Charles B. Chilufya, S.J.

“Please open your hearts…” so went the strong and passionate call from the 26-year-old Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Muthuti as she spoke to the world leaders yesterday on the first day of the world leaders’ summit of the COP 26 hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  She moved our hearts to the core when she later called the leaders to a moment of “compassionate silence” for all the suffering masses who are not even present at the COP 26 tables of negotiation and yet are the ones who bear the brunt of climate change ranging from hunger and poverty, lack of access to water and food to loss of life and so on. “If you allow your hearts to feel it, the injustice is hard to bear,” Elizabeth continued.

Elizabeth hit it home. Politics and economics “without a soul”, “without a heart,” without compassion will not solve the current climate crisis and other related crises we are facing. If world leaders do not activate compassion and in their hearts, something else will grow in their hearts, maybe greed or simply heartlessness! 

As hinted out already, when we speak about climate change today, we are speaking about human suffering. Suffering clearly suggests that society is not alright or its not functioning okay. In her call to world leaders, Elizabeth was asking them to engage the human virtue of compassion to respond to the suffering of the innocent especially children.  Compassion is a form of sympathy in pain or sadness. Compassion is participation in the suffering of others. Furthermore, all suffering deserves compassion. Acting compassionately does not imply that one is responsible for the ongoing suffering or that they approve of the sufferer. Rather, as Pope Francis calls nations and leaders of the world in his letter, Fratelli Tutti, to act compassionately means that one refuses to be indifferent to the pain and suffering of another. One chooses to listen to their heart, to be a “Good Samaritan.”

But, even though you see them gather at the various COPs, do you ever wonder why dealing with major climate change issues that represent human suffering has never been a part of the core priorities of governments of the world? Climate and even the environment in general, is not core business in the same way that the economy is. As Elizabeth and several other speakers demonstrated yesterday, climate change has brought about untold misery, suffering and death of countless individuals including children. But in the face of all this suffering those who can make decisions to stop this suffering keep postponing or ignoring what could be done now. Yet, the same leaders and governments acted swiftly and with the expenditure of vast sums of money in response to global financial crisis in 2008–9. They have never shown anything like this urgency or willingness to spend on any environmental or climate issue. 

It is easy to explain the difference. The principle concern of global leaders in a market economy is not life but always to maintain the conditions for economic growth, which normally also means maintaining the confidence of markets in the government’s own operations. The other major concern is their own security and survival. A major and core security imperative of governments is protection against external threats. Do you not ever wonder why rich nations like America spend trillions of dollars on defence armaments? 

The current climate change crisis is a clear moral failure and a failure of humanity, where the risks, burdens, and benefits are distributed in a complex fashion across space and time and yet all of this does not yet mean anything at all comparable in the immediacy of its consequences for governments. World leaders remain blind or heartless as they continue to fail to see how climate change and all its attendant effects ranging from food insecurity or hunger, increased poverty, inequality to homelessness, refugees dying at sea, and so on, are deccimating lives while they all watch. 

“Listen to your hearts…” Elizabeth was awakening world leaders to the fact that compassion, a resource they possess that is even more valuable than the money they possess has power to solve the climate crisis. Unfortunately, it has been edged out of the political debate, replaced by a politics that puts profits of a few over human life, politics of division and myopic nationalism, fear, anger and division, and a narrative which emphasises individual country success over collective global well-being and happiness.

As the young Elizabeth powerfully pointed out to world leaders we are more than our little nations and our business interests; we are larger than life. We love, care, volunteer, help and support. The COVID-19 crisis has taught us this lesson quite powerfully. It has shown us how compassion is our real nature and how this virtue can foster life in the face of crises and death.  The COVID-19 crises spawned great and spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion from individuals, communities and the private, public and third sectors all across countries. We saw countless volunteers who signed up to assist the most vulnerable, to the donation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) equipment by businesses, and the kindness shown by the doctors and nurses who used their own phones to connect extremely ill patients with their loved ones when they cannot be with them in person. Compassion has driven our response as countries and communities in a concerted effort to protect and save lives.

So, what if instead of encouraging the greed we have celebrated we promoted a new kind of politics with a new set of values at the heart of decision-making? What if we address the suffering brought about by climate change as a societal problem? The question for policy makers then centres on the appropriate policy response driven by and anchored in compassion, concern and care. We can create a global community that saves lives, improves everyone’s lives, and protects our natural world.

The kindness, care and compassion that the world has witnessed and celebrated at the height of the COVID-19 crisis has moved us and buoyed us up as a community of humanity. These virtues should herald a resetting of our values that society needs in its leaders. Kindness, care and compassion are about the relational; they cannot be compelled or required, and need the right conditions in which to flourish.  World leaders need to cultivate and grow them. The world will not adequately respond to the potentially devastating long-term social and economic consequences of climate change unless we develop public policies that continue to value compassion, care and concern and demonstrate an understanding of our shared humanity and our shared home. “Please open your hearts!”