“A code red for humanity”. These are the words of UN Secretary General, António Guterres, in reaction to the latest IPCC report published yesterday.
This Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was prepared by Working Group I (just one of three working groups) and provides the physical science basis for human-induced climate change. The numbers behind this colossal undertaking are staggering. Its 234 authors submitted more than 77,000 comments across three drafts of the AR6 report. But even this is just the tip of the iceberg, since the IPCC doesn’t carry out its own research. The authors, who volunteered their time, assessed evidence from a vast pool of scientific, technical, and socio-economic publications – with more than 14,000 citations in total. News media, political pundits and concerned citizens alike share damning details of the severity of the challenge facing us.
“Earth is Warmer than it’s been in 125,000 Years” states the scientific journal, ‘Nature’, “The Latest IPCC Report is a Catastrophe” proclaims The Atlantic, “Some Climate Change Effects may be Irreversible” reports The Wall Street Journal.
Not much in the way of soothing words going round. It hits us hard. Often, we don’t even attempt to read beyond the headline and a cursory glance at a blazing wildfire or parched landscape. And who could blame us with climate anxiety and grief on the rise? But spare a thought for the scientists who spent months and years of their lives immersed neck-deep in reams of data, complex models, and mind-bogglingly detailed analysis. Who is talking about them? Or praising their efforts to make the world aware of the challenges we face to our very existence? We may think, “They’re just doing their job”. But would we say the same about a firefighter or a paramedic?
These climate science professionals are emergency first responders on the front lines of the climate crisis. They deserve our gratitude, our compassion, and our deepest respect.
“Why?”, you may ask. Because similar to a first responder to the scene of a multi-lane car pile-up or a devastating forest fire, they too are emotionally affected by the cumulative psychological impact of the work they do. Take for example the climate scientist who witnesses policy and decision makers ignoring, misinterpreting, or misusing their research findings for other ends. How do you think that would make a person feel? Angry? Despairing? Helpless? Or hopeless? All the above and much more, it turns out.
I recently came across an article entitled ‘The Emotional Toll of Climate Change on Science Professionals’ published in December 2019. A group of five earth science professionals from a variety of specialities came together to talk about the toll that climate change is taking on their academic and personal lives. This is no trivial matter. As the authors themselves note –
“Traditional norms of scientific rigor typically dictate that scientists remain composed and unemotional in their pursuit of knowledge; the admission of work-related emotional distress is sometimes conflated with weakness, character deficiency, or, worse, lack of scientific integrity and objectivity”.
Imagine how overwhelming it would be to have a deep awareness of the complexities and nuances of climate change, similar to many climate scientists, and yet governments and corporations take actions that are woefully insufficient to the scale of the challenge. Imagine that your life’s work is ignored, or your reputation trashed on social media. Imagine the fallout with family members or with your local community as their values and belief system don’t even allow them to consider the very scientific basis underlying your findings.
Not talking about emotional stress is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. That’s why there is such a huge demand for talking therapies. For instance, 1.4 million people were referred to talking therapies in 2016/17 as part of NHS England’s IAPT programme. Suppressing difficult emotions means that they eventually find their way to the surface in a dysregulated way that leads to stress and burnout at a minimum. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder may quickly follow. To become a scientist does not mean that a person transitions to some expressionless form of cyborg. They are, of course, every bit as human as me or you – sentient beings with a healthy need to express emotion, just like all other mammals. Scientists are not the only group of professionals who are expected to remain objective and detached – much of the business world demands such qualities too in the workplace. No wonder a growing number of people agree that it is high time for a change.
The knock-on effect of such demands is that climate science professionals are often not comfortable discussing their emotional well-being with colleagues, thereby avoiding the very networks that should be supporting them. In light of such stigma, the contributors, part of the American Geophysical Union, should be specially commended for finding the courage to raise their heads above the parapet. Not only this, but they have started a long-overdue conversation on what it is that they and other climate science professionals need to become more emotionally resilient.
The Adaptive Mind Project, led by Dr. Susanne Moser of Antioch University and UMass-Amherst, envisions a psycho-social support network for climate adaptation professionals, resilience planners, and community leaders on the frontlines of climate change. Climate adaptation is one of the two key pillars of climate action, along with mitigation, and so the idea of an adaptive mind is highly appropriate. The project has published a package of resources to achieve an adaptive mind and build personal resilience through such measures as reconnecting with nature, nourishing body, mind and soul, being with our emotions, and learning about mental health.
But what is an adaptive mind exactly? It’s one that responds with agility, creativity, resolve and resilience to constant, systemic or transformative change and uncertainty often associated with direct or indirect post- or pre-traumatic experiences. The project aims to understand what constitutes an adaptive mind on a deeper level, to strengthen coping capacity amongst climate first responders, to build supportive networks and to embed adaptive mind skills within the climate adaption community.
Hope and support are also on the way in the form of a project called “Is this how you feel?” coordinated by science communicator, Joe Duggan, at the Australian National University. The initiative provides a platform for climate science professionals to write about their emotions with respect to the work that they do. The handwritten letters they submitted have an authenticity that a typed blog simply cannot convey. These are real humans, like you and me, stripped of white lab coats and arcane language, sitting down with pen and paper in hand to talk about how they feel. Interestingly, the contributors were again asked to reflect on how climate change makes them feel five years later (in 2020) to establish a timeline that explores how they have changed as the climate crisis has become more urgent. To quote just one of many poignant and heart-felt contributions,
Professor Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research (PIK) wrote,
“So, my feeling is frustration, concern and an element of anger. Anger at our inability to rise in the face of a planetary emergency. But also anger at our inability to rise, now that we see more and more evidence that the solutions are in our hand!… Damn it if we let this crisis slip away…”
Dr. Ariaan Purich, Researcher at the Climate Change Research Centre in the University of New South Wales says,
“And then I become a mother. Now I am terrified. Terrified of the world my children will inherit, and also of the people who won’t do anything about it. Don’t any of them have children too?”
These letters show that it is possible for climate science professionals to do their jobs in an objective way and still talk about their emotions. Indeed, it is a natural and healthy response to discuss our feelings so as to support our own emotional well-being and to keep on doing our jobs as effectively as possible. Humanity and empathy are essential in our efforts to meet the challenges associated with climate change. Without action to support climate science professionals, we may lose some of our most valuable talent to burnout and stress or retraining for new careers that are less emotionally demanding.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend a heart-felt thank you to all those involved, directly or indirectly in the IPCC report published yesterday. Without each and every one of you, we would have no scientific basis to inform public policy, no way of challenging the skeptics and vested interests with rigour and objective measurement, no foundation for the business decisions to invest in renewables and clean technologies.
I hope that you can join me in extending a word of thanks. Let’s show our humanity towards and empathy with the community of climate science professionals.
We are with you.