravelling

Tibet, courtesy of Reurinkjan on Flickr

The Tibetan Plateau is home to one of Eurasia’s most pristine grasslands. The combination of its immense size and its location near the tropics make it “one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on Earth.”   The World Wildlife Fund describes the Tibetan Plateau as :

“The highest and largest plateau on earth. It shelters a wide array of unique species, including the Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, wild yak, blue sheep, snow leopard, brown bear, Bengal tiger and black-necked crane. The Tibetan Plateau is also the source of almost all of Asia's major rivers: the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween, the Indus, and the Yarlung Tsangpo, which downstream becomes the Brahmaputra. Because of its high elevation (ave. elev. 4000m), the ecosystem here is extremely fragile. Once damaged, it is extremely difficult to reverse.”

Today that vast, fragile and unique ecosystem is over-heating at a destabilizing rate: 0.32 C every decade since 1961. Qin Dahe, the former head of the China Meteorological Administration, stated:

"Temperatures are rising four times faster than elsewhere in China, and the Tibetan glaciers are retreating at a higher speed than in any other part of the world." "In the short term, this will cause lakes to expand and bring floods and mudflows." "In the long run, the glaciers are vital lifelines for Asian rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. Once they vanish, water supplies in those regions will be in peril."

A three year study for the China Geological Survey found a billion cubic meters of water had disappeared from the glaciers feeding the Yangtze, China’s longest river. It also found that in some regions melting glaciers are flooding prime pasture lands posing a severe threat to local peoples and their economy. In other regions, disappearing smaller glaciers are creating drinking water crises.

A Science Daily report delved deeper:

"If I compare this land to what it used to be in the 1960s, it is difficult for me to recognize it," recalls Qi Mei Duo Jie, a 71-year-old nomadic herder from Yanshiping in China's central-western Qinghai Province. "Glaciers are melting, temperatures are rising and rainy seasons have become unpredictable."

"In the last 20 years, larger portions of frozen ground have melted during summer," says Professor Li Shijie from Nanjing's Institute of Geography and Limnology. "With less water and more sand on the ground, desertification is just one step away." "With warmer weather, evaporation is happening at a rate faster than the melting of the glaciers that supplies water to the river. Overall, this means a smaller water supply for local inhabitants." "Warming temperatures will certainly continue, but weather events such as rain, snow and wind are becoming less predictable," adds Professor Li.

Experts today agree on one trend: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands and lakes -- all elements of the fragile high-altitude ecosystem -- are being altered at a speed never seen before.

"Once destroyed, it will be extremely difficult to restore the high-altitude ecosystems," adds WWF's Dr. Li Lin.

The China Daily newspaper reported that increased desertification alone is causing $126 million per year in direct losses.

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