Monday, July 08, 2019

The Burden They Bear - The Life and Times of Climate Scientists

"I have to walk away..."

Maybe you feel stressed out about climate change. Maybe you don't. There are many ways to unplug - denialism, unfounded optimism, even indifference. That is unless you're a climate scientist. They don't get to look the other way. They don't get to turn the channel.

David Corn explores what's happening to climate scientists today, the burden they bear and how it's wearing them down.
“Scientists are talking about an intense mix of emotions right now,” says Christine Arena, executive producer of the docuseries Let Science Speak, which featured climate researchers speaking out against efforts to silence or ignore science. “There’s deep grief and anxiety for what’s being lost, followed by rage at continued political inaction, and finally hope that we can indeed solve this challenge. There are definitely tears and trembling voices. They know this deep truth: They are on the front lines of contending with the fear, anger, and perhaps even panic the rest of us will have to deal with.”
While Americans feel “an increasing alarm” about climate change, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, scientists have been coping with this troubling data for decades—and the grinding emotional effects from that research are another cost of global warming that the public has yet to fully confront. Before you ask, there is no scientific consensus regarding the impact of climate research on the scientists performing it. It hasn’t been studied in a systematic way.
...Are scientists, then, canaries in a psychological coal mine? Is understanding their grief important because their anxiety could become more widespread within the general population?  
Put another way, climate scientists often resemble Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise, who knows of a looming catastrophe but must struggle to function in a world that does not comprehend what is coming and, worse, largely ignores the warnings of those who do. “An accurate representation” of the Connor comparison, one scientist darkly notes, “would have more crying and wine.”
...So what is it like to be cursed with foreknowledge that others ignore? Peter Kalmus, who received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and Columbia, respectively, spent about a decade working in astrophysics. He then moved to ecological forecasting based on satellite data, and something shifted for him. “Studying earth science and thinking about climate change is a totally different ballgame than thinking about astrophysics,” he says. “Astrophysics was pure science. I was looking for gravitational waves. It had no implication for the possible collapse of human civilization.” But the unrelenting momentum of climate change does. “I’m always thinking about it,” he says. “That can be a burden. Whenever friends talk about flying off to vacation, I feel compelled to point out the large carbon cost to flying. I’d like to take a vacation from thinking about it. I’m not sure that is psychologically possible.”

During the recent wildfires in California, where he lives, Kalmus became irritable because the link between natural disasters and climate change was not front and center in media coverage. Like many climate scientists, he is often hit by waves of grief. Kalmus once called his congressional representative to support a piece of climate change legislation. “I was explaining to the staffer why it was urgent, and I started crying,” he says. “For me, the grief comes up unexpectedly.”
Sarah Myhre, a former senior research associate at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography, experiences “a profound level of grief on a daily basis because of the scale of the crisis that is coming, and I feel I’m doing all I can but it’s not enough,” she says. “I don’t have clinical depression. I have anxiety exacerbated by the constant background of doom and gloom of science. It’s not stopping me from doing my work, but it’s an impediment.” She tried anti-anxiety medication, which didn’t improve things, so she cut back on caffeine. She tries not to think too much about the future that awaits her five-year-old son
When she was a graduate student in 2010, Myhre recalls, she attended a summer program that included the world’s top scientists on climate modeling. One presented research on how increased CO2 levels posed frightening scenarios. She asked him how he was able to talk to nonscientists and communicate the implications of this work, which can be hard to understand. “I don’t talk to those people anymore,” she remembers him replying. “Fuck those people.” After that, Myhre went to her hotel room and wept.
The political disease - Bystanderism
...Katharine Wilkinson, who has a Ph.D. in geography and the environment, is vice president for communication and engagement at Project Drawdown, a group of scientists and activists that assembles proposed climate change solutions. She makes a distinction between denialism and bystanderism, which takes the form of people saying “they care about it” but not engaging in meaningful action: “That’s when I want to shake people and say, ‘You know how little time we have?’” She has noticed that almost everyone in her line of work seems “to have one dark emotion that is dominant. For some, it’s anger or rage. For me, it’s deep grief—having eyes wide open to what is playing out in our world, and we have a lukewarm response to it. There is no way for me not to have a broken heart most days.”

...Some climate researchers speak of experiencing stark alienation, even as they try to have faith that what they and their colleagues are doing can make a difference. Myhre describes it “like I’m looking at the world through a looking glass, like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.” The joys of adult life—new cars, trips on planes, even having children—become fraught with implications for increased emissions. She finds it painful to watch “scientific colleagues standing on the sidelines being silent” and not participating in the political fray over climate change. With her expertise undervalued generally, she observes, “I feel like I’m walking around in an isolation chamber.” Kalmus notes that when he moved into climate change science, “I felt totally alienated from the people around me. My parents didn’t get it. My friends didn’t want to talk about it. Other graduate students didn’t want to talk about it…It was a very weird disconnected feeling.”
...Katharine Wilkinson points out, “Right now, we prioritize technical training in science and policy. But the tools of the trade will become increasingly emotional and psychological.” At a recent panel discussion, she recalls, she blurted out, “I have no child and I have one dog, and thank god he’ll be dead in 10 years.” Afterward, people asked Wilkinson if she truly believed that. “The truth is, I do,” she says. “And it’s only going to get more intense—the emotional nature of this work—as climate change happens and the necessary actions become more urgent.”
Here are a few links to earlier posts dealing with burnout among climate scientists and the mental health risks of climate change:


Rural said...

A powerful synopsis Mound that leaves me feeling even more helpless to do anything meaningful about it....

The Mound of Sound said...

I've had periodic conversations with a few climate scientists, Rural. My experiences bear out this article. One encounter stands out, a meeting with a BC government scientist. After a few email exchanges we were able to meet after work at a pub. The meeting began with the standard "we can still do this" line. A couple of pints later that became "we're so fucked."

This particular person was one of those who didn't look up but instead focused on the immediate problem. I guess that's how some of them keep going.