Climate Change Denial

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December 3, 2008


George Marshall @ 7:05 pm

Guest blogger Roman Krznaric argues for a revolution in empathy to tackle climate change.

‘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:

Climate Diaries
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).

Climate Corps
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

Roman Krznaric is the expert on Empathy at The School of Life in London. You can see a 6 minute video of Roman talking about empathy and climate change link..

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  1. elizabeth McHale says:

    As a particpatory theatre operative the foundation of my work is empathy.

    I use drama and participatory tools to enable people to understand the issues surrounding their lives and then to empower them to explore stratagies to make changes.
    My Theatre Company is called SPEAK OUT !

    I am also a double cancerian so it runs in my blood !

    I wonder if there is an area in which we can work together ?
    Lizzie Mc

  2. Hi Lizzie,

    Thanks for your comment. I think participatory theatre is a fantastic means of nurturing empathy and inspiring political empowerment. More generally, acting is one of the best ways to shed our skins and enter the lives of others. In her book Other People’s Shoes, the British Shakespearean actress Harriet Walter has written that actors ‘are the custodians of another person’s thoughts, and must locate them and reproduce them as faithfully as possible. This has nothing to do with interpretation or imitation. Accents and mannerisms are not the point. The exercise is to quieten our own ego and let another person speak.’ This approach to acting mirrors the imaginative act of empathising where we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of another, and allow their thoughts and experiences to become part of us and guide us. To my mind, the more drama work around climate change, the better.

    But I think we need to go one stage further than taking part in theatre workshops, beneficial though this may be. Each of us needs to learn how to become an actor in our everyday lives, and empathise with the relevant ‘actors’ in the political struggles that we are taking part in. One of the reasons I like the actor Ben Kingsley is that he was so convincing as both the saintly Gandhi and as the bastard gangster Don Logan in the film Sexy Beast. We need to be able to play multiple roles like Kingsley if we are to meet the challenge of climate change. On the one hand we need to understand, as best we can, the perspectives and individual lives of drought victims in Kenya today or our potential grandchildren in the year 2080 who will be living with the effects our our carbon emmissions.

    But we also need to learn to empathise with people who are not ‘victims’. I mean here the oil company executives, the spineless politicians, and the people who take cheap short-haul flights with EasyJet for weekend holidays in Barcelona. I have often been castigated for advocating that we should try understanding the viewpoint of such people, who many regard as beyond reproach and not worthy of much consideration. But I remain firm in my belief that no political struggle can be won unless you learn to empathise with your enemies. If you do not make the effort to have an open conversation with the oil company executive, and really try to see his side of the story, then we will forever be plagued by forms of misunderstanding that will make the climate crisis ever more difficult to handle. We must learn to play ALL roles in the drama of climate change.

    Lizzie, I’d love to know more about you theatre work, so if you want to continue the conversation, contact me via my website,

    Best wishes,

  3. audaye says:

    Hi Really like the idea of climate diaries and linking these stories across the world would bring out the texture of the wider narrative. You might be interested in the sibling cities idea (item 13) that gained some interest at the transition cities conference.

  4. Brad Pierce says:

    There’s also an empathy deficit on the part of many who are working to stop climate destruction. I feel they too seldom put themselves into the minds of the people they wish to convince, but instead act as if what they believe today should just seem obviously true to others, even though they themselves didn’t always feel so certain about all this, and even though a sense of certainty has been proved by their own life experience to be a fallible measure of correctness.

    For example, maybe raising the fear level is counterproductive if one wants action instead of denial? For example, maybe most people take their clues about what’s right and normal from observing the society around them? For example, maybe some believe that the changes are real but not caused by human behavior or that such changes are part of God’s plan?

    Maybe calm, loving, empathetic listening sessions with those who aren’t “willing to make substantive changes to how they live” would teach much about how they think and what might move them.

  5. I think your ideas are excellent, very practical and very well designed for engaging people. I also though think that the previous commentator has a point, people are very attached to their lifestyles and we need to understand more about their situations as well as help them to understand others. Also I think that society in general has made people in the Western World very passive and it will take a lot of work to change that and to encourage people to engage again.

  6. Anthony says:

    Some of us are vary scared. We see how bad things already are, see what the tamest predictions are and see how nature is moving faster than the most pessimistic predictions.

    we need to avoid a situation we cannot adapt to and adapt to what we can’t avoid. Yet there is precious little sign of either.

    The word is burning and we are all sitting here fiddling.

  7. Chris Harries says:

    As a long term climate campaigner, I am pleased that we have turned a corner during the past three years. Denial is still strong in some quarters, yes, but the conversion to an acceptance of anthropegenic climate change is now happening at several million of people per day around the planet. Social change takes time.

    One of the major triggers for this turnaround was Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and I believe only five words in that film actually kick started the turnaround: “This is a moral issue”, said Gore, very emphatically. Empathy was the key to this sea change in attitude.

    Until that point climate change was largely considered an environmental issue – external to ourselves (for most), a spiritual issue for a minority.

    To add to Brad’s comment, while some use denial politically and expediently, we also know that denial is an intrinsic component of human behaviour. We therefore ought to be compassionate towards those who are so confronted by the hugeness of climate change that their instinctive response is to turn away from it, deny it, don’t let it upset their daily life.

    If we understand this as a very normal human response we will respond to it much more intelligently and productively that if we do so by simply attacking their arguments or labelling them.

  8. Prokofy Neva says:

    >Millions of people in rich countries know about the damaging effects of climate change

    Sigh. Here we go again. Empathy starts with ceasing the class war and the hate right here at home on your blog, believing that climate change is all the fault of some evil imperialist fat rich West blah blah.

    China is rapidly becoming the main culprit; Russia too. They aren’t rich. Tons of other developing countries are also to blame. The rich countries are in a better position to educate and mitigate than the poor, so hold your fire.

    What’s really important with this crisis is to keep your head and encourage factual reporting, not “stories” and touchy-feely “empathy” that is misplaced on situations that might not in fact grow out of actual climate change. It’s also very important not to have an atmosphere of brow-beating and hatred of those who *question* the premises around the climate-change believers. Climate change, where it is real, makes itself known without having to bang anyone over the head about it. There is no need to agitate and incite.

  9. Alva says:

    Let’s be empathy generators!

    Great article. I too wonder how it was that the market, prices, and consumption, became supreme. And any attempts at doing something that was ethical, or ‘green’ was labelled as radical, hippy and bad for the economy.

    Creating empathy by sharing individual stories works; as an Australian, discovering stories of how indigenous people view climate change was very powerful for me. (

    But I also think that we also need to show people the innovative and simple solutions available (or in progress), as it encourages people to want to discover more (using positive/creative thinking as a motivation, rather than fear)

  10. bi -- IJI says:

    Brad Pierce:

    There’s also an empathy deficit on the part of many who are working to stop climate destruction.

    No, seriously, we’ve tried.

    We’ve seen that there are some people who simply refuse to be convinced that climate destruction is a real problem, no matter what we say.

    Take this from Rush “de facto GOP leader” Limbaugh for example:

    In fact, I’ve got to find it. There’s a story in this you will not believe. It’s gotta be right after this, and I know I organized this well today. Yes. Here it is. There’s a chart out there. The Earth has not been warming since 1998, and this year — last year, this year — is colder than the previous year. It’s cooling. This is not anecdotal. It’s scientific, temperature research surveys. […]

    […] In fact, the stimulus bill, the Porkulus bill was sold and presented to you identically to the way global warming has been. Everything’s a crisis! Everything’s an emergency! There’s no truth to anything that’s being said about all this, be it global warming or what the stimulus package is going to do. It’s a disaster, and it’s all designed to get you to agree to pay higher taxes down the road.

    How do you empathize with Limbaugh? How do you empathize with a radio talk show host who sees millions of people losing their jobs and insists that there’s no economic crisis?


  11. James Munday says:

    This website asked:

    “…why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?”

    Climate change is an intensely misinformed debate, and whilst I shed little light on the root issue, this should address at least two of the key problems:

    Firsty, I shall begin by telling you what you already know. We are doing so little about climate change because those with the power to propose any radical change have little incentive to do so. There is an enourmous economy based around, amoungst other things, the petrol car. This ranges from the factory to the oilrig, right down to the man that makes the spark plugs, and if, suddenly, we were to all buy a green car, it would destroy that economy and the lives dependent on it. Thusly, even if we did want to jepordize that economy by replacing it (After all, who would then need troops securing oilfields?) a gradual change has to be made.
    Additionally, power by fossile fuels (whether in a car, jet or power station) has many more servicable parts and requires a constant input of fuel, and so will always be more econmocally attractive than a relaible, green power source running off water or moonbeams. Why spend time and money changing to electric cars, which will then lead to reduced profits, when we have enough oil and men already building those cars?
    Additionally, why invest in great technology such as geothermal power? You cannot fiddle with the prices as you can with oil or coal, as there is a constant output of power regarless of economic conditions. If fact, a serious geothermal energy programme would be able to provide almost free power for the large proportiuon of any population. Whilst that is great, again it doesn’t make anyone a profit, and so is unlikely to occur.
    Green simply isn’t economic on a variety of scales. As a result, few green products are marketed to us, and those that are, are done so at a high price – excluding the average person. Hybrid cars and personal wind turbines are still a quasi-luxery items for the middle class; too expensive for the average worker who makes up your taget population. Is it right then to scrutinize them for not buying such products?

    Secondly let us show some empathy and understaing of the veiwpoint of the general public. The public have not been given any clear, seemingly unbiased and most importantly complete evidence about climate change. Most of the publics information on well, anything, is based on television, radio and basic print media such as newspapers and magazines. It is on this information that most people will make their life descions. A small percentage may use the internet to research current issues, however very few do and even less use academic journals and textbooks – and we cannot expect them to do so. There is simply too much information relevant to the debate, and the public at large cannot be expected to read through the hundreds of volumes of reports or so far un-united data.
    What they need is a clear, relibale and unanimous statement. However the afformentioned media outlets do not provide this: the reports we read or see in common media are often fast (so impotant information is missed, averaged or skimmed over) and sensational (so that all semblence of objectivity is lost). With this in mind, we can see why we are often given graphs with hundred year time serises instead of a more accurate million year serise –. Finally and most importantly, common media is lacking in much of the fundemental evidence – The IPCC report istelf, for example, ommitted any comment of CFC’s and OZone.
    As a backdrop to this, we are often reffered to the scientific world, who, in spite of the headlines, are not united in thought on this matter. Any reasonable scientist will tell you that a ‘debate’ is still going on, which nessestiates the absence of an absolute answer. In reality the scientific world does not have enough evidence to have a clear scientific concensus, (though we are often told that they do agree); there are too many contributing factors to the enviroment that have not yet been accounted for in models, and the reliability of our historical data and timescale is comprimised. Graphs often depict hundred year scales which is not an accurate way to represent climate change on a planetary scale – for this we need to look at data over several millions of years. To assess human contribution to the effects wemust take a sample which excludes humans, and this data is rarely presented.
    So the average person is daily bombarded with hardline debate and fragments of poetentially unreliable information from a vareity of sources that they have never heard of, and then pressured into making descisions based on that information. Not only are they pressured, they are often scared into such decisions –examples are given in your own article Beware Green Bearing Gifts (George Marshall, December 19, 2007 6:01 pm). Regardless of the credibility of such information, this all amounts to coersion. Do not misunderstand me, recycling or turning off lights is easy, and it is beyond my comprehension why most people don’t do it, however the pulic have been almost deliberatly confused into non-action. Without a clear beacon of information in which the public trust, they are unlikely to make any substasial life changes based on anything abouve guilt.

    Additionally the information is often presented by people who we suspect of selling us the idea or related ideas. You cannot deny that some people’s livlihoods are based on peddling the idea of man-made climate change, whether it’s true or not. The public have been deceived so much recently that they are weary of a man selling them a wind turbine whilst telling them the world will end if they dont buy it, or to that extent a politician selling the country a whole windfarm.
    So when the people, who for hundreds of years have been lied to and manipulated, are presented with a poorly researched debate on which not all of the scientific community agrees and on which many people stand to make money, is it any wonder that they show disinterest or distrust? The idea that we lack empathy may be correct, but it is rude and hypocrtical to assume such a position of moral supiriority especially when you have not shown empathy to those whose views you hope to change. You expect many people to either fully understand a complex problem, or to blindly follow your word, both are unrealistic, people should come to their own decision. What is more worrying is some are using the fact that people are not jumping on the eco bandwagon as a sign of mental unsoundness (See recent “research” by the University of the West of England) – which is simply perverse. The idea of ‘Climate Change Denial’ is appaling as it assumes moral victory before the scientific debate is concluded.
    I prefer the word ignorance to empathy (I myself am largley ignorant to the debate), because it singles out those who have not yet had the oppertunity to learn by being presented clear information. The provision of all of the relevant information, clearly and in a centralized place is nessasary if we expect the people to make a decision. Until that time looking down on them from our ivory wind turbines, or stemming the debate as you have done “How to win the climate change argument – in a 15min tea break” (, is insulting and unproductive.
    Hopefully my rant will be of assistance to you. You seem committed in providing information, but I worry about both the quality of that information and its potential for bias. I neither believe nor disbeleive in man-made climate change, mostly for the reasonts given abouve, but mostly because I believe I can be responsible without commiting to an ideal…

  12. Monkee says:

    Climate Diaries

    How would anyone know which effect was related to global warming?
    Say if I chose Bangladesh which had been consistently prone to natural disasters for centuries, how do I decide which ones were or will be related to CO2 emmissions?

    Climate Corps

    Would that money not be better invested in researching 3rd generation Photovoltaics?

    The Climate Futures Museum

    who gets to decide if what the future holds?

    Climate change is a technical problem that needs a technical solution.

    The reason why no one appears to care is precisely because of the army of sociologists, political scientists etc that make up the majority of the green movement.

  13. Monkee says:

    “why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?”

    Because its better to think first before you jump?

    I bet the author of this blog would be overwhelming in favour of the EU direct banning the use of tungsten filament lightbulbs, mandating a change to “energy efficient light bulbs”

    the fact of the matter is that a far more energy efficient technology is on the horizon, solid state LED lighting. Surely the cost of switching would have been more efficiently invested in this technology?

    but passing rash laws are the placebo that make the perpetual hypochondiacs and wanna be heros feel better about themselves

    Less panic and more rationality would make people take more notice to climate change

  14. Andy says:

    Hi Roman

    Great article.

    This paragraph grabbed my attention:

    “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? ”

    The first time I read it, I saw ‘politics’ instead of ‘policies’ – as it chimes with my belief that for politics to have any chance of representing the real needs of everybody, it must start talking about ‘fairness’. Every young child understands intuitively what is fair and what is not. Perhaps they lack the neural machinery to dissemble and sincerely represent something manifestly not fair as if it is. Many of our politicians are not so afflicted!

    We met at George Marshall’s talk in Belsize Park last year, and spoke about the empathy experienced among donor and recipient of living donor kidney transplants (I had a kidney transplant from a good friend). Do get in touch if you’d like to pick up on that.

  15. Anna Nicole says:

    I think your ideas are excellent, very practical and very well designed for engaging people. I also though think that the previous commentator has a point, people are very attached to their lifestyles and we need to understand more about their situations as well as help them to understand others. Also I think that society in general has made people in the Western World very passive and it will take a lot of work to change that and to encourage people to engage again.

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