Close this search box.


Buddhistdoor View: What Next After Our Planet’s Hottest Year?


After several alarming reports of the hottest month on record in 2023, scientists have officially noted that 2023 was the hottest year for our planet on record. To be exact, “averaged across last year, temperatures worldwide were 1.48 degrees Celsius, or 2.66 Fahrenheit, higher than they were in the second half of the 19th century. . . That is warmer by a sizable margin than 2016, the previous hottest year.” (The New York Times) As experts have warned, we are on a trend toward even hotter temperatures in the future, due primarily to our excessive burning of fossil fuels.

The warming planet has brought rising alarm to many. From the loss of glaciers and the melting of sea ice and impending extinction of animals due to habitat-loss to eroding beaches, flooding, and catastrophic fires, the destructive nature of this change is becoming increasingly undeniable. Many of us are experiencing uncertainty, fear, hardship from loss of homes and livelihoods, and even death.


Buddhism can offer a reprieve from such uncertainty and fear, teaching the stability and truth of the Dharma and the expanse of sentient existence, which is not dependent on any one planet. The universe itself, we are told, exists within cycles of expansion and contraction. Nothing is permanent, and certainly this includes glaciers, ice caps, panda bears, and even humanity. We are encouraged to contemplate our own finitude so as to accept the inevitability of not only death, but also the countless unwelcome changes along the way. Non-attached equanimity is the aim of our practice, however lofty that may seem from the perspective of our day-to-day concerns.

Nonetheless, this world around us, deteriorating as it may be, is the locus of our practice toward understanding and embodying the wisdom and compassion needed to look upon the world with true non-attachment. One Buddhist teaching that links our moral activities with the world around us is the Aggañña Sutta. The text tells us of the evolution of the world and creatures in it in a way that intimately connects moral deeds including lust and greed to the conditions of the world around them. The lesson there, as in most Buddhist teachings, is clear—we must work diligently to reduce our greed, aversion, and delusion if we are to overcome the suffering we experience and cause others to experience.

Climate scientist Michael Mann has told us a similar story of our planet’s climate—one in which human agency is changing our world for the worse, but one in which moral actions can lead to change for the better. Just as the Buddha centered our morality and argued against fatalists and determinists, Mann urges us to understand and accept how our actions have caused harm in order to bring about positive change. As Mann noted last fall, “the primary obstacle to action on climate change no longer seems to be denial; it’s the idea that we lack agency, doomism: “It’s too late to prevent catastrophic, runaway warming and the extinction of all life.’” Mann adds, “There are a lot of people who think that the science supports this view, but it doesn’t.” (Yale Climate Connections)

Michael Mann. From
Hannah Ritchie. From

Hannah Ritchie, a data scientist who has focused her research on climate change, also seeks to calm the voices of doom in our world. She herself was one of them, thinking:

A world that was 6C warmer than it is today would be devastating. And remember, 6C is just the average. Some parts of the world would get much warmer, especially the poles. Crops would fail. Many people would be malnourished. Forests would be stripped back into savannahs. Island nations would be completely submerged. Many cities will have disappeared due to sea-level rise. Climate refugees will be on the move. “Normal” temperatures in many parts of the world would be unbearable. Even the richest, most temperate nations would see devastating floods most winters and baking summers. We would be at very high risk of setting off warming feedback loops – the melted ice would reflect less sunlight, the melted permafrost might unlock methane from the bottom of the ocean, and dying forests wouldn’t be able to regrow to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. A 6C warmer world might be short-lived – it could quickly spiral into 8C, 10C or more. It would be a massive humanitarian disaster.

Only a few years ago, I thought this was where we were headed. Forget 1.5C or 2C – we were destined for 4C, 5C or 6C and there was nothing we could do about it. Most people still think that this is the path we’re following.

(The Guardian)

She continues, “Thankfully, it’s not.” (The Guardian)

Ritchie says that too much attention to the headlines—often using small pieces of data to project worst-case scenarios—led her astray. Instead, she says that a close reading of the data offers a more hopeful picture of 2C-2.5C warming by the end of the century.

Granted, she notes, this is not good. But we have also seen progress in technology, from solar cells to electric vehicles, that make movement away from fossil fuels not just morally exemplary but also economically wise. What’s more, Ritchie tells us that there are a wide range of areas where the data shows that we are overcoming disease, poverty, and violence across the globe. This is exactly the opposite of what she had thought based on popular and media portrayals of the world. Ritchie writes:

I had been duped by an education system that was supposed to teach me about the world. I was a diligent student. I won medals for coming top for everything, from earth materials to sedimentology, atmospheric science to oceanography. I could create complex diagrams of seismic faults, I could recite the chemical formulas of pages of minerals from memory, but if you’d asked me to draw a graph of what was happening to deaths from disasters, I’d have sketched it upside down.

I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. In the 2017 Gapminder Misconception Study, the public, across 14 countries, were asked 12 key questions, one of which was:

How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the past 100 years?

a) More than doubled
b) Remained more or less the same
c) Decreased to less than half

Just 10% got the right answer: c). The most popular answer, 48% of the vote, was a).

(The Guardian)

In terms of climate change, she also has good news. Ritchie notes that our per capita emissions peaked in 2012. Since our global population is still growing, our overall emissions are too. But as per capita emissions continue to slow alongside population growth, there will eventually—perhaps soon—be a moment when total global emissions begin to fall.

As Buddhists, a difficult part of our practice is in “seeing things as they truly are.” This is mostly a matter of aligning our ethical behavior and our meditation practice toward a life of wisdom and compassion. But it also incorporates living wisely in this world and that means having basic data and scientific literacy.

Understanding complex issues such as climate change is not easy, and most of us can only hope to listen well to the truly wise and to follow their guidance. But how different is this from our Buddhist practice? How do we know when and why to focus our attention on texts, rituals, or meditative practices?

With discernment, we find the voices of wisdom in the world and attend to them. We know that their findings might change or that new wise teachers might supersede them. Our discernment today tells us that we as individuals and societies are making gains in fighting the climate crisis, but that there is still much to be done. We might be grateful for those who highlight the worst-case scenarios, if only to wake us from ignorant slumber about the state of the world. But we also need the wisdom of those telling us to remember our progress as a species as well as our duty to continue to improve the world.

See more

See How 2023 Shattered Records to Become the Hottest Year (The New York Times)
Renowned climate scientist Michael E. Mann on what ‘doomers’ get wrong (Yale Climate Connections)
I thought most of us were going to die from the climate crisis. I was wrong (The Guardian)
What Came First (Sutta Central)

Related features from BDG

Buddhistdoor View: Here Be Dragons – A Year of Transformation and Thunderstorms
Personal Action to Mitigate the Climate Crisis
A Future We Can Love: Susan Bauer-Wu Offers a Buddhist Perspective on the Climate Crisis
Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis: The Eightfold Path of Sustainability
Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis: RAINING – A Meditation to Harness the Energy of our Difficult Feelings
Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis: Earth Words and Watershed Activism
Climate Crisis: 2,185 Scientists, Academics Call for Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments