Using empathy to combat climate change

Tackling climate change is a difficult task, especially on an individual level. Perhaps all we need is empathy...
14 October 2014

Interview with 

Dr Roman Krznaric


Empathy Tree HuggerWhat can we, as individuals, do to help with climate change? 

Dr Roman Krznaric is from the London-based a cultural enterprise think tank 'School of Life' and he's also author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution

So what exactly is empathy and how can evoking empathy combat climate change?

Kat -   So, can you explain a little bit about, how does the issue of empathy tie-up with climate change?

Roman -   Normally, we think of climate change as something that needs technological scientific solutions, but try and think about it through the lens of empathy.  I mean, 98% of us have the ability to empathise, to step into other people's shoes, wired into our brains.  And climate change can be seen as a problem of a huge empathy deficit.  We're not putting our empathy into practice in two ways.  We're failing to step into the shoes of people in developing countries who were being hit by extreme weather events related to climate change.  We just heard about Anneil there in Bangladesh being hit by floods.  And equally, we're failing to step into the shoes of future generations.  What's it like to be a teenager living in Dublin or Dubai in 2100 in a climate changed world?  Unless we can make that empathic leap, we're not actually going to create the kind of grassroots social movements, the kind of political action, that is required to push the politicians to come to new global agreements.

Kat -   How do we evoke empathy for the climate?  Is the solution just, cute pictures of polar bears? 

Roman -   I'm sorry to say that all those cute polar bear pictures haven't actually been very good at galvanising people over the last few years on climate change because the social science research tells us that actually, what motivates us is caring about other people more than plants or animals.  That's the reality of it and there needs to be much more campaigning about trying to give a human face to the people whose lives are being affected by climate change today and in the future.

Kat -   One of the things that we see a lot is on social media, things like Facebook.  Lots and lots of people sharing pictures and saying, "Save the Planet".  Is social media actually going to help us evoke this empathy and desire to do something or is it just people scrolling through, clicking, clicking?

Roman -   I think social media is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, there's a lot of 'slack-tivism' rather than activism around people clicking in online petition, thinking that's genuine political action.  but we also know that organisations like or the Climate Outreach Information Network in the UK have used social media to get tens of thousands of people onto the streets.  Just a few weeks ago, 162 countries, there were climate change protests, nearly 50,000 people in London, over 350,000 people in New York.  When you look at human history, you don't get big political change, action on climate change or the movement against slavery in the 18th century, you don't get that without there being mass social action, collective action.  So, at the same times as we need to insulate our own homes, we do have to get out onto the streets and make our voices heard.

Kat -   So if there was one thing that you think could increase empathy that you would want to see tomorrow, what would it be?

Roman -   I'd like to see every school class in Britain having a twin link up with a school class in a country being hit by climate change today, whether in Kenya, or Uganda, or Bangladesh so that we actually have conversations with people in other countries which actually open our eyes to the realities of how climate change is affecting people's lives right now, today.

Kat -   Thanks very much.  That's Dr. Roman Krznaric from the School of Life London and author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.


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