Q&A: Local SIO Climatologist Will Co-Moderate the Dalai Lama's Visit to UCSD

The Dalia Lama will make his first visit to San Diego on April 18 and 19 to speak about major global issues, including climate change. Scripps Institution of Oceanography climatologist Dr. Richard Somerville will co-moderate this discussion at UCSD.

As a part of his three-day symposium here in San Diego, His Holiness the 14th Dalia Lama will speak at UC San Diego on April 18 about climate change and global responsibility. To help lead this discussion, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard C.J. Somerville, researcher and climatologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, was selected as one of the moderators.

Patch had a chance to talk with the researcher about how he is preparing for the event and what topics he hopes to cover.

Patch: How did you discover you were selected to be apart of this event?

Somerville: I received an email in December 2010 from Joy Frye, who is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD. She asked me about my availability to meet with the Dalai Lama to discuss climate change. Thus, it is very likely that I was selected by Dr. Tony Haymet, the Director.

Patch: How does this inclusion make you feel? What does this mean to you?

Somerville: I feel proud and humble to be chosen to meet with the Dalai Lama. It is a privilege and an honor, and it means a great deal to me on this occasion with the Dalai Lama to represent climate science and the research on climate change that is done both right here and also by the entire global scientific community.

Patch: How are you preparing for the event and discussion?

Somerville: I am reading, both from books and online, what the Dalai Lama has said and written on many topics, especially about environmental issues. I am also choosing a few key points to emphasize, because time will be very limited.

Patch: What do you think the significance is of having these lectures here in San Diego?

Somerville: The Dali Lama will be visiting three universities in San Diego (UCSD, SDSU, and USD), and I think it is a great opportunity to showcase the scientific and educational accomplishments of all three. It is also a terrific chance to bring critical challenges such as climate change to the attention of the public and policy-makers, because of the enormous publicity and media attention that the Dali Lama always generates.

Patch: Will you be in attendance at the other lectures?

Somerville: No, unfortunately, because the day after I meet with the Dalai Lama I have to leave San Diego to go to a research conference in New Caledonia, which is in the South Pacific near Australia and New Zealand.

Patch: What was your reaction after finding out His Holiness wanted to speak on the topic of climate change?

Somerville: I was thrilled. The only thing I can compare it with is the moment when I learned that the scientific organization I had worked with for several years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had been selected to share the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007.

Patch: Are you familiar with the Dalia Lama’s views on climate change?

Somerville: Yes. The Dalai Lama thinks that climate change is a very serious issue that requires action by people and governments everywhere. He has stated that governments typically put their national issues, such as their own economy, first, and global issues are often neglected as a result. The Dali Lama says that needs to change, and critical global issues such as climate change, must be given top priority.

Patch: Do you think the Dalia Lama speaking on climate change draws attention to this issue? If so, what kind of attention?

Somerville: The Dali Lama certainly draws attention to this issue. Because he is so widely known and respected, many people will pay attention to what he says. Far beyond the Tibetan Buddhist community, he is a trusted and even revered figure globally. This is exactly the kind of messenger that is needed to persuade people that climate change is real and serious. Whenever the Dali Lama speaks, millions of people listen.

Patch: What kinds of questions would you like to ask? Or, what topics would you hope are covered?

Somerville: I would hope that we would quickly come to agreement that climate change caused by human activities is already occurring, that it has many harmful consequences for people and other living things, and that these consequences will become worse as long as we continue to use the planet as a free dump for harmful by-products of human activities, such as gases that increase the natural greenhouse effect. The single most important point that I wish to make is that this is not an issue on which we can afford to continue to procrastinate and dither. Instead, science tells us that humanity needs to act quickly in order to limit man-made global warming to relatively moderate levels. This urgency is not political or ideological in nature, but instead comes from our knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the climate system. In particular, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases must peak and start to decline rapidly, not in 50 or 100 years, but in 5 or 10 years, at most.

Patch: Are there any specific climate change issues that directly affect San Diego? Would you like these brought up at the discussion?

Somerville: In San Diego, two of the most serious climate change issues are water supply and sea level rise. We import almost all of the water we use in San Diego. Our water supply will be adversely affected both by decreased available water from the Colorado River system and also by changes in the Sierra snowpack, such as reduced snowfall and earlier snow melt. There are many dominoes that fall when water becomes scarce, including obvious ones such as shortages, price increases, and increased competition between agricultural and urban uses, but also less obvious ones such as increased wildfire risk. A warming world also experiences sea level rise, because the ocean expands thermally and also because some of the water now locked up in ice on land will melt and ultimately will flow into the sea. Rising sea level also has many dominoes that fall as consequences, including loss of beaches, erosion of cliffs along the shore, additional flooding risk, and salt-water intrusions into coastal estuaries.

Patch: If you have time alone with His Holiness the Dalia Lama, what questions would you have for him?

Somerville: I would like to have the advice of the Dali Lama on what scientists should do in order to work more effectively with religious and spiritual and political leaders. After all, the Dali Lama, who says he is a “simple Buddhist monk,” actually combines all three of these kinds of leaders in one person, and he is very wise.

Patch is giving away two tickets to see the Dalai Lama. To enter to win, you need to think green and be green. .


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