Climate Scientists Are Dealing With Psychological Problems

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Lake Isabella near Bakersfield, East of California's Central valley is at less than 13% capacity
Photo: Ashley Cooper/Corbis

Every year brings a new batch of data regarding the progression and likely effects of climate change, and the results are almost always worse than previous models had predicted. In fact, they’re frankly terrifying: rapid and accelerating deterioration of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets that will yield massive sea-level rise and submerge coastal cities; paralyzing drought on continental interiors that will lead to Dust Bowl–style famine; and incredibly powerful floods and storms that happen more frequently — five times as often now, in fact, as in the 1970s.

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, as a piece in Esquire by John H. Richardson points out. They are living, as Richardson puts it, a “surreal existence.”

One psychologist who works with climate scientists told Richardson 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.

This kind of doom and gloom is not shared across the board, but nearly all climate scientists harbor serious doubts about the industrialized (and industrializing) world’s willingness to meet the challenges we face, which of course compounds their trauma. And perhaps the biggest indicator of that unwillingness is the constant attacks climate scientists endure at the hands of climate-change deniers — attacks that leave their own psychological bruises.

Michael Mann of Penn State is perhaps the best-known (and, in some circles, most reviled) American climate scientist for his work on the “hockey-stick graph.” After that report, as Esquire notes, he “was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail,” and was told he and his family deserved to be “shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs,” while “a British journalist suggested the electric chair.” A Jim Inhofe–led senate committee threatened him with federal prosecution.

The article is chock full of stories like this: Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies admits he lapsed into “an episode of serious depression” after he was one of thousands of scientists to be hacked shortly before a climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, while Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas announced she was suffering “professional depression” after the 2009 summit ultimately failed and Texas governor Rick Perry removed the sections on sea-level rise from a report she authored about the future of Galveston Bay.

While there’s a lot to lament about their current situation, researchers have discovered one solution to the climate-change blues: Parmesan and quite a few others have moved from the U.S. to Europe.