5 Empathetic Strategies To Inspire Climate Action Now

Lisa Bennett on why people avoid engaging in the fight against climate change--and how empathy can be tapped as a powerful solution. This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Despite the economic risks of climate change, the response to global warming tends to be “flight” rather than “fight.” Experts on the economy (including three former U.S. treasury secretaries, Mike Bloomberg, and hedge fund manager-turned-philanthropist Tom Steyer) have recently called on the business community to lead the way in reducing the risks of climate change—saying that inaction would lead to significant economic costs in the decades ahead.

But what stands in the way of climate action isn’t just political deadlock or financial conflicts of interest. Rather, my research suggests that many of the obstacles to—and opportunities for—climate action also turn on how we think and, perhaps more importantly, feel about the issue.

For example, interviews conducted with hundreds of Americans and dozens of experts in risk analysis, political science, systems thinking, psychology, and neuroscience, have revealed that the most commonly reported obstacles to climate action include:

  • It’s overwhelming.
  • It’s too depressing.
  • It feels exaggerated and alarmist.
  • I don’t know what I can do that would make a genuine difference.
  • It seems like it’s too late.

In other words, why people don’t engage in climate action has less to do with with whether they “believe” or “accept” climate change, and much more to do with their emotional response to it.

When people pause to consider how the projections about global warming could impact their children or grandchildren, they often experience an uncomfortable mix of anxiety and inefficacy. Few of us, after all, believe that we can control the weather or rising seas. And that is one of the reasons why many people diminish, deny, or distract themselves from this issue that, from any rational perspective, should be a top priority.

How then do we move from the “flight” to “fight” response to global warming?

My coauthor on the book Ecoliterate, the psychologist Daniel Goleman, has demonstrated that the ability to use emotional information in decision-making and action leads to greater success in both business and education. And I propose that the magnitude of this issue requires that we do a much better job of applying the skills of emotional and social intelligence—at the root of which lies the increasingly important capacity for empathy.

Here, then, are five ways that the ability to understand what other people are feeling and respond accordingly—in other words, to use empathy—can also help us better manage the economic risks of climate change:

  1. Recognize that global warming often triggers negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear, and powerlessness, which often lead to a “flight” rather than “fight” response.
  2. Counter these responses by emphasizing the solutions to climate change.
  3. Understand that this complex global issue is beyond human scale and, therefore, difficult for people to personally relate to.
  4. Make global warming more accessible by addressing it on an individual, family, or community level. As Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research has shown, a narrow focus helps overcome the “psychic numbing” associated with big threats.
  5. Remember that emotions are more powerful motivators of change than facts— and seek to inspire positive emotions, such as those associated with our shared human desire to regard ourselves as good people who want to do the right thing.

Bringing an empathic perspective to this issue will not, of course, lead to all the needed solutions to climate change. But it is an essential step for overcoming many of the obstacles to action we now face.

Lisa Bennett (@LisaPBennett) is a thought leader of the Building Vibrant Communities challenge, director of the communications firm A Better Climate, and coauthor of Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence.

Image Credit: If my parents don’t pay the price… – Melbourne World Environment Day 2011 (Photo credit: John Englart (Takver))