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Mindful Futures Guiding Climate Futures

Image by Fredrika Carlsson

Dr Lynne Reeder - Founder, Mindful Futures Network

If our mindful futures are to inform our climate futures, then embedding the science of mindfulness, empathy, and compassion into climate policy is essential. Below are three examples from that science that could be considered as part of the current COP26 discussions; and they include that:

  1. Emotional wellbeing and social infrastructure are just as crucial in climate change policy, as is physical infrastructure.

  2. A focus on future generations should be a prerequisite for all climate change policies.

  3. Understanding the limited ways humans have evolved to respond to long term threats can assist us in better ‘seeing’ and responding to the climate emergency unfolding before us.


"We call on the delegates of COP26 to make sure their decisions will effectively tackle climate change and put people's mental health at the centre" - Mark Rowland, CEO, Mental Health Foundation, UK

The recent devastating fires in Australia and in California have exposed the changing nature and impact of climate disasters into urban areas. To date policy development in disaster management has mostly focused on building and sustaining physical and community infrastructure. Although resilience policy covers a range of socio-economic, environmental, and physical aspects, there are very few examples that focus on emotional wellbeing as a crucial aspect of climate change related disasters.

Recent advances in neuroscience research and other fields suggest that certain inner capacities, like mindfulness can open new pathways towards societal resilience. But in the fields of disaster risk reduction and resilience, their potential role has been largely ignored.

Climate events are increasing in intensity and frequency and their aftereffects are more complex. In the 2020 Routledge Handbook of Urban Disasters, Prof Christine Wamsler, Dr Lynne Reeder, and Mark Crosweller state that we need to build personal and societal resilience to prevent individual and social harm and to increase personal and collective wellbeing. They recommend that if decision makers are to produce more evidence-based disaster response policies, then they, and first responders, should be trained in socio-cognitive and socio-affective mindfulness modules - to assist in putting the experiences, capacities, and emotions of those affected at the centre of social resilience planning.

To better understand the potential of mindfulness in building resilience, a deeper understanding of recent advances in social neuroscience, and how the mind influences our capacity to deal with the suffering inherent in the occurrence of hazards and disasters, is required. Neuroscience research shows that capacities of self-awareness, reflexivity, flexibility, adaptability, compassion, and empathy can be proactively increased through cognitive training, such as mindfulness.


"You don't need to see my pain or my tears to know that we're in a crisis" - Brianna Fruean - Samoan Climate Activist at COP26

Governments have a duty to protect future citizens, not just present ones and in this context Roman Krznaric considers one of the most important question of our time to be, ‘How can we be good ancestors’? He says that responding to this question will require our generation to imagine its future with deep-time humility – something indigenous groups have been doing for tens of thousands of years.

Empathy is an essential competency in social relations and in recent times there has been considerable research on empathy within a range of disciplines including neuroscience, biology, economics, evolutionary biology, psychology and civic engagement. Krznaric notes that humanity is now faced with one of the most urgent social questions of the twenty-first century – what obligations and responsibilities do we have to the generations who will succeed us?

In term of that intergenerational equity, in the lead up to COP26 the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Climate Action, Selwin Hart, noted that ‘…. we need to find ways to involve young people in discussions and decisions on climate change. I hear their frustration. I’m hoping that we hear the voices of young people at Glasgow and post-Glasgow’.

The unpredictable nature of climate change effects has been shown to have a significant impact on the fear and stress levels of those who experience it, and in response the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently called for a shift beyond short-term cycles and for policies to be developed through a lens of ‘… empathy and wellbeing’. So it’s reassuring that embedding empathy into policy development is already on the radar of some world leaders.


"Enough of brutalising our biodiversity" - António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations at COP26

The powerful statements of António Guterres at COP26 clearly remind us that to date we have not risen to the challenge of being compassionate to our planet – the only home we have, and we need to better understand what in the human make-up stops us doing that.

Prof Paul Gilbert, the creator of Compassion Focused Therapy notes that the research base of compassion and empathy is vital because, ‘...the motivation of compassion pushes us to understand how we have structured the world, and to ask how we can structure it better, not because we may suffer, but because others are suffering’. In his thought-provoking book, Living Like Crazy - he concludes that compassion in particular, ‘is one of the most healing motivations that nature ever came up with’. Not to draw on these research and policy outcomes to cultivate and use these skills and motivations ‘for the benefit of us all would be to live like crazy.’

One of our crucial challenges is how do we as a species, intentionally shift our focus from threat-based reactions, to more reflective responses in dealing with long-term policy challenges that can produce sustainable climate mitigation and adaption policies?

Innovative responses to climate change will need to consider that humans have survived as a species because they have evolved to notice and react to imminent threats. Harvard psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert states that humans have adapted to respond to immediate problems such as global pandemics, but not so good at more probable, but distant dangers, like global warming, noting that when faced with these types of hazards, the brain produces indifferent or aversion responses.

It's interesting to note therefore, that as the world leaders are meeting in Glasgow – there is a concurrent conference at the University of Edinburgh entitled ‘Realising A Compassionate Planet’ which will bring compassion science into dialogue with climate science.

And in a recent presentation to the Women’s Climate Congress online conversations, Dr Lynne Reeder commented that ‘It will only be when we acknowledge the deep level of our global interdependence, that we will be able to participate in our common humanity, by intentionally shifting our focus from threat-based reactions to reflective responses. These more conscious choices will allow us to create long-term policy responses capable of supporting sustainable climate mitigation and adaption.

In Australia we are very close to ‘living like crazy’, with what has been broadly recognised as an inadequate commitment and contribution to the current climate discussions. Perhaps Glasgow just might provide the platform for us to shift evolutionary gears, but that will only happen if we can also seriously integrate the science of mindfulness, empathy, and compassion.

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