How climate scientists keep hope alive as the damage worsens

In one year, University of Maine climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill lost both her mother and stepfather. She struggled with infertility and then developed an embolism in both lungs during research in the Arctic, was transferred to an intensive care unit in Siberia and nearly died. She was transported home and later had a hysterectomy. Then a pandemic struck.

Her temptations and her perseverance, she said, seemed to make her a magnet for emails and instant messages on Twitter “asking me how to hope, asking me, like, what’s holding me back?”

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

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


As climate scientists like Gill or ambulance doctors cope with their depressive daily work during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and yet remain hopeful, they can offer help to ordinary people facing a world that has derailed, psychologists said.

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

United Nations Environment Program Director Inger Andersen said she simply cannot do her job without being optimistic.

“I don’t want to sound naive in choosing to be a‘ realistic optimist ’, but the alternative to a real optimist is either to hold on to your ears and wait for doomsday or party while the Titanic Orchestra plays,” Andersen said. “I haven’t subscribed to any.”

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


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

Alzheimer’s disease can be one of the darkest diagnoses a doctor can pass on, one in which the future may seem hopeless. Yet Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Research Center and a man his colleagues describe as optimistic and passionate, doesn’t see it that way.

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

The coping technique common to these scientists is to do something to help. The word they often use is “agency”. This is especially true of climate researchers – who are political types who reject science as a prophet of doom.


Gill, who describes herself as a lifelong cheerleader, also struggled with depression. She said what is crucial in the fight against eco-anxiety is that regular depression and regular anti-anxiety remedies work equally well. And that’s why I tell people, ‘Be executors. Find others there. Don’t just move the doomscroll. ‘ There are initial ways in which anyone, literally anyone, can help. And the more we do it, ‘Oh, it actually works,’ it turns out. “

It’s not just about individual actions, such as giving up air travel or becoming a vegetarian, it’s about working together with other people, Gill said. Individual action is beneficial for climate change, but it is not enough, she said. For bending the curve of rising temperatures and the accumulation of heat-retaining gases, sustained collective action, such as the Youth Climate Activism Movement and Voting, provides real ability.

“I think it may have helped to ward off some of this hopelessness,” she said. “I go to a science conference and watch about a thousand scientists working on this. And I think ‘Yes, we’re doing this.’


Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at the University of Northern Illinois, said that at the age of 35, he thinks that relative youth gives him hope.

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

Andersen of the UN is a veteran of decades of work on environmental issues and believes this experience has made her optimistic.

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

Deke Arndt, head of climate science and services at the National Environmental Information Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that what encourages him with great optimism is his personal faith and memory of all the people who have helped his family for generations – through the Dust Bowl for his grandparents and for infertility and then neonatal problems for his son.


“We experienced the miracle of other people’s practical care,” Arndt said. “Somehow you spend the rest of your life trying to make up for it.”

“Where people don’t suffer because of their own purchase, it makes me redefine myself as a scientist and a Catholic,” Arndt said. “We have to do as much as we can.”

Moreover, said Gill and several others, science tells them that there is no end to the Earth.

“The work I do inherently gives me a sense of representation,” Gill said. “As a paleoecologist (who studies the past) and a climatologist, I have a better sense of the Earth’s resilience than many people.”

It helps to study glaciers. Although they are shrinking, they are still there when he returns to visit them, for now. She pointed to climate scientist Georgia Tech Kim Cobb, who spent most of her career diving and studying the same coral reef in the Pacific, only to return in 2016 and find him dead: “God, I can’t imagine what a blow.”


Cobb laughed heartily when she heard Gill describe the life of a scientist on a ridge.

From 1997 to 2016, Cobb dived on one of the small islands of Kiritimati in the Pacific, following the effects of climate change and El Nino on the sensitive coral reef there. Super hot water killed him in 2016, and only faint signs of life clung to him.

That fall Cobb went on his last trip. It was during the election. A big fan of Hillary Clinton, Cobb was wearing a Madame President t-shirt when she heard the news that Donald Trump had been elected. She said she fell into a pit of despair that lasted perhaps several months.

“And then on New Year’s Eve I decided I probably had enough and I know my husband has had enough, my kids have had enough. So people needed their mother and wife back,” Cobb said. “I decided to grope a second time outside.”


“I can’t roll around for so long before I start asking myself questions like, ‘See, you know how you can get your position? How can you use your resources?'” Cobb said.

She and her family reduced their personal carbon emissions by 80%. He doesn’t fly planes anymore. She became vegan, composted, installed solar panels. He is working on greater climate action instead of more focused previous research. And she rides a bike everywhere, which, she said, is like mental health therapy.

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

Arndt of NOAA said the 20th century climate in which he grew up was gone forever. He mourns the loss of it, but also mourns for what has passed “strangely liberating.”


With climate change, “we need to keep hope and sadness at the same time, as if they are the twins we stick with,” Gill of Maine said. “We have to understand and witness what happened and what we lost. And then commit yourself fiercely to protecting what’s left. And I don’t think you can do that out of desperation. “


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