Scientists need to face both facts and feelings when dealing with the climate crisis

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Kimberly Nicholas

I was taught to use my head, not my heart. But acknowledging sadness at what is lost can help us safeguard the future

Scientist measuring greenhouse gas emissions at a wetland
‘Bearing witness to the demise or death of what we love has started to look an awful lot like the job description for an environmental scientist these days.’ Scientist measuring greenhouse gas emissions at a wetland Photograph: Izzet Noyan Yilmaz/Alamy Stock Photo

Wed 24 Mar 2021 10.00 GMT

Over the course of my career, the climate crisis has changed from something only experts could see – reading clues trapped in frozen air bubbles or statistical patterns in long-term data sets – to something that everyone on Earth is living through. For me, it has gone from being something I study to a way that I see the world and experience my life. It’s one thing to publish a study on the hypothetical impact of increasing temperature on California’s people and ecosystems; it’s another to feel my stomach gripped by fear as my parents flee a catastrophic California wildfire cranked up by longer, hotter, drier summers.

Bearing witness to the demise or death of what we love has started to look an awful lot like the job description for an environmental scientist these days. Over dinner, my colleague Ola Olsson matter‑of‑factly summed up his career: “Half the wildlife in Africa has died on my watch.” He studied biodiversity because he loved animals and wanted to understand and protect them. Instead his career has turned into a decades-long funeral.

As a scientist, I was trained to be calm, rational, and objective, to focus on the facts, supporting my claims with evidence and showing my reasoning to colleagues to tear apart in peer review. I was trained to use my brain but not my heart; to report methods and statistics and findings but not how I felt about them. In graduate school, I was surrounded by brilliant, serious men who spoke in even, measured tones about the loss of California snowpack and crop yields; I tried to do the same.Advertisement

I felt my credibility as a scientist was on the line, as was the respect of those who would sit on my future hiring committee and determine whether I would get a tenure- track job. I internalised the idea that scientists should be “policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive.” I was not supposed to have a preference, much less an emotional attachment, to one outcome or another, even on matters of life and death; that was for “policymakers” to decide. (This reticence goes against the wishes of 60% of Americans, as expressed in Pew Research polling, that scientists take an active role in policy debates about scientific issues.)

My dispassionate training has not prepared me for the increasingly frequent emotional crises of climate change. What do I tell the student who chokes up in my office when she reads that 90% of the seagrasses she’s trying to design policies to protect are slated to be killed by warming before she retires? In such cases, facts are cold comfort. The skill I’ve had to cultivate on my own is to find the appropriate bedside manner as a doctor to a feverish planet; to try to go beyond probabilities and scenarios, to acknowledge what is important and grieve for what is being lost.To stop climate disaster, make ecocide an international crime. It’s the only wayJojo MehtaRead more

Only in the most recent decade of my life have I realised that feelings, manifested as physical sensations in the body such as my stomach clenching or my heart lifting, have their own wisdom. I don’t have to react to these feelings in any dramatic way if I don’t want to; all I have to do is make eye contact, wave, and not run away. Like all feelings, sadness is valid; it need not dictate my actions singlehandedly, but it deserves acknowledgment.

I know that there is much greater suffering than my own, such as in the low-lying communities in Bangladesh where rising seas are salting their drinking water and threatening their homes. I know that I have been shielded from many hardships and inequities. But I’ve decided it’s pointless to try and place the consequences of climate breakdown in competition with one another. It does not diminish the monumental losses to also grieve my personal, smaller ones.

I’ve realised that giving space to my feelings gives me more empathy with what others are going through as part of the shared human experience and helps me connect with them more deeply. Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown makes a distinction in her 2018 Ted Talk between two responses to loss: a heart that simply breaks, that curls up on the couch and hides away, and a broken open heart that reconnects with the world around us, that is “awake and alive and calls for action.” No matter the object, grief and sadness focus our attention on what matters in our lives, and they turn us into human distress signals: they summon help.

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my climate and ecological grief, but swimming through it is the only way forward. One role environmental scientists can play is to be “stewards of grief, to hold the hand of society as we enter the unknown space of the climate crisis,” as my friend Leehi Yona so beautifully wrote when the IPCC’s 1.5C report launched. As scientists, we have had much more time observing the decline of what we love. We are further down the line of where we all must get to as a society, facing hard truths and still finding ways to be kind and resilient, to do better going forward, to get through this together. We still have so much we love at stake that is worth fighting for.

  • Kimberly Nicholas is associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden. This is an edited excerpt from her new book, Under the Sky We Make

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