by Judith Curry
Well this has been a really interesting week for hearing about what climate scientists think and feel about potential future impacts of climate change.
Pre-traumatic stress syndrome
From an article entitled Climate Scientists are Dealing with Psychological Problems:
Most of the worst predicted outcomes will occur down the road. In the meantime, though, the people making these predictions — climate scientists — are dealing with a heavy psychological toll. They are living a “surreal existence.”
One psychologist who works with climate scientists said they suffer from “pre-traumatic stress,” the overwhelming sense of anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive thoughts” that results when your work every day is to chart a planetary future that looks increasingly apocalyptic. Some climatologists merely report depression and feelings of hopelessness. Others, resigned to our shared fate, have written what amount to survival guides for a sort of Mad Max dystopian future where civilization has broken down under the pressures of resource scarcity and habitat erosion.
Pre-traumatic stress syndrome was discussed previously at CE [here].
Ballad of the sad climatologists
All of this is examined at great length in a remarkable article in Esquire: Ballad of the sad climatologists: When the end of human civilization is your day job. Roger Pielke Jr sums it up with this tweet: Strange tales from the apocalyptic wing of the climate science community. Some excerpts:
Jason Box: “I think most scientists must be burying overt recognition of the awful truths of climate change in a protective layer of denial (not the same kind of denial coming from conservatives, of course). I’m still amazed how few climatologists have taken an advocacy message to the streets, demonstrating for some policy action.” But gloom is the one subject he doesn’t want to discuss. “Crawling under a rock isn’t an option,” he responds, “so becoming overcome with PTSD-like symptoms is useless.” Jason Box famously tweeted: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.”
Gavin Schmidt: Although Schmidt was one of the victims of the 2009 computer hacks, which he admits tipped him into an episode of serious depression, he now focuses relentlessly on the bright side.“I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re fucked. There is time to build sustainable solutions to a lot of these things. You don’t have to close down all the coal-powered stations tomorrow. You can transition. It sounds cute to say, ‘Oh, we’re fucked and there’s nothing we can do,’ but it’s a bit of a nihilistic attitude. We always have the choice. We can continue to make worse decisions, or we can try to make ever better decisions. ‘Oh, we’re fucked! Just give up now, just kill me now,’ that’s just stupid.” “Bad things are going to happen. What can you do as a person? You write stories. I do science. You don’t run around saying, ‘We’re fucked! We’re fucked! We’re fucked!’ It doesn’t—it doesn’t incentivize anybody to do anything.”
Camille Parmesan: Camille Parmesan announced that she’d become “professionally depressed” and was leaving the United States for England. The politics took its toll. Her butterfly study got her a spot on the UN climate panel, where she got “a quick and hard lesson on the politics” when policy makers killed the words “high confidence” in the crucial passage that said scientists had high confidence species were responding to climate change. Then the personal attacks started on right-wing Web sites and blogs. “They just flat-out lie. It’s one reason I live in the UK now. It’s not just been climate change, there’s a growing, ever-stronger antiscience sentiment in the U. S. A. People get really angry and really nasty. It was a huge relief simply not to have to deal with it.” She now advises her graduate students to look for jobs outside the U. S.
Michael Mann: He was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be “shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.” Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair.
As Mann sees it, scientists like Schmidt who choose to focus on the middle of the curve aren’t really being scientific. Worse are pseudo-sympathizers like Bjorn Lomborg who always focus on the gentlest possibilities. Because we’re supposed to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, and a real scientific response would also give serious weight to the dark side of the curve.
He was talking to students, so it got to him. They’re young, it’s their future more than his. He choked up and had to struggle to get ahold of himself. “You don’t want to choke up in front of your class,” he says. About once a year, he says, he has nightmares of earth becoming a very alien planet. The worst time was when he was reading his daughter Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, the story of a society destroyed by greed. He saw it as an optimistic story because it ends with the challenge of building a new society, but she burst into tears and refused to read the book again. “It was almost traumatic for her.” His voice cracks. “I’m having one of those moments now.” Why? “I don’t want her to have to be sad,” he says. “And I almost have to believe we’re not yet there, where we are resigned to this future.”
Climate ‘refugees’. Like Parmesan, Box was hugely relieved to be out of the toxic atmosphere of the U. S. “I remember thinking, What a relief, I don’t have to bother with this bullshit anymore.” In Denmark, his research is supported through the efforts of conservative politicians. “But Danish conservatives are not climate-change deniers,” he says.
In fact, Box adds, he too is a climate refugee. His wife, Klara, resents any notion that she is a “climate migrant.” She didn’t want to compare herself to the truly desperate refugees who are drowning, she says, and the move to Denmark really was for the quality of life. “Lastly, the most difficult question to answer is about Jason’s mental health. I’d say climate change, and more broadly the whole host of environmental and social problems the world faces, does affect his psyche.”
Jason Box: “I’ve been looking at property in Greenland. As a possible bug-out scenario.”
The Guardian has a related article: Is it ok for scientists to weep over climate change? Excerpt (although its not clear from the article who this female scientist is):
“Stop recording now,” she said. “I can’t be crying on the radio. It’s demeaning to women scientists, especially after Tim Hunt [The UCL Professor who controversially resigned after quipping that women scientists get emotional in the lab].”
I argued that the audience would be moved by her commitment, and the interview continued with tears flowing.
“I love the oceans,” she said. “I feel passionately about what we are doing to them and I’m worried that they will be irreversibly damaged.
Interview with Syukuro Manabe
The Carbon Brief has conducted a really interesting interview with Syukuro Manabe, the father of climate modeling [link] (and author of the most influential climate paper of all time as per previous blog post). Some very interesting perspectives on the history of climate modeling. I can’t remember having heard Manabe speak out on climate change policy, here are some quotes from the interview:
CB: Do you think we should now be considering some form of geo-engineering?
SM: I think it is a terrible idea, because the climate, even in the absence of global warming changes, can go up and down. So let’s suppose you put sulphates into the stratosphere to block the sunshine and the temperature still rises for a period. People will complain. And then the temperature starts to go down. People will then complain that it is too cool. This will continue. You can’t please everyone. And there will likely be huge litigation costs, too. They will blame you for whatever happens to the climate from that point on.
CB: Do we just have to try and adapt?
SM: Here in the US, it is impossible to get carbon trading, or what have you, through Congress. I think it is practically impossible to achieve the reductions in carbon emissions as demanded by the IPCC scenarios. I think for the time being – and this will probably happen anyway – that we will use natural gas produced by fracking. It will buy us some time. Meanwhile, we should put a major emphasis on clean technologies and optimise our electricity grid systems so we use less fossil fuel. Basically, everything that has already been proposed. Over time, they [clean technologies] will take over. This is a more natural approach rather than try to impose carbon trading, etc. It blows my mind how you might go about getting us off carbon fuels.
There is clearly a range of perspectives of climate scientists in terms of how they respond to the threat of climate change. In the previous blog post on this topic, I introduced the concept of psychological hardiness:
The coping style most commonly associated with hardiness is that of transformational coping, an optimistic style of coping that transforms stressful events into less stressful ones. At the cognitive level this involves setting the event into a broader perspective in which they do not seem so terrible after all. At the level of action, individuals high in hardiness are believed to react to stressful events by increasing their interaction with them, trying to turn them into an advantage and opportunity for growth, and in the process achieve some greater understanding.
Manabe and especially Gavin Schmidt are clearly displaying characteristics of psychological hardiness. Is this merely a function of their personalities, and/or does it relate to the fact that they build climate models, and understand the uncertainties of the projections moreso than climate scientists focused on observations and impacts?
On the other hand, Jason Box and the anonymous female seem genuinely distressed about the future and would seem to lack hardiness in coping, although Box seems also to be highly offended by political B.S. in the U.S.
Andy Revkin tweets: Most climate scientists I’ve encountered in 30 yrs on beat are in @climateofgavin mode, not woe=me mode.
Other factors seem to come into play for Parmesan and Mann, although I obviously have no particular insight into their motives other than what I have read.
Having your ego wrapped up in having your research influence policy (frustrated policy advocates), keeping ‘score’ in a personal war against skeptics, seeking fame, generating book sales and lecture fees and political influence, etc. can all come into play in influencing how a scientist reacts to the climate wars or seeks to position themselves in reacting to the threats of climate change. Scientists might get ‘upset’ if they don’t think they are sufficiently successful at the above. This is something else — not pre-traumatic stress syndrome.
Clearly much fodder for psychologists and social psychologists, although I fear that climate psychology’s consensus bias (see previous post re Joe Duarte’s research) will be hard to overcome.
p.s. I was astonished by this statement: As Mann sees it, scientists like Schmidt who choose to focus on the middle of the curve aren’t really being scientific. Its not a direct quote, so I don’t what he actually said. But effectively calling Gavin Schmidt ‘not really being scientific’ – can Mann be far from calling Gavin Schmidt anti-science?