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.

Grist:

…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. Phillip Shaw Says:

    I can’t help but wonder if some of the coordinated attacks on climate scientists are intended to produce stress, anxiety, depression, anger or fear among all climate researchers. The vilification we’ve seen prominent climate scientists such as Drs Mann, Hayhoe, and Hansen receive ranges from libelous attacks in public media to continual email harrassment and even death threats.

    Climate scientists are all human and it’s hard to do your best work when you’re under stress, or depressed, or worried about the safety of your family. We’ll probably never know how many scientists have decided to focus on less controversial research topics to avoid ending up in the denialst spotlight.

    Remember, the FUD campaign doesn’t need to refute AGW in order to ‘win’, it just has to delay effective action while the fossil fuel interests continue to rake in billions of dollars. And intimidating scientists is one approach to achieving that delay. I have boundless respect and admiration for those who continue to advance our knowledge of climate change and its consequences despite the endless crap they have to wade through. Theirs is a heroic dedication to the truth.

  2. Paul Whyte Says:

    This is a good article.

    Personally I have been through this as part of a PhD I resigned from 30 years ago. After that I put my self into therapy to recover. Liked it so much I got trained as a counsellor and I’m still running regular sessions with groups and individuals 30 years latter. Well over 30,000 hours got logged before I gave up logging time in sessions.

    In my PhD project, the study of hydrotreatment of heavy oils, is the clean up step to allowing coal liquids, shale liquids or heavy oils to be treated by standard refineries to make petrol and all the standard products refineries make.

    It was simple heterogeneous catalysis under very high pressure hydrogen at very high temperatures (over 300 C). There was a sting to it however. It became clearer and clearer that if my process went commercial longer term it would move the planet towards the end of civilisation! It had to, it was simply unavoidable. The size of the unconventional oil reserves are so large and the coal reserves are also extremely large that it was clear that a madness like what we have now. The fossil fuel denial “burn baby burn” madness could sustain the fossil fuel empires for centuries.

    The business as usual consumption of fossil fuels we now know is leading in the longer term to an end Permian like extinction event caused by CO2 build up in the atmosphere. Over that very long term most species on Earth can be made extinct by fossil fuels.

    The ethical impasse I experienced was emotionally intense. Eventually I simply could no long make my self do the work of the project and resigned. I was emotionally immobilised! To deliberately work towards the ending of life on that massive scale became profoundly unbearable for me. I was a basket case for a while. I changed my career direction and became an environmental and peace activist for 15 years (always being part of a campaign) as well as my ongoing work as a manufacturing chemist.

    I was seen as an extremist, an activist scientist at that point in time by my peers. I have run workshops for activists to be able to keep going with the work. To work through the burn out and get functional. There are fears and tensions to be worked through in deep rest as well as just deep rest that are the heart of the recovery. Some of my peers have stayed burned out. Shattered individuals so exhausted that no work has been possible since. I’ve learned how to reclaim life back from that state, to have energy again. It is a profound state to come back from – total and complete long term exhaustion!

    No we are all facing that with our use of fossil fuels and the use of the unconventional oils has begun. As we start to face our future or really the lack of a future. Do we throw ourselves into activity? Do we all now idly sit in comfort as we burn the future of countless generations? Can the size of the issue be faced? Can the feelings that come from looking directly at the end of organised human life be felt?
    Can we justify current comforts when eventually a cave man like life of struggle waits for future humans in an angry environment need seen by humans before?

    Hansen says that sigma 5 weather (our worst storms) will be common weather in 30 to 40 years time! Cyclones as regular storm cells…. can that really be faced and felt?


  3. […] A 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 w…  […]

  4. redskylite Says:

    That is an excellent article, and a very moving and inspirational letter from Paul Whyte, one of the clearest and honest posts I’ve seen.

    I do feel for our excellent Climate Scientists and the mental pressures upon them.

    quote – 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?” – endquote.

    Unbelievably abysmal the way they are treated and dismissed by some of our establishment, the University of East Anglia’s ,Professor Phil Jones considered suicide during “climate gate” and I can certainly understand why.

    I think I tend to feel a mixture of anger and sadness as I’m part of the problem some of the anger is directed inwards….


  5. […] A 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 w…  […]


  6. Ah, a very interesting change of topic from what usually gets discussed here on CC.

    I agree that thinking too much about the coming horrors of climate change can be depressing and many people can’t handle it. That is, no doubt, the main reason behind the denialists’ refusal to acknowledge that AGW is even happening. It is, sadly, a big reason why several people on this blog wax euphoric about all the “progress” being made by alternatives when in fact that progress is barely making a dent in stopping AGW. Both the denialists and the alt-energy cheerleaders have a difficult time facing the stark reality that the world is going to be in for some very difficult times, with the possibility of the human race pushing itself to extinction.

    For me personally, I used to get depressed about it. Now I’ve learned to sort of shrug it off with a “c’est la vie” attitude, but that doesn’t mean I like it. That’s just my defense mechanism when confronting a overwhelming disaster.

    Climatologists do indeed have a very hard job. If they speak the truth, they know they are going to be attacked at a very personal level. They even face death threats. Climatology as a career requires a very thick skin.

    Since Naomi Klein’s new book got mentioned here, this would probably be a good time for me to post the following link, which is (in my opinion) an excellent review of it, probably the best review ever. Note that I have not yet read the book, but I read her two other ones, “No Logo” and “The Shock Doctrine” and liked them. But I suspect that I am not going to like “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” although I will reserve final judgement until I get a copy:

    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/the-left-vs.-the-climate

    Paul Whyte – your post is very interesting. Were you by any chance working with turning kerogen (so-called “shale oil”) into petroleum? I agree that it would be an enormous disaster if it happens. I keep hoping it will be cost prohibitive or prove to have a negative EROI so that the idea will be abandoned. I haven’t kept up with the issue though – is anybody still attempting this?

    • Paul Whyte Says:

      I was working with money from Ampol to turn heavy oil to refinery feed stock. The work was aimed at getting Sumatran heavy oils up to feedstock standard. At that point in time Sumatran heavy crude was imported into Australia to boil up for road making tar. It needed hydrotreatment to remove sulphur, metals (nickel) and do a bit of hydrogenation so the platinum cracking catalyst was not poisoned too soon costing too much money if any thing but tar was made from it. My catalyst was cheap. Could be full of nickel and still left in production for a year.

      I did make a cheap model feed to test out batches with. A small step forwards in a very large step backwards project!

      Heavy oil like that is very thick and very poisonous to work with, similar to coal and shale fluids or extracts. Best left in the ground.

      Once we use the heavy oils for making refinery feedstocks very many tar like materials are similar in cost. The coal and shale versions are just a little worse. I still stand by my judgement of 30 years ago but now the UN agrees with me not just James Hansen!

      The tar sand process will have hydrotreatment just before the refinery. The Middle East are using it on their heavy oils. It has to be used for all oil when the light oil runs out. The refineries studied it 30 years before it was needed and now it’s needed.

      The drop in oil price is due to unconventional oils! We have to leave light oil in the ground now die to heavy oil usage. It’s just plain stupid on a planetary level. It’s about politics and not about light oil scarcity.

  7. Paul Whyte Says:

    As far as EROI goes while we have nuclear and are still using fossil fuels it’s like looking at EROI of battery making in my opinion. The convenience is so important that it just has to make money. That is the bottom line – $$$. Batteries will still be made no matter how much energy gets put in! Just like liquid transport fuels. They are so addictive to use and so large a power out put per weight.

    If we were as a planet just using renewables we would not bother with heavy oils and extracts like shale oils for EROI reasons by my way of thinking. We would be too close to the bone with costs being too high.

    The costs of making liquid fuel from sea water is not that expensive.

    With unconventional gas we will see oil from gas before we see the shale process in my opinion.

    My old supervisor was able to make petrol from methane in one catalytic step just before he died. That is the one I think the fossil fuel people will focus on next, riding the fracking boom to nowhere.

    The fossil fuel people were worried about the future when I left them 30 years ago. Now we can see just how mad they have got with the denial nuttiness.

  8. jimbills Says:

    I was going to run my big mouth on another post, but I’m glad I spent my time reading Paul’s comments instead. Thanks, Paul, for your insight and efforts.

    A couple of little thoughts:

    We put a lot of stock in the technological progress being made with renewables. We should also consider, though, that “progress” doesn’t just happen with renewables. It happens with unconventional fossil carbon, too. For every Paul Whyte out there, there are probably 1000 other guys who prefer to get a paycheck than check the ethics of the research.

    Cy – so far, renewables aren’t making even a dent in the problem. Nothing is. That’s the true horror of all this.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/09/carbon-dioxide-emissions-greenhouse-gases

    We have to leave this stuff in the ground, as Paul is suggesting. Doing so, though, requires an acceptance of stalling/stopping/reversing economic growth, which is entirely unacceptable to the majority. We can’t get our heads around this simple reality, while we hope and pray there is some miracle cure or other answer. Until we accept it on the societal level, though, there is no hope. That’s a very hard pill to swallow.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      This is a terrific post. I remember Peter’s post a while back that suggested that CO2 pollution was a moral issue like slavery. It did not provoke much discussion, even though it raised questions of ethics and morality that need to be addressed if humans are to avoid species extinction and destruction of the entire biosphere. This post returns to that ground from a different perspective, and I hope we can explore it more fully this time.

      Peter expresses some hope in his closing comments and jimbills ever-so-politely says (as is his style), “….while we hope and pray there is some miracle cure or other answer. Until we accept it on the societal level, there is no hope. That’s a very hard pill to swallow”, and talks about “….an acceptance of stalling/stopping/reversing economic growth”. I think both of them know deep down that mankind has little or no future, barring some unlikely and as yet unknown mechanism whereby the planet cleanses itself of CO2 once it reaches a certain level.

      We show no evidence as a species of being smart enough to back off from the capitalistic-free market-exploitative-consumer societal model. It’s going to go beyond “stopping, stalling, and reversing economic growth”. It’s going to end up in the death of all economies much above stone-age subsistence levels and the death of more than 9 out of 10 humans on the planet. And that’s if we don’t have such massive and interlocking positive feedbacks that “we are totally F**Ked”, as Dr. Box has said and others need to say more often and more strongly. We could go “Venus”, and our failure is that we don’t look beyond things on the puny human time scale and realize that “nature bats last”, even if there may be hundreds of year-long innings to be played..

      I am 74 years old and have been studying how man is destroying the planet for over 50 years now. I haven’t got many years left, and have been looking back and asking myself the usual questions most thinking humans ask as they age—-what’s the meaning of it all?, did I do anything worthwhile in my time here? etc. My conclusion is that only humans think that the presence of humans on Earth has importance. If there had never been a Jesus, a Newton, an Einstein, a George Washington, or an Edison, it would not have changed one thing on this planet other than the direction of some human societies. An asteroid could stomp half the U.S. flat tomorrow and the world would go on. A plane could crash into my house an hour from now and ditto.

      Is this all something to get depressed about? Sad and a bit angry for sure, as redsky suggests, but I’m just going to play out the string, do as much good and as little harm as I can, live my little life out, and try to enjoy it. The problems are too big for those of us who understand and care about them to combat, and there are too many in opposition to what needs to be done. Some may call that fatalism-nihilism but I call it realism—-I will again quote Pogo—-“We have met the enemy and he is us” (and the enemy is winning). We need to learn how to deal with that, and Peter is on the right track with “As 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”.

      • Earl Mardle Says:

        Hi DOG. Agreed. Let me throw one more clown into the ring.

        When enough of those people get sufficiently depressed, they will start looking for a “leader” who will save them and scapegoats to blame.

        And they will blame us. They will blame us for “not trying hard enough” to get them to listen and understand. It will NEVER be their fault, and they will waste the last of their resources trying to “cleanse” the world of the scapegoats instead of actually trying to change their own consciousness, desires and actions.

        OK, its morning on my side, time to till some ground and plant some kumera.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          I’d like to think the world has come a long way from the days of Hitler-type “leaders”, certainly in relation to climate science and AGW. How can they blame “us” when we’ve been trying to get them to listen for decades and have pointed out who the real culprits are? With any kind of luck, the masses will see that it has been the plutocracy and the corporatocracy that has led them astray and “cleanse” them. If not, I’ll see you in the Gulag. (Actually, that will happen only if they take me alive, so they had better come for me when I’m asleep).

          “OK, its morning on my side, time to till some ground and plant some kumera”. Coincidertally. I had some “kumera” fries with lunch—-good—-they’re “sweet potato” fries here in the U.S. South.

          • jimbills Says:

            I tend to agree with Earl. History doesn’t have a good record when it comes to prophets. They seem to have a fairly high mortality rate.

          • Earl Mardle Says:

            Well, DOG. I too would like to think that too but I find myself unable to agree. The signs of progress from those days are damned well hidden.

            HOW can they blame us? The same way they managed for generations to blame Jews or now blame Muslims for problems that originate in our own back yards. The alternative is to accept responsibility for screwing the planet. Those who persist in denying climate change are desperate to push away that responsibility. They will do it any way they can. They will have scapegoats.

            You say, “with any luck”, and that says it all. To get the majority to “see” we need luck. Not logic, not facts, not data, not analysis, not science; we have tried all of those and they just don’t work. So we are down to luck. I really don’t like our chances when the culprits will remain in charge of the mass media till the very last moment.

            24 Kumera seedlings now planted and a few more to come in the next couple of weeks. Then hang on till about April and dig ’em up for the winter. Almost can’t wait. But there are tomatoes, pumpkin, spuds, rockmelon, beans, corn and a dozen other goodies to harvest between now and then.

            With luck. Given the post climate world we live in.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            No argument from me on that. I was trying to not be too much the ‘doom and gloomer” with “I’d LIKE to think” and “with ANY luck”, but my thoughts parallel yours and jimbills’ exactly.

            OT, but we are in the midst of the fall leaf drop in Northern VA. Things are strange here this year with the timing and duration and the colors of the leaves. 50 years ago, the trees seemed to change color more together over a shorter time span, and the colors were more uniform, even if some years were a bit more spectacular than others.

            This year some trees have barely begun to turn while others are bare of leaves, and the colors on many are “off” what they have been in past years. I have been reading of this phenomena for several years now but it’s really evident here this year. We were impacted by the polar vortex all year, temps and precipitation were off the norm, and that seems to have had impact. Anyone else seeing this in other places?

          • Earl Mardle Says:

            As a lifelong pessimist (yes, Earl, shit CAN happen to you) I wont list the lessons but there were plenty when I was a kid, its my practise to start with the worst and work back.

            When people get down on pessimists my response is that, having expected the worst, most of my life is one long series of pleasant surprises, unlike those who hope for the best.

            In NZ we don’t really do autumn, all our natives are evergreen and the exotics are sort of scattered among them so the change is nothing like as obvious or spectacular except to the scientists.

  9. Earl Mardle Says:

    It was Cassandra’s torture not that she knew what was going to happen, but that she would be unable to get anyone to believe her. In various versions of the story the punishment drove her insane.

    And so the wheel comes around again.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      ironic that, in today’s media, when someone is called a “Cassandra”, it’s kind of a negative slam, while in the actual story – she’s the one that had the right dope.

      • Earl Mardle Says:

        Not an irony but a tragedy.

        I have had emails with a couple of “journos” who had no idea of the context they were invoking. Along with so very much else that they purported to “report”

        We are lining up for a Greek tragedy in the very grand style.


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