Talking about climate change: What Buddhist teachings offer

For the Gazette

Friday, September 08, 2017

I wince a little when I recall an email exchange with an old college friend.

Rebecca Reid

He responded to my annual Christmas letter, where I had revealed my political involvement against climate change. It turns out he is a “climate skeptic” and has written articles for conservative journals.

In an article he sent me, he dismissed forecasts of climate doom as the usual environmental alarmism and accused climate scientists of fudging data and dismissing contrary evidence. His “skepticism” about climate change relied mainly on ad hominem attacks — if the Democrats are behind something, especially Al Gore, it has to be a bad idea.

I did battle and refuted him with the facts as I knew them. We talked past each other, I’m afraid. I was polite, but my arguments were fueled by self-righteous certainty. There is now less trust between us than before.

My half of the conversation would have fared better had I asked more questions and listened, tuned into how he thought and what is important to him, gotten to what underlies his aversion to Democrats and liberals, and connected with his conservative values. I could have mentioned prominent conservatives who are active in climate issues, including James Baker and George Schultz, who founded the Climate Leadership Council.

I sense that this sort of effort to connect is becoming progressively more rare in America, where polarization is the norm. It’s difficult to remain calm when things I care about are at stake, especially when someone shows contempt. I felt shaken by that conversation. It’s easier to have nameless and faceless people on the other side of an issue. Part of me wants to dismiss his viewpoint; part of me wants to be up to the task of building bridges. I’d like to say I’ve continued the conversation, but I haven’t.

I realized I wasn’t ready or skilled enough. Fortunately, I later discovered Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), an organization that trains people to be effective lobbyists for the climate, whether talking to a member of Congress or to our next-door neighbor. If the point of our conversations about climate is to persuade, then communication skills are important.

Foremost among those skills are the ability to set aside one’s opinion, listen and tune into the other, and make connections from which one can build bridges to common understanding and respect. One must earn the right to be heard. In future conversations of this sort, I hope now I can be more effective.

My faith tradition is Buddhism, and CCL’s approach offers me ways to practice what Buddhists call “Right Speech,” which might also be translated as “in-tune” or “harmonious” speech. It is true, does no harm, comes from a place of good will, brings harmony and is spoken in a way that is gentle and can be heard.

I’m also a Buddhist teacher, so you’d think I’d be good at that already. Not always, especially if I feel provoked. When it comes to politics, my spontaneous tendency is to “set people straight” on an issue. That’s being virtuous and truthful, isn’t it? Well, no.

CCL’s notion of being a lobbyist and the Buddhist practice of Right Speech both rely on an important insight. In the ecology of human relationships — personal and political — how we speak matters. Simply refuting an opinion ignores the relationship I have with the person and the need for a context of respect in which that person might actually be changed by what I say.

Buddhism calls negativity a “poison” of our inner world. Moreover, negative speech harms others, sometimes as much as or more than hitting them physically. Negativity is thus a pollutant of our social world as well. I suffered distress at what my friend thought, and it aroused the urge to fight. Once you are outraged, paying attention is nearly impossible. The energy of anger, condemnation, aggression, contempt and dismissal arouses defenses and creates division and mistrust. Labeling and shaming others is a form of violence.

From this viewpoint one might see the polarization of American politics as the fruit of the politics of outrage that both sides employ to mobilize their bases. As the Dalai Lama put it recently, the political polarization of Americans is really a contempt problem.

Harmonious speech does not mean merely being “nice” and smoothing over conflict. Addressing conflict can be a way to build genuine harmony and bring justice. Right speech might cause some discomfort. But the energy of words matters, if we want them to be received, if we want them to persuade, if we believe authentic power calls forth the best in people and does not simply force something on them. Our ability to relax, open, listen and connect can restore our political ecology, which is important if we care about the Earth.

Mark Hart is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in private practice in Amherst, the guiding teacher for the Bodhisara Dharma Community and the Buddhist Advisor at Amherst College. Learn more about Citizens’ Climate Lobby. To contact the Amherst/Northampton chapter of CCL, email amherst@citizensclimatelobby.org.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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