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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

A Philosophical Approach to Climate Change

Francisca Cho

Global climate change certainly poses scientific, technological, and a host of social challenges, but it is also important to reflect on the topic from a very broad philosophical perspective and strive to be self-conscious about the assumptions with which we tackle these challenges. The default assumption regarding global climate change is that it is a problem—which is certainly correct from the perspective of our collective human existence. The concerns here are for maintaining our habitats, our way of life, and our viability for our children and future generations—and this includes the survival of other species as well.

But it is worth considering that even global human concerns are limited ones, and there are schools of thought such as Chinese Daoism that look to the broader processes of nature as the ultimate canvas. And the picture that we find in nature is that change—including climate change—is an inexorable reality to which humans contribute, on the one hand, and to which humans must concede, on the other. Our discussions of climate change tend to focus on human agency to raise ethical questions about sustainability and about how much natural resources we need to consume to be comfortable and happy. These are important conversations for raising awareness of personal and communal practices, and for making informed choices. One might also consider, however, that the human species is an integral part of nature, which cannot refrain from impacting the environment and from being impacted upon in turn. We should engage in conservation because we value current forms of life, including our own very existence, but this is not necessarily the mandate of planet Earth itself. The natural history of our globe features the birth and death of countless species of flora and fauna, which causes scientists, philosophers, and theologians alike to mourn the “wastefulness” of evolution and all that has been lost to the past. Such regret is a human emotion and not a universal one at that. It is possible to see the cycles of evolutions and extinctions as the story of nature itself, from which human existence cannot be exempt.

This undoubtedly sounds fatalistic to many, but that depends on the assumptions you hold. One may believe that human life has a special place and value in the existence of the planet that confers particular responsibilities—and such a belief undoubtedly leads to productive scientific, technological, and social actions. One can at the same time see human existence in the manner of the traditional Chinese landscape painting, in which you have to strain your eyes to see the people and their habitats enfolded into the vast terrain. This does not belittle human life so much as it expresses a different sense of its dignity. The brevity and uncertainty of our existence, one might say, is precisely what makes it so precious and valuable.

Francisca Cho works in the area of East Asian Buddhism, particularly Buddhism and science.

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