The emotional impact of working on climate change: the experience of scientists and activists

Drawing on findings from their article in Environmental Values 27.3 (June 208), ‘Engaging with Climate Change: Comparing the Cultures of Science and Activism’, Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall here examine the emotional challenges faced by climate scientists and activists.

Climate change and interconnected crises such as species extinction and resource depletion present humankind with unprecedented challenges. The optimism we have that we can rise to the technical challenge is offset by the pessimism that grows when we think of the political one. But what hasn’t been considered very much is the psychological challenge. Put bluntly, do we have the ethical and emotional capacities to confront the destruction the human species is wreaking on this planet? It is this question that has gnawed away at us for some time and led us, with a small number of colleagues, to establish the Climate Psychology Alliance a few years back.

Where better to find some answers to this question than by researching the experiences of those who face the grim reality of worsening climate change on a daily basis? Over the last few years, as part of a small research project, we’ve spent time talking in depth to two groups of people who know what it’s like to think about climate change every day – climate scientists and climate activists.

A man points to the level that the water came up to on the side
A man points to the level that the water came up to on the side of his home when floods swept through his village in Pakistan’s Sindh province in August 2010. Climate change is already altering patterns of disasters like floods, droughts and hurricanes. Last year 23 million people were forced from their homes by weather and climate-related disasters. As these events become more powerful more people are likely to be displaced. 
Credit: Vicki Francis / Department for International Development, Pakistan floods: six months on. Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) / Open Government Licence. From Flickr. 

Their experiences are very different. Science is conducted in a highly structured, publicly funded, hierarchical environment. Activists operate in loose networks of like-minded people. Scientists are held to the job through their contracts and the demands of their career. Activists are free to quit at any time. Where scientists were drawn to the subject through their fascination with science itself, activists arrived via concerns about social justice.

These contrasting cultures seem to have had a profound impact on the way that each group deals with a reality which both groups acknowledged is emotionally disturbing. Because of the way in which climate science had become politicised the scientists spoke of their anxiety and of the huge burden of responsibility they felt. They also described bruising disagreements with colleagues over public communication and policy advice, and traumatic encounters with the press and denialists. The activists described moments of panic, hopelessness and the challenge, as ordinary members of society, to find a proportionate response to the enormity of what they now knew. They also described traumatising experiences with the police, the courts and revelations about informers.

The activists’ journey

Most of the activists had been involved in direct action as well as in more conventional community action. Several now also worked in environmental NGOs. They had all followed a similar journey in which we identified four clear stages: awakening, immersion, crisis and resolution. The awakening often had the quality of an epiphany. There was a definable, life-changing moment which led people to put everything else on hold as they grappled with what climate change meant and the nature of an adequate response. This was followed by a period of immersion: reading, thinking, talking and acting. ‘It just became the primary thing I worried about’, said one. In the long term this immersion was unsustainable and many of those we spoke to had reached a crisis point which at worst led to burnout, at best to a period of reviewing and reflecting on their commitment. The period which we call resolution was one of more sustainable activism. ‘You realise that well, you can’t … you can’t stay in that place for ever’, one said.

Riot police officers ‘kettle’ protesters at the Bishopsgate Climate Camp, London, 1 April 2009. Source Wikimedia Commons.

This sustainable activism had three main components of what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls ‘emotion work’. It featured: the development of a sense of agency; finding a path that was proportionate both to climate change and to living a normal life; and a conscious moving away from an intense preoccupation with the facts. These were not ignored but they were put into the background, rather in the way that someone with a difficult medical condition makes the effort to concentrate on life, rather than the illness.

Just as important was the culture the activists were rooted in. Solidarity, trust and community were words that recurred frequently. Although it could sometimes lead to a sense of being in the bubble of a self-referential world, the non-hierarchical, consensus-based practices of the movement and the commitment to real social change gave the activists a solid psychological base. In short, we met a group of people who were very emotionally literate and whose organisational practices facilitated this. This seemed to be what had carried them through some extremely difficult experiences.

The social defences of science

In contrast the scientists described a culture dominated by what are called social defences: features of institutional life that can be used unconsciously to protect against anxiety and other difficult feelings. These can contain difficult feelings so that work is carried out efficiently but can also fail, leading to unproductive conflict and increasing distress amongst staff. Unwritten rules about the way people behave, norms which mean certain topics are never raised and assumptions about the purpose or the correct way of doing the work can all operate as social defences. The features of scientific life that seem to operate in this way are scientific specialisation, ideas of scientific rationality and progress and a normalisation of overwork. The culture encourages people to keep their heads down, concentrate on their small part of the jigsaw, see science as separate from society and not ask many questions about the implications of their work.

The same defences also contribute to the resistance of most climate scientists to participation in public engagement or intervention in the policy arena, leaving these tasks to a minority who are attacked by the media and even by their own colleagues. The scientists we spoke to were amongst this minority involved in public communication and policy advice. This had led them to challenge these norms with often painful results for themselves. ‘I’ve had a lot of disagreement with people who think it’s appropriate to us to be the neutral observer’, said one. ‘We become so aggressive with one another in a way that is really not supportive’, said another. And although some described scientists rallying round colleagues who were attacked in the press, others spoke of feeling isolated and abandoned: ‘A lot of the climate scientists just disappeared off the scene. They wouldn’t appear in the media and it just became a feeding frenzy’, said one, describing ‘Climategate’.

US Secretary of State John Kerry receives a briefing from a group of climate change scientists on June 17, 2016, as they cruise aboard the HDMS Thetis in the waters off Ilulissat, Greenland. Source Wikimedia Commons.

This in turn makes those that do engage with the public and policy makers excessively cautious, which encourages collusion. As one scientist put it: ‘There is a mentality in [the] group that speaks to policy makers that there are some taboo topics that you cannot talk about. For instance the two degree target on climate change’. It is as if there is such an anxiety about being seen to be alarmist (and hence emotional) that climate science errs in the opposite direction and thence fails to confront policy makers in the way that is required.

Psychological Capacities

When the activists described the more formal world of environmental NGOs, we could see the operation of social defences there as well, in a culture of overwork, manic urgency and bureaucratic practices that denied feelings. In the looser, more innovative culture of activism itself however they had developed more creative ways of dealing with the distress of climate change.

To return to our original question, what does the experience of these two groups tell us about our psychological capacity to face up to the difficult truths of climate change? They tell us that we are more likely to be successful if we combine both our capacity to reason and our capacity to feel. That we are less likely to be overwhelmed if we have a sense of agency, a capacity to keep going that is the embodiment of hope rather than a defensive optimism. That we are more likely to be able to face difficult truths if we feel that we are doing so with others rather than alone and that groups that can think and feel will provide much more support than groups that can only do one whilst suppressing the other.




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