Climate Change and the Grief of Scientists

July 9, 2019

Journalists now exploring the territory I got into with Sarah Myhre and Jeffrey Kiehl a few years ago.
I don’t weep as much as I used to when editing videos. Not sure what that means.

Mother Jones:

On election night 2016, Kim Cobb, a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, was on Christmas Island, the world’s largest ring-shaped coral reef atoll, about 1,300 miles south of Hawaii. A climate scientist, she was collecting coral skeletons to produce estimates of past ocean temperatures. She had been taking these sorts of research trips for two decades, and over recent years she had witnessed about 85 percent of the island’s reef system perish due to rising ocean temperatures. “I was diving with tears in my eyes,” she recalls. 

In a row house made of cinder blocks on the tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she monitored the American election results, using a satellite uplink that took several minutes to load a page. When she saw Donald Trump’s victory, she felt shock and soon descended into severe depression. “I had the firm belief that Washington would act on climate change and would be acting soon,” the 44-year-old Cobb says. “When Trump was elected, it came crashing down.”

Back home in Atlanta, Cobb entered what she now calls “an acute mental health crisis.” Most mornings, she could not get out of bed, despite having four children to tend to. She would sob spontaneously. She obsessed about the notion that the US government would take no action to address climate change and confront its consequences. “I could not see a way forward,” she recalls. “My most resounding thought was, how could my country do this? I had to face the fact that there was a veritable tidal wave of people who don’t care about climate change and who put personal interest above the body of scientific information that I had contributed to.” Her depression persisted for weeks. “I didn’t recognize myself,” she says.

Nine months after the election, Priya Shukla, a Ph.D. student at the University of California-Davis who studies how climate change affects shellfish aquaculture and coastal food security, was in the Bodega Marine Laboratory, examining data showing rising ocean acidity caused by greenhouse gas emissions. She was also binge-listening to the podcast S-Town, which focused on an eccentric and troubled man prone to obsessing—ranting, really—about the possible apocalyptic effects of climate change. Shukla, 27 years old, realized she was “emotionally exhausted” by the toll of constantly scrutinizing the “huge tragedy” happening in the oceans. “I did not want to experience that fatigue,” she says, “because then I wouldn’t want to do this work anymore.” She decided to see a therapist. And these days she sometimes has to stop reading scientific papers: “I’m tired of processing this incredible and immense decline—and I’m a contributor to the problem. I have to walk away from the papers and don’t want to face myself in the mirror. I feel profound sadness and loss. I feel very angry.”

On election night 2016, Kim Cobb, a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, was on Christmas Island, the world’s largest ring-shaped coral reef atoll, about 1,300 miles south of Hawaii. A climate scientist, she was collecting coral skeletons to produce estimates of past ocean temperatures. She had been taking these sorts of research trips for two decades, and over recent years she had witnessed about 85 percent of the island’s reef system perish due to rising ocean temperatures. “I was diving with tears in my eyes,” she recalls. 

In a row house made of cinder blocks on the tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she monitored the American election results, using a satellite uplink that took several minutes to load a page. When she saw Donald Trump’s victory, she felt shock and soon descended into severe depression. “I had the firm belief that Washington would act on climate change and would be acting soon,” the 44-year-old Cobb says. “When Trump was elected, it came crashing down.”

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.”

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. As she saw it, his anger was driven by the fact that his expertise—his foresight—was not broadly recognized. “People don’t know what to do with their grief, and it is manifested in anger,” she says.

Jacquelyn Gill, a paleontologist at the University of Maine who co-hosts a podcast on climate change called Warm Regards, says she’s “not depressed but angry, all the time, and anger can be empowering or debilitating. I swing between both. Being constantly angry is exhausting.” But, she adds, it takes a certain resilience to be a scientist in America: “There are so few jobs, so few grants. You’re always dealing with rejection. You have to have a built-in ability to say ‘fuck it.’”

14 Responses to “Climate Change and the Grief of Scientists”

  1. indy222 Says:

    A difficult ground. I struggle with digesting the sheer magnitude of the betrayals being committed by those we’ve selected (or tolerated) as our best-and-brightest, our leaders…. I’m unable to digest the complacency still out there. I watch the talking heads on CNBC and they’re not stupid people; they’re not low IQ people (unlike the white house), and yet there’s not one inkling of any appreciation of the future they’re causing. It makes for deeper pessimism that our species can do anything but destroy it all, and regret it only as the chaos envelopes our civilization. That’s still up ahead.

    • peterangelo Says:

      You must be kidding Joe Kiernan on CNBC is a fricking Moron!!! And Aaron Sorkin seems to be dancing with the devil to. Of course in Sorkins defense he could be just a good showman. Joe is just the guy with MIT with an undergraduate degree angry that he couldn’t get into grad school.

      • indy222 Says:

        They’re amoral, not stupid. There’s a difference. Stupid is Trump and his idiots around him.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

  2. Lionel Smith Says:

    I placed the following text at the head of an FB post, link to article that prompted this follows:

    “The glacier melt in Antarctica becomes more threatening.

    Several decades of stunted action on climate change thanks to the purveyors of ant-science (they should be household names by now some hiding in plain sight in the ERG and GWPF) has ensured that even if we reduce GHG emissions to zero the heat needed to de-construct Antarctica is already in the system. The energy in the system, particularly the oceans, can be likened to a flywheel that has been spun up as it absorbs energy, it can take some time to bring it to a stop. That is where we are but due to the high level of GHGs now present the energy continues to be absorbed. This is why atmospheric GHGs have to be reduced, drawn down, to stand any chance of staving off the worst that can, and will, happen otherwise

    This does not mean that we should give up trying only that we now need to dig deeper and make more sacrifices than if adequate action had been taken three decades ago when the first warnings were clear to those with the vision to understand.

    It is a matter of record that scientists attached to e.g. Exxon knew well what was afoot but Exxon, like many other corporations, chose to ignore this and instead tried to drown the messengers. All the key malefactors can be identified, some are still playing the obfuscation game.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/09/glacial-melting-in-antarctica-may-become-irreversible?fbclid=IwAR04hztzfctvx5L9Skctl9sXuGyxoEYCz_WeSoTWfMJ-akz3r8aYrgegApE

  3. jerrydogood Says:

    Reading this post it appears a number of people need mental health services. if Trump, Bolton and them went off and got treated the world might be a much better place.

    El Nino killed off the coral just like it did in the previous El Nino and to about the same extent, It grew back when it got colder and it will grow back again. Coral comes in several varieties, cold water types and warm water types, If the cold water types decrease and the water is warmer and stays warmer , warm water types take over so the world is not ending. These people know that in the Holocene the world ranged up to 5 degree C warmer and the coral is still here.

    On the islands, numerous studies show the most coral islands are actually increasing in size and at worse are about the same size for decades. The lady mentioned in the first paragraph knows that. Christmas Island is the top of an old submerged volcano, Most of the surface rocks are coral and or limestone with some basalt so the ocean surface is actually lower, a lot lower than it was. That indicates the volcano pushed up a lot of submerged material before it went dormant and started to sink back into the sea. I could not find a tide table for the island or any data on land movement up or down. Here is another pacific island Relative Sea Level Trend 710-026 Kapingamarangi, Federated States Of Micronesia which shows that ocean levels can vary a lot in short periods of time, note the wide swings. This data shows essentially no rise since 2000.

    Some islands are having a problem with land subsidence due to using up the water supply with the increasing human population, some others are sinking as the island is the top of an extinct volcano sinking back into the ocean, A whole chain of such submerged Islands trails off from Hawaii.

    The real problem on those pacific islands is the population increase whixh is doubling every generation. That cannot continue on specks of land with very limited resource of fresh water and area to grow food.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      “The real problem on those pacific islands is the population increase whixh is doubling every generation.” You can hear yourself talk, right?

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I don’t weep as much as I used to when editing videos. Not sure what that means.

    It means resignation, or, in Kübler-Ross terms, acceptance, the last stage of grief.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      I don’t weep as much when I view videos either (although it was more getting a bit teary-eyed at times rather than outright weeping).

      This one produced a little moisture—-an excellent point-counterpoint between Myhre and Kiehl—-making both their narratives more powerful. Well done!!

  5. jerrydogood Says:

    Why are you folks so depressed? The world is not ending. It was a lot warmer 9500-6500 BP and the world did not end. It was warmer as well in the Roman period, the world did not end. It was warmer in the medieval warm period and the world did not end. It got a bit colder during the little ice age, and the world did not end.

    Saying it is going to end in 12 years or some other fictional number is simply nonsense. 2 or 3 degrees C warmer is the same or less than it was back 9500-6500 BP. The cities built on the coast will have to do the same thing the Dutch did, build dikes to protect them if one assumes the oceans will rise, works for the Dutch will work for other cities. Since the world was not flooded out when it was warmer back than it is unlikely the Antarctic ice will melt enough to cause a large increase, Current ocean rise trends on land not rising or sinking is about 3 to 4 inches in the next 100 years. When it was warmer the world was wetter, not dryer so farmers will have more water for crops, not less. A warmer arctic means millions of acres of land for crops. Trees at one time were hundreds of miles north of their present positions in Canada. Since the arctic was warmer, the methane was gone from the tundra and somehow the world did not end either. Currently the world is getting greener, something we need to help feed the population increase going on.

    In every country not in a religious or tribal war, people are getting better off from the energy of fossil fuels. The average well being of people is rising not falling. The areas having tribal and religious wars are confined mostly to the middle east and northern Africa the rest of the world is peaceful for the most part. Conservation and pollution concerns are starting to spread world wide, hopefully that will continue so the world should improve in this century. China is an example of a country suffering from major pollution problems starting to address those problems. India is further behind but at least is thinking about the problems.

    Fossil fuels are going to be important for at least a century baring some major breakthrough in other energy sources but things are looking up for other energy sources like wind and solar as well as fusion and nuclear energy. We need energy, nobody in the second and third world is going to accept not living like you do. The CO2 from those fossil fuels will raise the worlds CO2 ppm, doubling it will raise the temperature by no more than about 1 degree Fahrenheit using MODTRAN. The models being pushed by the doom and gloomers are simply worst case claims which are unlikely to be anywhere accurate as they simply do not work to explain all past climate change.

    As I have said before the actual problem is the population explosion due to those improved living standards and modern medicine. That issue needs to be addressed.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      “As I have said before” You’ve said all this before. It was bullsh** then, and it still is.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Yep—the world is not ending? The world has been “ending” since it was created, and the only question is how long it will take. The real question is when will the world as seen and inhabited by HUMANS end, and only a moron like jerry doodoo would continue to maintain “not to worry”.

        Mother Nature is swinging several large bats in the warmup circle right now. Remember that she DOES bat last, and is going to solve our overpopulation problem for us—-big time and sooner than we think

    • ubrew12 Says:

      “…doubling [CO2]… will raise the temperature by no more than about 1 degree Fahrenheit using MODTRAN” If I had a nickel every time I heard this claim, I’d be a billionaire. Increase the atmosphere’s temperature 1 C (not F) and it can hold more water vapor, a potent greenhouse gas. Once this positive feedback plays itself out, you are up ANOTHER 2 C.

      If you’re going to lie, at least don’t repeat yourself.


      • “Once this positive feedback plays itself out, you are up ANOTHER 2 C.”

        Sounds about right. The Pliocene had roughly the same CO2 levels as today. Global temps were estimated to be 2-3C warmer than the present. With the system back in balance (that will take a while), an ocean level similar to the Pliocene would be 25 meters higher and Florida would be almost entirely submerged. Since the configuration of the continents has changed little since that time, the outcome should be similar.

        We aren’t satisfied with the Pliocene though…we’re shooting for the late Eocene/early Miocene.

        https://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/2008/2008_Robinson_ro07900q.pdf


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