Environmental Empathy: How “Feelings” May Turn the Tide on Climate Change

What is it going to take to bring about real change when it comes to climate change and environmental protection? Many believe climate change is a future problem, but Haley Barber, Program Director of the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation (CISF) says, “climate change is our present.” CISF, based on the small island town of Jamestown, Rhode Island, was established over 20 years ago with the expressed vision of “connecting the community to the water and our environment.”

Since Jamestown has a deep and inextricable connection to the surrounding marine environment, the role CISF plays both in its programming and outreach goes a long way toward raising the specter of the negative consequences and impacts of climate change and general awareness of the marine environment. Barber explains the narrative that climate change is largely the fault of “human activity” is one that has been shaped and heavily influenced by fossil fuel-based energy conglomerates and sold to society as a bill of goods. The reality is that the majority of the responsibility for climate change rests with the fossil fuel companies (FFC). Reports indicate that collectively FFC companies are the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions at over 71% in addition to the negative impacts their extraction methods render.

However, Barber believes we all have a role to play in finding and contributing to solutions because “everything is interconnected, so the actions we take do make a difference.” At the individual level, real change begins with fostering a sense of “environmental empathy.” For Barber, environmental empathy is “an understanding of and care for the outdoors and our connections to the outdoors. The traditional Britannica Dictionary definition of empathy is, “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” With environmental empathy, “one’s actions are changed towards the way they treat something that they care about,” adds Barber.

Fostering environmental empathy is at the core of the work CISF does. Through direct and passive teaching methods CISF helps program participants, their families, and the broader community, develop an awareness of and respect for nature as something more than just themselves, foster an understanding that if we take care of it (the environment), it will take care of us, and prove that individual actions make a positive difference. If people cannot identify personally with the environment or lack a direct connection to nature, it will be nearly impossible to realize the attitudinal and behavioral shifts necessary to slow (and ideally stop) the impacts of climate change. Therefore, the key to real and lasting change may ultimately prove to be less about science and more about feelings.