Pre-TSD: Climate Depression is Real

October 30, 2014

thescreamA correspondent wrote recently to me about feelings of depression after hearing a discussion of climate change impacts.

I responded that it’s OK to feel that, – its perfectly natural to feel that way.  I know from many, many conversations with senior scientists, that there is a huge emotional toll to be constantly engaged in this area of research, while so little is actually being done on a policy level to address the onrushing freight train.

This past summer, when Dr. Jason Box and I returned from Greenland, we were surprised to find that Jason’s tweet about undersea carbon stores, expressing more than a bit of trepidation in somewhat plain language, had gone viral.

effedAs a larger and larger fraction of the population at large “gets it” about the gravity of the situation – there is obviously a hunger for less happy talk or denial, and more gut reaction. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me up late at night.


…growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties.

As Naomi Klein writes in her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, “We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of their own research. Most of them were quietly measuring ice cores, running global climate models, and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that in breaking the news of the depth of our collective climate failure, they were ‘unwittingly destabilizing the political and social order.’” Talk about a lot of pressure.

“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan is quoted saying in the National Wildlife Federation’s 2012 report, “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is Not Adequately Prepared.” “It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again,” she says, referring to an ocean reef she has studied since 2002, “because I just know I’m going to see more and more of it dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae.”

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. — and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation’s report — calls this emotional reaction “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term she coined to describe the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.

“It’s an intense preoccupation with thoughts we cannot get out of our minds,” Van Susteren says. And for some, it’s a preoccupation that extends well outside of the office. “Everyday irritations as parents and spouses have their place, they’re legitimate,” she says. “But when you’re talking about thousands of years of impacts and species, giving a shit about whether you’re going to get the right soccer equipment or whether you forgot something at school is pretty tough.”

What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears. “How would that make you feel? You take this information to someone and they say they don’t believe you, as if it’s a question of beliefs,” says Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist for climate change research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “I’m not talking about religion here, I’m talking about facts. It’s equivalent to a doctor doing extremely detailed observations on someone and concluding that someone needed to have an operation, and the person looks at the doctor and says, ‘I don’t believe you.’ How would a doctor feel in that moment, not think, but feel in that moment?”

Even if scientists did bring a little emotion to their findings — which raises questions about the importance of objectivity in the sciences — Kiehl worries that such honesty would just provide even more fodder for climate deniers.

So how does a climate scientist handle the stress? Van Susteren offers several “climate trauma survival tips” for those in the field. Meditation and therapy are two, as are taking particular care to reinforce boundaries between work and one’s personal life. But she also says being honest is just as important. “[Don’t] believe that you are invulnerable,” she writes. “In fact, admitting what you are going through makes you more resilient.”

And a dose of honesty may be more than just therapeutic. Some real talk about how we’re all screwed may be just what the climate movement needs. Back in March, Grist’s Brentin Mock wrote that in order to really drive home the urgency of global warming and not just view “climate change only as that thing that happened one year on television to those poor communities in Brooklyn,” maybe it’s OK, when appropriate, to ditch a very limited “just the facts” vocabulary in favor of more emotional language. In other words, he argues that scientists should start dropping F bombs. “Forgive my language here, but if scientists are looking for a clearer language to express the urgency of climate change, there’s no clearer word that expresses that urgency than FUCK,” Mock writes. “We need scientists to speak more of these non-hard science truths, no matter how inconvenient or how dirty.”

So, it is OK to feel some depression. I’d say, even more than that, try grief.
Grief because we are going to lose some systems, and some species, and even some cities, and human beings, that we’d rather not lose.

So take 24 hours. Or, hell, take a month. Wallow in that, work it into and through all your cells.

Then ask yourself if you’re going to lay back and just watch it happen. The planet is going to take a hit, but whether its a 5 or 10 percent hit, or a 50, 60, or 80 percent hit, is still in large part, (I hope), up to us.




22 Responses to “Pre-TSD: Climate Depression is Real”

  1. Great article, thank you Peter and also particularly thank you to Paul Whyte for the interesting response.

  2. MorinMoss Says:

    Lise Van Susteren is the sister of Greta, a well-established Fox News talking head.
    Is Greta a climate denier? I imagine talking politics must be a sore subject when the Van Susterens get together given that Lise tried to earn a Democratic nomination about 10 years ago.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: