About 70 percent of Americans believe that the climate is changing, most acknowledge that this change reflects human activity, and more than two-thirds think it will harm future generations. Unless we dramatically alter our way of life, swaths of the planet will become hostile or uninhabitable later this century — spinning out ecological, epidemiological and social disasters like eddies from a current. And yet most Americans would support energy-conserving policies only if they cost households less than $200 per year — woefully short of the investment required to keep warming under catastrophic rates. This inaction is breathtakingly immoral.
It’s also puzzling. Why would we mortgage our future — and that of our children, and their children — rather than temper our addiction to fossil fuels? Knowing what we know, why is it so hard to change our ways?
One answer lies in the nature of empathy: our ability to share, understand and care about others’ experiences. Deeply empathic people tend to be environmentally responsible, but our caring instincts are shortsighted and dissolve across space and time, making it harder for us to deal with things that haven’t happened yet.
Human activity is now a dominant force in shaping the Earth’s environment, but humanity’s moral senses have not kept pace with this power. Our actions reverberate across the world and across time, but not enough of us feel the weight of their consequences. Empathy could be an emotional bulwark against a warming world, if our collective care produced collective action. But it evolved to respond to suffering right here, right now. Our empathic imagination is not naturally configured to stretch around the planet or toward future generations. That puts their very existence at risk. Ironically, our better angels — and the way they operate — might be hampering our ability to do what’s best for the world.
Empathy evolved as the north star to our moral compass. When someone else’s pain feels like our own, we have reason not to harm them. Empathy is also ancient, tuned to a time when we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Much as we did back then, we still find it easier to care for people who look or think like us, who are familiar, and who are right in front of us.
It’s difficult to scale our emotions to the global task that climate change represents. For instance, people feel strong empathy after hearing about one victim of a disaster — whose face we can see and whose cries we can hear — but hearing about hundreds or thousands of victims leaves us unmoved. Such “compassion collapse” stymies climate action. Environmental damage has already produced enormous suffering, particularly in the global south. But in the global north, where most carbon emissions are produced, these victims are distant statistics who garner little empathy.
Like distance, time diminishes empathy. People find the future psychologically fuzzy; we even tend to view our future selves as strangers. This leads individuals to make shortsighted choices such as accruing debt instead of saving for retirement. Across generations, this tunnel vision worsens. Not only are the consequences of our actions far off, but they will be experienced by strangers who have yet to be born. Add to that an uncertainty about their lives — a century from now, humanity might have solved climate change using tools we cannot imagine, or been ravaged by a war that makes today’s sacrifices irrelevant — and you have a perfect recipe for indifference. Indeed, researchers find that people are less willing to sacrifice when the benefits of their actions feel far away or unsure.
Yet empathy is a skill we can build through the right choices and habits, which is the subject of my book “The War for Kindness.” Crucially, even if empathy is naturally tuned to the short term, the right tools can expand it into the future and build climate consciousness along the way. One strategy is to turn the abstract concrete. When people make personal (or even virtual) contact with individuals who differ from them, they see them more clearly and empathize with them more deeply. Reading about the lives of people affected by climate change — such as sisters Kulsum and Komola Begum, who survive by scavenging for debris among the ruins of towns in Bangladesh destroyed by unprecedented storm surges — can help those of us who are more comfortable become less comfortable with the consequences of our actions. So, too, can vividly imagining the floods, water shortages and other calamities that await us if we do nothing, rather than letting them remain fuzzy.
This might explain why children and teenagers, such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, have emerged as leaders in the movement for climate action: Children are living, tangible and beloved representatives of the future, not to blame for climate change but at risk of paying for it dearly. In one recent study, scientists assigned North Carolina middle school students to a “climate curriculum,” in which they learned about the risks posed to their coast by rising sea levels. The children also interviewed their parents about these issues, for instance asking if they’d noticed changes in weather patterns over their lifetimes. Both before and after the course, researchers polled students and parents about their environmental attitudes. Compared with their peers, enrolled students expressed growing concern about climate change. More powerfully, their parents did as well.
Children can be viewed as less politically entrenched than adults, and thus more persuasive. But their effectiveness in the climate conversation might also reflect the moral urgency of coming face to face with the people who must live in the world we leave behind. As one child activist recently declared: “You’re all going to be dead in 2050. We’re not. You’re sealing our future now.”
This raises another challenge in caring for the future: We won’t be there. Considering great spans of time means facing our mortality — an unnerving encounter that can turn people inward and increase tribalism. But other experiences can make us feel entwined with the world after us. One is the feeling of awe: a sense of something so vast that it interrupts our selfish preoccupations. Psychologists induce awe by showing people images of enormous things, like the Milky Way or a vista of Himalayan peaks from the show “Planet Earth.” In one such study, after watching awe-inspiring clips vs. amusing ones, people reported feeling small but also more connected to others; they also acted more generously.
The vastness of time is just as staggering. Imagine standing next to the California pine tree Methuselah — at almost 5,000 years old, probably the most ancient living organism on the planet. You could imagine a person touching its trunk a hundred generations ago, and a hundred generations from now. Seeing yourself as part of a long chain of humanity, you might be more inclined to tend to its future.
Consistent with this idea, psychologists have found that people with a long view of the past are more concerned with environmental sustainability. For instance, older countries score more favorably on an environmental performance index, which records variables such as national air pollution and water cleanliness. And in one clever study, researchers showed Americans timelines depicting the nation’s history. Some participants saw a timeline spanning back to the Roman Empire, which made the United States seem like a brand-new arrival on the world stage. Others saw a timeline that began with Christopher Columbus’s departure from Spain, making America’s history feel longer. People made to see the United States as an old country vs. a young one reported feeling closer to future generations and were more willing to donate to environmental organizations.
Touching the past can connect us to the future, especially when we look back fondly. In one set of studies, psychologists induced people to think about the sacrifices past generations had made for them. These individuals became more willing to sacrifice short-term gains to help future generations, paying forward their forbears’ kindness. Organizations like Longpath are applying these insights to foster sustainable thinking. They reason that gratitude toward the past might empower us to help those who come after — a kind of golden rule across time.
Empathizing with the future, alone, will not save the planet. The majority of carbon emissions come from a tiny number of massive companies, which are abetted by government deregulation. Empathy can be a psychological force for good, but climate change is a structural problem.
That doesn’t mean individuals don’t matter. Our behaviors create norms, social movements and political pressure. Newfound awareness of how voiceless, powerless people suffer has sparked enormous change in the past. It can again.
Empathy is built on self-preservation. We watch out for our children because they carry our genes, for our tribe because it offers sex, safety and sustenance. Spreading our care across space and time runs counter to those ancient instincts. It’s difficult emotional work, and also necessary. We must try to evolve our emotional lives: away from the past and toward a future that needs us desperately. Doing so might help us to finally become the ancestors our descendants deserve.