Climate Change Feature

The Emotional Toll of Climate Change on Science Professionals

Earth scientists and communicators dealing with or studying climate change face many potential stressors. They need support and resources to maintain and improve their emotional well-being.

By , Susanne Moser, Becky DePodwin, Rebecca Moulton, and Sarah Watson

The diverse challenges of climate change are taking an increasing toll on professionals working in the Earth sciences. In particular, those who produce and/or communicate climate science information encounter direct and cultural pressures that can affect their emotional well-being. If the Earth science community is to successfully meet climate challenges, it needs a properly equipped, productive, and healthy workforce.

We represent a broad spectrum of Earth science professionals: an academic climate scientist (D.G.), a human geographer specializing in, among other things, psychological responses to climate change (S.M.), a private-sector meteorologist and emergency preparedness specialist (B.D.), a meteorologist and emergency management risk analyst for catastrophic natural hazards (R.M.), and a climate communicator and sea level rise adaptation planning specialist (S.W.). Motivated by our personal and professional experiences, here we describe and discuss some of these challenges, and we propose resources and organizational changes necessary to support the emotional well-being of scientists and professionals dealing with or studying climate change.

Psychological Stresses Faced by Earth Science Professionals

Climate change can directly affect the emotional well-being of Earth scientists and professionals (hereinafter Earth science professionals). Like the physical processes of climate change, the emotional effects are complex and multifaceted, and Earth science professionals are intimately aware of the costly ramifications of both.

Professionals, their families, and their communities will face (or already experience) physical consequences of climate change that can impact their well-being: exacerbated extreme weather, sea level rise, flooding, related economic impacts, and more [Head and Harada, 2017; Clayton, 2018]. Awareness of the scope, complexities, and nuances of climate change and its responses can be overwhelming in and of itself. Furthermore, Earth science professionals have an explicit role to provide information to policy makers and decision-makers, and they understand the importance of action at all levels to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Seeing such information ignored, misinterpreted, or misused—and witnessing political inaction to address climate change—can cause a range of emotional responses, from helplessness and despair to fear and anger.

There are also significant emotional strains on those who communicate climate science, including anxiety about constantly delivering bad news or about communicating to those who distrust or reject mainstream climate science. Because climate change and its impacts (e.g., exacerbated flooding) are pressing problems that pose increasing risks for humans, climate communicators—whether scientists, emergency managers, or others—often face high-intensity, high-volume workloads and long hours.

Floodwaters encroach on homes on the North Carolina coast in October 2015.
Floodwaters encroach on homes on the North Carolina coast in October 2015. Communicating climate science can induce anxiety in part because climate change and its impacts, such as exacerbated flooding, are pressing problems that pose increasing risks for humans. Credit: North Carolina Department of Transportation, CC BY 2.0

Finally, Earth science professionals can face psychosocial or cultural challenges, such as lack of family support for their work, political tensions in close relationships, and challenges to religious identity. Confronting such challenges can be especially disheartening because close kin and deeply held values are often powerful motivating factors behind Earth science professionals’ work.

Existing career challenges, some of which are more pronounced in the Earth sciences than in other fields, can compound the burdens noted above [Levecque et al., 2017]. These challenges may include the following:

  • balancing academic teaching and publication demands
  • pressures facing early-career scholars in highly competitive fields
  • successfully navigating trials and errors in graduate school
  • lack of belonging or sense of community in organizations where diversity and inclusivity are absent or devalued
  • isolation where individuals work as independent professionals or as single representatives of a particular field or area of expertise
  • lack of income security
  • political and cultural pressures from working on or being associated with climate-related issues and fear that these pressures could result in discipline or job loss

On top of these tolls, the widespread cultural stigma surrounding emotional well-being and mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing climate scientists and professionals. Traditional norms of scientific rigor typically dictate that scientists remain composed and unemotional in their pursuit of knowledge; the admission of work-related emotional distress is sometimes conflated with weakness, character deficiency, or, worse, lack of scientific integrity and objectivity. This stigma amplifies fears of losing respect from peers, further damaging, rather than supporting, the emotional well-being of colleagues and community members [Friedman, 2014]. Hence, Earth science professionals may not be comfortable discussing their emotional well-being with colleagues and the community, avoiding the very networks that should be supporting them.

We argue that Earth science professionals can simultaneously remain objective in their work and exhibit humanity and emotion. This is well illustrated in the Is This How You Feel? exhibition, for instance, which invites contributors, including climate scientists, to submit handwritten letters describing how they feel about climate change. Humanity and empathy are essential in our efforts to meet the challenges associated with climate change, including the necessity of maintaining personal resilience and emotional well-being.

Consequences of Sustained Stress

The combined physical and mental tolls of climate change may cause Earth science professionals to experience burnout or exhaustion, which has been proven to affect negatively both physical and mental health and to decrease productivity [Lopes Cardozo et al., 2012; Mountz, 2016]. The risks of mental health impacts related to climate change have been acknowledged for the general population [Clayton et al., 2014; U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2016; Hayes et al., 2018]. But these risks are underdocumented with respect to climate scientists and professionals who deal with climate change on a daily basis and for whom repeated phases of intense grief, anxiety, despair, hopelessness, emotional numbing, and depression are far more likely challenges.

A growing number of scientists have come forward to speak about their emotional experiences in coping with the challenges of climate change (e.g., as part of Is This How You Feel?). We ourselves are further anecdotal evidence, having each faced such challenges in our careers as climate scientists and communicators. Meanwhile, in a research project (the Adaptive Mind Project) led by one of us (S.M.), survey and interview evidence of the extremely high burnout rates among Earth science professionals is emerging, and some are choosing to leave the field altogether. These departures constitute a real cost to society, as valuable scientific expertise and institutional knowledge are being lost, precisely when they are needed most.

Unfortunately, Earth science professionals find few relevant resources or support systems to remediate the emotional tolls of climate change. Although some seek out individual help or resources provided by their institutions, many of these support systems are insufficient to address the particular challenges faced in the Earth science community. Related psychologists’ alliances exist in the United Kingdom (Climate Psychology Alliance), the United States (Climate Psychology Alliance North America and Climate Psychiatry Alliance), and Australia (Psychology for a Safe Climate). But most therapists and psychiatrists are still generally uninformed or underinformed about climate change, and the vast majority have made no effort to understand the specific challenges faced by those working on the front lines of climate science (L. van Susteren, personal communication, 2019).

Personal and Institutional Strategies to Move Forward

We propose five strategies to provide both immediate and long-term support for Earth science professionals and to create a community ready to meet the challenges described above.

1. (Self-)Education. Earth science professionals need frameworks to help them understand and improve their personal mental health. Basic education about burnout, trauma and/or post-traumatic stress disorder, climate grief, and other forms of emotional distress can help individuals identify what they are experiencing, whether and when they need professional support, and what forms of support and resources they might seek. When Earth scientists self-educate—and educate their students and colleagues—about the existence and characteristics of common psychological responses to climate change, they will be better equipped to process and address them. Education can also reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns, contributing to a broader cultural shift. To this end, we have compiled an initial list of resources focused on personal resilience.

Silhouette of a person meditating at sunrise
In addition to improvements in institutional support for the Earth science community, self-education and self-care practices, such as yoga and spending time in nature, can help individuals facing burnout, climate grief, and other forms of emotional distress improve their well-being. Credit: avi_acl, Pixabay License

2. Psychological Self-Care Practices. There are a number of personal practices that Earth science professionals can use to improve their well-being. Among the authors, coping and self-care practices we engage in include yoga, mindfulness practices and meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, physical activity, pursuing joyous hobbies, spending time in nature, communicating with peer support groups, connecting with family or friends, and going on climate news or social media “diets.” No single practice works for everyone, but many psychologists and health care providers promote such practices for their potentially calming and restorative effects.

3. Professional Preparedness and Services. There remains a gap between the mental health community and the needs of Earth science professionals. It is difficult to find psychologists professionally trained to understand and treat climate grief, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize climate change and its effects as sources of trauma, depression, or anxiety. Although we are loath to think of these emotional responses as “disorders,” they can become debilitating, requiring care. We welcome the organizing efforts within the psychological community mentioned above, but improved professional services are needed for those working on the front lines of climate change. Such support is particularly necessary in the wake of traumatizing disasters and can be expected to grow in demand as climate change accelerates.

The Adaptive Mind Project is one promising program currently in development. It aims to identify the skills, capacities, and resources required by climate adaptation professionals to deal with constant, sometimes traumatic, and increasingly transformative change; develop training materials responding to those challenges; and pilot test trainings with various networks of climate adaptation professionals, foster peer support networks, and initiate institutional changes that recognize and support the psychological well-being needs of employees.

4. Social Support. Communities of mutual support can offer ongoing opportunities for emotional relief, and as such, they provide avenues for empathy, shared experiences, and reduced isolation [Naslund et al., 2016]. They also can provide accountability and advice on caring for oneself through stressful periods. Peer communities can flourish as small groups with regular in-person or virtual meetings or may expand to larger groups, such as at conferences. Large groups especially provide unique opportunities for education within the community, providing language to diffuse experiences and empowering Earth science professionals by giving greater visibility to shared experiences.

5. Institutional Cultural Change. Institutional and organizational changes are needed to bring about lasting improvements to the well-being of the Earth science community. These changes can be initiated at a grassroots level by opening doors to conversations and discussions on these topics (see strategy 4). But they can also be approached by institutions acknowledging the ongoing challenges that Earth science professionals experience, documenting employee needs, and working with trusted champions who recognize these needs and are willing to foster organization-wide discussions. Institutions can also promote self-education and train supervisors and employees with respect to mental health and well-being, and they can establish relationships with psychological service providers.

Institutional support will make emotional well-being part of the fabric of Earth science careers and a habitual practice for scientists and professionals. This support can begin during graduate education in universities, but it cannot end there, as the psychological demands on professionals during their training may be different than those experienced in different career tracks. We believe institutional support is essential to foster the well-being and productivity of Earth science professionals, particularly during and after traumatizing disasters.

Supporting Those Who Work for Our Future

Climate change is the great challenge of this generation. In contrast to the enormous body of research and discussion involving climate change, insufficient attention has been paid to the emotional well-being of those working on it. Awareness, acknowledgment, and support are necessary to meet the growing needs of this professional community. The strategies offered here address these needs, but much work remains to integrate them into the diverse work cultures of Earth science professionals.

Ultimately, we envision a world in which Earth science professionals everywhere have the psychological skills and capacities, as well as the peer and institutional support, to effectively and compassionately face the challenges of a rapidly, continually, and sometimes traumatically and profoundly changing world. Transformation at organizational and institutional levels will take time to develop, but support of individuals and among peer groups will form the foundation for broader change and is achievable now. Together we can build the psychosocial support infrastructure and advocate for necessary resources to take care of those who work to understand Earth’s climate and who, in doing so, ultimately seek to improve future outcomes for all of us.

These topics and more will be discussed during AGU’s upcoming Fall Meeting 2019, Union Session U13B, “Emotional Well-Being and Career Stress in Earth Science: Support to Meet the Needs of the Next Centennial.”

Acknowledgments

Views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of their employers or organizations. We have benefited greatly from conversations with many of our colleagues over several years, and we thank them for their support and encouragement to write this article.

References

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Author Information

Daniel Gilford ([email protected]), Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.; Susanne Moser, Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, Hadley, Mass.; also at University of Massachusetts Amherst; also at Antioch University New England, Keene, N.H.; Becky DePodwin, AccuWeather, State College, Pa.; Rebecca Moulton, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Atlanta, Ga.; and Sarah Watson, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, Charleston, S.C.; also at Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments, Columbia, S.C.

Citation: Gilford, D., S. Moser, B. DePodwin, R. Moulton, and S. Watson (2019), The emotional toll of climate change on science professionals, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO137460. Published on 06 December 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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