Stretching science: why emotional intelligence is key to tackling climate change

Faith Kearns at the Conversation: “…some environmental challenges are increasingly taking on characteristics of intractable conflicts, which may remain unresolved despite good faith efforts.

In the case of climate change, conflicts ranging from debates over how to lower emissions to denialism are obvious and ongoing -– the science community has often approached them as something to be defeated or ignored.

While some people love it and others hate it, conflict is often an indicator that something important is happening; we generally don’t fight about things we don’t care about.

Working with conflict is a challenging proposition, in part because while it manifests in interactions with others, much of the real effort comes in dealing with our own internal conflicts.

However, beginning to accept and even value conflict as a necessary part of large-scale societal transformation has the potential to generate new approaches to climate change engagement. For example, understanding that in some cases denial by another person is protective may lead to new approaches to engagement.

As we connect more deeply with conflict, we may come to see it not as a flame to be fanned or put out, but as a resource.

A relational approach to climate change

Indeed, because of the emotion and conflict involved, the concept of a relational approach is one that offers a great deal of promise in the climate change arena. It is, however, vastly underexplored.

Relationship-centered approaches have been taken up in law, medicine, and psychology.

A common thread among these fields is a shift from expert-driven to more collaborative modes of working together. Navigating the personal and emotional elements of this kind of work asks quite a bit more of practitioners than subject-matter expertise.

In medicine, for example, relationship-centered care is a framework examining how relationships – between patients and clinicians, among clinicians, and even with broader communities – impact health care. It recognizes that care may go well beyond technical competency.

This kind of framework can demonstrate how a relational approach is different from more colloquial understandings of relationships; it can be a way to intentionally and transparently attend to conflict and power dynamics as they arise.

Although this is a simplified view of relational work, many would argue that an emphasis on emergent and transformative properties of relationships has been revolutionary. And one of the key challenges, and opportunities, of a relationship-centered approach to climate work is that we truly have no idea what the outcomes will be.

We have long tried to motivate action around climate change by decreasing scientific uncertainty, so introducing social uncertainty feels risky. At the same time it can be a relief because, in working together, nobody has to have the answer.

Learning to be comfortable with discomfort

A relational approach to climate change may sound basic to some, and complicated to others. In either case, it can be useful to know there is evidence that skillful relational capacity can be taught and learned.

The medical and legal communities have been developing relationship-centered training for years.

It is clear that relational skills and capacities like conflict resolution, empathy, and compassion can be enhanced through practices including active listening and self-reflection. Although it may seem an odd fit, climate change invites ability to work together in new ways that include acknowledging and working with the strong emotions involved.

With a relationship-centered approach, climate change issues become less about particular solutions, and more about transforming how we work together. It is both risky and revolutionary in that it asks us to take a giant leap into trusting not just scientific information, but each other….(More)”