Edinburgh Impact

Can compassion contribute in the climate crisis?

Actions driven by the powerful emotion could bring significant change.

World in hands

By Liz Grant, Professor of Global Health and Development, Usher Institute

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which Scotland committed to in 2015, set out a blueprint for a world where by 2030, people and planet will flourish.

The world is in a different place from 2015. The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis has made the goals more urgent. Indeed, a recent report on Health and Climate Change highlights that, despite clear and escalating signs of impending danger, the global response has been muted. We are behind on commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and our increasing carbon intensive practices have seen marked decreases in the quality of air and food.

We have almost all the science we need to make changes – renewable energy, biotechnology and biofuels to name but a few. Yet, the biggest challenge we face this decade is how to bring about change in the hearts and mindsets of individuals, institutions and national systems. So, can social science help close the gap?

Heart of compassion

Compassion is an important construct scarcely considered in the fight against climate change, but its impact on encouraging change should not be underestimated. American activist, Joan Halifax, once said: “We live in a time when science is validating what humans have known throughout the ages: that compassion is not a luxury; it is a necessity for our well-being, resilience, and survival.” So, could considering the impact of climate change on those worst affected bring about change in the hearts and minds of individuals?

Compassion can be described as a four-part process: noticing pain and suffering, interpreting the suffering, feeling empathic concern or sadness, and acting to alleviate this suffering in some way. The heart of compassion is in the action.

The power of caring 

Emerging neuroscience research has shown us that compassion shapes neural pathways. We can train and grow compassion skills which change the way we think and act, the way we feel, and how we feel. Compassion is innate, the capacity to be compassionate has been with us since early age, infants of 18 months display care and concern for others who are distressed. Compassion is a deep evolutionary adaptation, which has enabled our survival, there is an evolutionary win in compassion.

A post-pandemic world needs to make good on the blueprint of the Sustainable Development Goals, and compassion has significance, as it highlights the common humanity of the goals. It helps us see the part we play in bringing about change. Compassion changes the knowledge about inequity into passion. And finally, compassion drives us to take action to alleviate this suffering. It is more than a powerful emotion, it is a powerful illuminator, an animator of what is and a map of what could be.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman on 30 March 2021

Image credit: Getty/Anastasiia Stiahailo

The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.