‘We seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit – our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through those who are different from us.’ – Barack Obama
Occasionally – just occasionally – a mainstream politician says something that is both original and useful. This is the case with Barack Obama’s views on empathy. In a thousand speeches, and in his book The Audacity of Hope, he has put cultivating empathy – learning to see the world from the perspective of others – at the centre of his moral and political vision.
I am inclined to praise him because I believe we should view the problem of tackling climate change not as an environmental issue, or one concerning technology or social justice or markets, but primarily as a problem of empathy. We must learn to see the individuals behind the newspaper headlines about climate change, and imagine ourselves into the uniqueness of their lives, developing an understanding of their most important experiences, beliefs, fears and hopes.Sound far-fetched, wishy-washy or a little too sandals-and-carrot-juice for your liking? Let me explain myself.
The big question facing us is this: How can we close the gap between knowledge and action on climate change? Millions of people in rich countries know about the damaging effects of climate change and their own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet relatively few are willing to make substantive changes to how they live. They might change a few light bulbs but they do not cut back on flying abroad for their holidays nor do they want to pay higher taxes to confront global warming.
So far economic, moral or other arguments have not been enough to spur sufficient action. This is because a fundamental approach has been missing: empathy.
Individuals, governments and companies are currently displaying an extraordinary lack of empathy on the issue of climate change, in two different ways. First, we are ignoring the plight of those whose livelihoods are being destroyed today by the consequences of our high emission levels, particularly distant strangers in developing countries who are affected by floods, droughts and other extreme weather events, such as flood refugees in the Indian state of Orissa. How many of us have made an effort to put ourselves in the shoes of
Annapurna Beheri, a woman from Orissa whose home and family shop selling biscuits and tobacco were washed away in 2007, and to imagine how her life has been affected by the realities of climate change? So, there is an absence of empathy across space.
Second, we are failing to take the perspective of future generations who will have to live with the detrimental effects of our continuing addiction to lifestyles that result in emissions beyond sustainable levels. Thus there is a lack of empathy through time. We would hardly treat our own family members with such callous disregard and continue acting in ways that we knew were harming them.
Generating empathy both across space and through time is one of the most powerful ways we have of closing the gap between knowledge and action, and for tackling the climate crisis. The problem is that, until now, empathy has been largely ignored by policymakers, non-governmental organisations and activists.
And although Obama talks fine words about empathy, he is yet to mention it in the context of climate change or to suggest concrete measures for creating the empathy needed to help reduce our emissions. It is time to recognise that empathy is not only an ethical guide to how we should lead our lives and treat other people, but is also an essential strategic guide to how we can bring about the social action required to confront global warming.
I would like empathy to become the watchword of a new era of policies, social movements, cultural projects and individual action on climate change. How can we encourage this empathetic revolution of human relationships? What exactly might it look like? Here are a few of my ideas for cultivating empathy across space and through time:
Small groups of individuals – for example members of a local neighbourhood association, work colleagues or some friends – could get together to create Climate Diaries. Each person chooses a developing country and for one month collects news clippings and other information about the effects of climate change in their country. They should focus on gathering materials of a personal nature, for instance interviews with drought-hit farmers. The group then reconvenes to discuss what they have learned, share insights and plan any practical action they may wish to take as a result of their researches. Climate Diaries is an idea that builds on recognised forms of grass-roots community action such as affinity groups, which have been used by innovative organisations such as the UK’s Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN).
The Peace Corps established as a federal agency in the US in the early 1960s has given hundreds of thousands of young people the opportunity to experience the realities of living in poverty in a developing country, especially in Latin America. I want the European Union to establish a similar programme called the Climate Corps. Young people would go on placements for a year to live with a community in a poor country hit by climate change. They would work on adaptation projects such as helping build flood defences, or engage in other work of use to their hosts, such as teaching English to village children. In EU countries with military service, Climate Corps should be offered as an alternative option. With the right marketing, joining the Climate Corps could become a rite of passage for young people as popular as back-backing for a year before university. One of the rules of Climate Corps is that you must travel to and from your destination without exceeding a carbon emission limit, which would force you to avoid travel by plane. Climate Corps would be a major boost to generating empathy across space.
The Climate Futures Museum
Without a time machine, it is impossible to give people direct experience of the future. But we can find ways to simulate the projected realities of everyday life a century from today. That is why every major city in the world should establish a Climate Futures Museum. The purpose of a Climate Futures Museum would be to provide experiential learning designed to develop our empathy with future generations who will have to live with the impacts of climate change if we fail to take concerted action in the present. The museum would not contain standard informational displays behind glass cases or on computer screens. Instead, it would house experiential exhibitions that allow visitors to understand in reality what it would be like to have their homes flooded, to be faced by drought, or to experience a hurricane. You might have to put on a life jacket and be tossed around in a dinghy in a wave machine. Creative minds would be needed to design an empathetic experience that would be etched in your memory for ever.
Tackling climate change requires adventurous thinking to invent projects that will bring about a revolution in human relationships where we learn to put ourselves in the shoes of others and see the consequences of global warming from their perspectives. If we fail to become empathetic revolutionaries, the gap between climate knowledge and action will never be closed. Each of us needs to carve into everything we do, the empathetic credo, ‘You are, therefore I am.’
This is an extract from Roman Krznaric’s essay ‘Empathy and Climate Change: Proposals for a Revolution of Human Relationships’, written for the University of Manchester workshops on ‘Future Ethics: Climate Change, Political Action and the Future of the Human’ link You can download the complete version from www.romankrznaric.com.