Liz Grant: Can compassion contribute in the climate crisis?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 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?

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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.

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 SDGs, 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.

Liz Grant is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Director of the Global Health Academy, and Assistant Principal for Global Health at the University of Edinburgh. RSE is Scotland s National Academy, which brings great minds together to contribute to the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of Scotland.