Ambassadors of Empathy

“If we are willing to open our hearts to the problems of others, then we just might start a real dialogue – and take the first steps toward a movement with the inclusiveness and solidarity necessary to tackle the enormous challenges we all face.”
-M. Sanjayan, Executive Vice President and Senior Scientist, Conservation International

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There is a book that I have cited many times over the last few years. It is a collection of essays called the Thirty Year Plan that Orion magazine released “on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary. [They] asked thirty writers and thinkers to name one thing we will increasingly need over the next thirty years if humans are going to find a way to live happily, sustainably, redeemably on earth.” I love this book because it doesn’t explain that we need things like a Clean Power Plan, or an international climate agreement. Instead it proposes that the most important things we need are improvisation, optimism, luck, and a larger sense of time, to name a few.

One of the essays in the book names the importance of empathy. This is by far my favorite essay. Don’t tell anyone, but I have been known to say, “forget about the climate science; what students really need to learn to deal with all this is empathy.” The question I have often wrestled with, however, is how do you teach it? I think I have hit upon it. Here’s the formula:

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Find 10 super dedicated teachers. Invite them to Paris to observe the world climate talks. Ask them to prepare their students for the experience by developing their own position statements and sharing their hopes and dreams for a better future. When the teachers arrive in Paris, facilitate interactions with people from countries all over the world. Immerse them in conversations and media and stories about how climate change is impacting the world as a whole, as well as individuals and real live people. Ask them to reflect and then share this with their students. Immerse them in the anticipation and anxiety of waiting for an outcome of an international climate agreement – possibly our last, and certainly our best, opportunity to deal with climate change. Finally, make it possible for them to share their students’ hopes, dreams and concerns with someone close to our President.

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The depth of feeling I have observed in our 10 Education Ambassadors, and felt myself this last week, would truly not have been possible without an immersion in this experience. What’s more, the webcasts back to each educator’s classroom have been filled with more tears than I think any of these teachers have ever expressed in their classrooms before, moving one of their students to send a late-night email asking what he could do to stop climate change. I am not a proponent of making students scared, but it is important for our students to understand that real people from around the world are losing their homes, livelihood and entire nation to climate change. They need to feel real empathy for others, beyond themselves and their immediate community. This experience at COP21 has helped our teachers be ambassadors of empathy for the people they have had the opportunity to meet and get to know here. In turn, I only hope this will nurture a similar empathy in their students, who will be our future world decision-makers, on climate change and many other issues demanding of empathy.

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