How climate scientists are keeping hope alive when the damage worsens

Within a single year, University of Maine climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill lost both her mother and her stepfather. She struggled with infertility, so during research in the Arctic, she developed emboli in both lungs, was transferred to an intensive care unit in Siberia and almost died. She was brought home and later underwent a hysterectomy. Then the pandemic hit.

Her trials and her perseverance, she said, seemed to make her a magnet for emails and direct messages on Twitter “asking me how to be hopeful, asking me what keeps me going?”

Gill said she has accepted the idea that she is “everyone’s climate midwife” and coaches them to hope through action.

Hope and optimism often flourish in experts working in the gloomy areas of global warming, COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease.

How climate scientists like Gill or emergency room doctors during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic cope with their depressing daily work, yet remain hopeful, can offer help to ordinary people dealing with a world that is going off track, psychologists said.

‘I think it ’s because they look a way out. They see that things can be done, ”said Pennsylvania State University psychology professor Janet Swim. “Hope is to see a way, even though the path seems far, far away.”

Director of the UN Environment Program, Inger Andersen, said she simply can not do her job without being optimistic.

“I do not want to sound naive by choosing to be the ‘realistic optimist’, but the alternative to being the realistic optimist is either to keep your ears shut and wait for doomsday or to party while the Titanic’s orchestra plays,” Andersen said. . “I do not subscribe either.”

Dr. Kristina Goff works in the intensive care unit at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and said at times she felt overwhelmed during the pandemic. She keeps a folder at home with “little notes that say” hey, you made a difference. “

“I think half the battle in my job is to learn to take what could be a very overwhelming anxiety, and turn it into productivity and resilience,” Goff said. “You just have to focus on those little areas where you can make a difference.”

Alzheimer’s disease can be one of the gloomiest diagnoses a doctor can convey, one where the future may seem hopeless. Still, Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s research center and a man colleagues describe as optimistic and passionate, it’s not like that.

“I do not think it is depressing. I do not think it’s gloomy. It is hard. It is challenging, ”said Petersen. But “we feel so much better today than we did five years ago, 10 years ago.”

The coping technique that these researchers have in common is doing something to help. The word they often use is “agency”. This is especially true for climate scientists – tarred as judges of political types who reject science.

Gill, who describes himself as a lifelong cheerleader, has also struggled with depression. She said that what is key to combating eco-anxiety is that “regular depression and regular anxiety tools work just as well. And that’s why I say to people, ‘Be a doer. Get others there. Do not just doomscroll. ‘ There are ways everyone, literally everyone, can help, and the more we do, ‘Oh, it actually works,’ it turns out.

It’s not just about individual actions, like giving up air travel or becoming a vegetarian, it’s about working with other people in a joint effort, Gill said. Individual action is useful in relation to climate change, but is not enough, she said. To bend the curve of rising temperatures and the build-up of heat-trapping gases, a stable collective action, such as the youth climate activism movement and voting, provides real freedom of action.

“I think it may have helped ward off some of this hopelessness,” she said. “I’m going to a scientific meeting and I’m looking around at the thousands of scientists working on this. And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this.’

Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Victor Gensini said that at the age of 35, he reckons it is his relative youth that gives him hope.

“When I think about what could be, I get a sense of optimism and create an attitude that it’s something I can do something about,” Gensini said.

UN’s Andersen is a veteran of decades of work on ecological issues and believes that this experience has made her optimistic.

“I have seen changes in other critical environmental issues such as bans on toxic materials, better air quality standards, ozone hole repair, phasing out of leaded gasoline and more,” Andersen said. “I know that hard work, supported by science, supported by strong politics and yes, supported by multilateral and activist action, can lead to change.”

Deke Arndt, head of climate science and services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Center for Environmental Information, said that what drives him with overwhelming optimism is his personal faith and remembering all the people who have helped his family. through the generations – through the generations. the dustbin to his grandparents and through infertility and then neonatal problems for his son.

“We have experienced the miracle of practical care from fellow human beings,” Arndt said. “You spend a little bit the rest of your life trying to pay back.”

“Where people do not suffer through their own purchase, it makes me want to commit myself again as a scientist and Catholic,” Arndt said. “We have to do as much as we can.”

What’s more, Gill and several others said, science tells them it’s not over for Earth.

“The work I do naturally gives me a sense of freedom,” Gill said. “As a paleo-ecologist (studying the past) and climatologist, I have a better sense of the Earth’s resilience than many people do.”

It helps that she studies plants and handles change on an ice age scale. She pointed to Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, who spent much of her career diving and studying the same coral reef in the Pacific, only to return in 2016 and find it dead: “God, I can not imagine what a stomach ache. “

Cobb laughed heartily when she heard how Gill described life as a reef scientist.

From 1997 to 2016, Cobb dived at one of the small islands of Kiritimati in the Pacific Ocean and monitored the effects of climate change and El Nino on a delicate coral reef there. Super hot water killed it in 2016, with only faint signs of life clinging to it.

That fall, Cobb took one last trip. It was during the election. A big Hillary Clinton fan, Cobb was wearing a Madame President shirt when she heard the news that Donald Trump was elected. She said she fell into a hole of despair that lasted maybe a few months.

“And so on New Year’s Eve, I decided that I had had enough, and I know my husband had enough, my children had had enough. So people needed their mother and their wife back, ”Cobb said. “I decided to fumble for another way out there.”

“I’m not able to tumble so long before I start asking myself some questions like, ‘Do you know how to get your position going? How can you use your resources to work? ” Said Cobb.

She and her family reduced their personal CO2 emissions by 80%. She does not fly by plane anymore. She became vegan, composting, installing solar panels. She is working on greater climate efforts instead of her more focused previous research. And she bikes everywhere, which she said is like mental health therapy.

She tells people when they are worried about climate change, “there will be no victory, a bright moment where we can declare success,” but “it will never be too late to act. It will never be too late to rectify on this.”

NOAA’s Arndt said the climate of the 20th century he grew up with is gone forever. He mourns the loss of it, but also finds what has passed “strangely liberating.”

With climate change, “we just have to hold on to hope and grief at the same time, as if they are some kind of twins that we rock,” Maine’s Gill said. “We must both understand and witness what has happened and what we have lost. And then commit to protecting what is left. And I do not think you can do that from a place of hopelessness. ”

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