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

December 19, 2010

For Tibet, climate change is a far more urgent issue than independence –
its very survival is at stake

Isabel Hilton, Friday 17 December 2010 19.00 GMT

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. Many of the
younger Tibetans in exile are already frustrated with their spiritual
leader's moderate and non-violent approach. For them, independence will
always trump the environment.

But if the concern is the survival of the nomadic peoples of the Tibetan
plateau, the Dalai Lama is right. Exile activists, with a familiar cast
of celebrities and sympathisers, have done much to define western
perceptions of Tibet as primarily a political issue. But the Dalai
Lama's efforts to secure a meaningful autonomy for Tibetans have not
flourished. Nor has any pressure applied by the US measurably improved
Tibetans' freedom; and today, with an increasingly confident and
nationalist China, the prospects for progress are in retreat.

Meanwhile, beyond 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 nomads' new homes are
bleak and isolated housing settlements, where they cannot keep their
animals and where there are few other ways to make a living. The
programme heralds the death of a way of life that has been maintained,
sustainably, for centuries.

And, further, China's ambition to integrate Tibet – with the pressure of
inward migration by Han Chinese; rapid infrastructure development; and a
push to exploit Tibet's rich timber and mineral resources to fuel
China's economic growth – is putting heavy pressure on a rich but
fragile environment.

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.
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