The Dalai Lama / photo by Petr Kratchovil

A U.S. State Department cable released by Wikileaks shows U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer reporting that, in an August 2009 meeting, 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.’”

The full text of the leaked U.S. embassy cable can be read at the Guardian website.

The UK Guardian, one of the media outlets that has been given access by Wikileaks to leaked U.S. State Department documents, reported this item on December 16 (“WikiLeaks cables: Dalai Lama called for focus on climate, not politics, in Tibet”). The article, which should be read in full, led with:

The Dalai Lama told US diplomats last year that the international community should focus on climate change rather than politics in Tibet because environmental problems were more urgent, secret American cables reveal.

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader told Timothy Roemer, the US ambassador to India, that the “political agenda should be sidelined for five to 10 years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau” during a meeting in Delhi last August. 

“Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that ‘cannot wait’, but the Tibetans could wait five to 10 years for a political solution,” he was reported as saying….

In a follow-up column in the Guardian on December 17, Isabel Hilton gave this perspective (excerpt):

WikiLeaks cables: the Dalai Lama is right to put climate change first

The Dalai Lama, according to the latest release of WikiLeaks cables, told US diplomats that, for Tibet, climate change is a more urgent issue than a political settlement. This will certainly dismay some of the more radical elements of the region’s independence movement….

But if the concern is the survival of the nomadic peoples of the Tibetan plateau, the Dalai Lama is right….[B]eyond the Himalayas, the profound and irreversible impacts of dramatic environmental changes are overtaking politics as a threat to the Tibetan way of life. The signs are everywhere: in melting permafrost; changes in surface water on the grasslands; disrupted rainfall patterns; and the retreat of most of the Himalayan glaciers – the largest store of ice outside the north and south poles.

Beijing has invoked climate change as the final argument for the forced settlement of about 100,000 Tibetan nomads, blaming them for damaging the vulnerable grasslands by overgrazing….The programme heralds the death of a way of life that has been maintained, sustainably, for centuries….

The push for hydro-power development, part of China’s climate mitigation strategy, is leading to the world’s biggest programme of dam construction in the Himalayas – in a region highly prone to earthquakes and mostly built with scant regard to the interests of those downstream, or of the people whose homes and lands are drowned.

These are urgent threats to the habitat on which all Tibetans depend. Even in the unlikely event of an imminent political settlement, the impacts of damaging models of development and of climate change would continue. And while China’s policies are an important cause of the developing environmental crisis, so – as the Dalai Lama pointed out – is the lack of US action on climate change. The effects of rising temperatures on the plateau, already painfully evident, will continue for decades. But any hope of slowing or reversing those impacts depends on action taken now.

The Dalai Lama is 75 and the end of his leadership of the Tibetan people is in sight. He has announced his retirement and is unlikely to see a political settlement in his lifetime. Without him, Beijing calculates that the exile effort will falter and the last impediments to its Tibet policies will disappear. But Beijing would also do well to understand that, unless the Dalai Lama’s environmental warnings are heeded, theirs will be a hollow victory. And the US should see that to support Tibet’s political cause while doing nothing to prevent the climate change that risks devastating lives across the Himalayas amounts to little more than gesture politics.

Dalai Lama photo courtesy of Petr Kratchovil