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Climate change and compassion fatigue

Posted on 23 October 2018 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from ClimateSight

I’m a climate scientist, and I don’t worry about climate change very much. I think about it every day, but I don’t let it in. To me climate change is a fascinating math problem, a symphony unfolding both slowly and quickly before our very eyes. The consequences of this math problem, for myself and my family and our future, I keep locked in a tiny box in my brain. The box rarely gets opened.

The latest IPCC special report tells the world what I and all of my colleagues have known for years: we’re seriously running out of time. In order to keep climate change in the category of “expensive inconvenience” rather than “civilisation destroyer”, we’re going to have to decarbonise the global economy in less time than many of the people reading this have been alive. But given the priorities of most of the world’s governments, it seems uncomfortably plausible that we’ll be facing the sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland I’ve only ever seen in movies. Will the rich and privileged countries be able to buy their way out of this crisis? Maybe. But maybe not.

I know all this. I’ve known it for years and it’s why I chose the career that I did. It’s the backdrop to my every working day. But I can’t seem to imagine my future intersecting with this future. I can’t picture myself or my family as part of the movie, only as part of the audience. It feels deeply intangible, like my own death.

Instead I surround myself with the comforting minutia of academic life. I worry about small things, like how I’m going to fix the latest problem with my model, and slightly larger things, like what I’m going to do when my contract runs out and whether I will ever get a permanent job. But mostly I just really enjoy studying the disaster. An ice sheet which is falling apart is far more interesting than a stable ice sheet, and I feel privileged to have access to such a good math problem. So I work until my brain feels like it might turn into liquid and slide out of my ears, then I cycle home in the mist and eat Cornish pasties on the couch with my husband while watching the BBC. In so many ways, I love this life. And I don’t worry about climate change, I don’t open that box, for months at a time.

“Compassion fatigue” is a term used to describe healthcare professionals who become desensitised to tragedy and suffering, and lose the ability to empathise with their patients. It begins as a coping strategy, because fully absorbing the emotional impact of such harrowing work would eventually make it impossible to get up in the morning. I think I have compassion fatigue with climate change. The more I study it, the less I actually think about it. The scarier it gets, the less I seem to care.

And maybe this is okay. Maybe compartmentalisation is the healthiest response for those of us close to the issue. Accept the problem, fully let it in, and decide what you’re going to do to help. Then lock up that box in your brain and get on with your piece of the fight. Find joy in this wherever you can. Open up the box once in a while, to remind yourself of your motivation. But for the most part ignore the big picture and keep yourself healthy and happy so that you can keep going. Even if this, in and of itself, is a form of denial.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Nice statement of how we deal with such problems.

    There is value in each day we live, with each person we reach, and each positive action we can squeeze out of life. This keeps me going.

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  2. Excellent sentiments.  However the article opens with "I’m a climate scientist, and I don’t worry about climate change very much". I understand this is intended to be sort of catchy and provocative, but I think this is an unfortunate opening line that detracts. Plenty of people will read this and get the message that if climate scientists dont worry why should anyone?

    And plenty of people won't bother to read past the first paragraph, but those that do will still have the opening line indelibly etched in their mind, despite all the statements in the rest of the article that explains what is really meant. 

    Sorry for the nit pick but communications skills are really important.

    But I agree completely we have to have coping mechanisms and escapes to deal with potentially destructive pehomena, or we get depressed and overwhelmed. As long as such mechanisms are not used to deny the problem, because I think some of this goes on with some people.

    I recommend an excellent and amusing but scholarly little book: "Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind" by Y N Harari. The chapter on the evolution of gossip and play is interesting and relevant to how we cope with things.

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  3. I understand that's how you cope but that isn't a particularly goid way of dealing with it.  It can lead to depression or worse.

    The best curative is action, making sure you aren't making the problem worse, something Kevin Anderson remarks on (climate scientists being some of the worst offendors). While you can't be responsible for everything, you are responsible for your own actions and for how you vote. Another example is Peter Kalmus.

    The denial you mention is impactory denial, it's far more insidious then science denial. Those that understate the issue, the likey outcomes and not doing anything...

    This reminds me somewhat of the issue of the recent Royal Commision into child sexual abuse that occurred in Australia.  What's worse, the perpetrators, or those who remained quiet and in denial ? I wonder what will happen if we have a royal commission into carbon emissions ? After all, as you point out the outcomes of our impacatory denial are far worse, possible destruction of the biosphere.

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  4. An honest statement but one I find to be cowardly and depressing. As a layperson with no climate qualifications I had hoped that people with the knowledge and experience you have would have been screaming what you know from the rooftops many years past, rather than going home to watch TV and eat pasties. I find it depressing to read that studying the collapse of an ice sheet is more interesting than studying a stable one. Fiddling whilst Rome burns, re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic etc. all seem apt comparisons to me as you seem content to document the end of the world. Yes, I would say you are in denial. If the majority of climate scientists are hiding inside their academic studies, then we are all truly screwed.

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  5. @2, @3, @4, I think the scientific community has been screaming about the problem. What have you guys been doing? Nigelj's comment is especially troubling. The denailists will continue to deny, create fake temperature charts and claim it's global cooling. To alter our conversations in fear of what they will say would be truly cowardly.

    It is now a sure bet that we will not keep below 1.5C of warming. Doing so would require drastic reductions in emissions (that no one is prepared to shoulder) plus developing ways to take vast amounts of existing carbon out of the atmosphere. Who here thinks our government will respond favorably to the call for emergency research in how to do that?

    The frustration of watching how this has played out has already caused a lot of anxiety and driven some people over the edge. It is good to regain some perspective and remember that we must continue to function in our day-to-day lives. That does not mean anybody is giving up the fight.

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  6. dkeierleber @5

    "I think the scientific community has been screaming about the problem. What have you guys been doing?"

    I  didnt say they haven't been, and your tone is quite accusatory. I always encourage people to speak out.

    "Nigelj's comment is especially troubling."

    In what way?

    "To alter our conversations in fear of what they will say would be truly cowardly."

    Nobody has suggested this.  Compassion fatigue is a well known fact and understandable surely? It doesn't mean we should alter our conversations, or stop speaking out. But if you dwell on a horror story 24 / 7 without swithching off to some extent it will drive you insane.

    I think you are reading too much into this.

    Agree with your last paragraph.

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  7. Thank you for expressing the feelings that I frequently experience in regards to Climate Change.  The idea of keeping such feelings 'locked in a tiny box' resonated very much.  When many years ago I first started learning about the potential ramifications for the future it felt completely overwhelming and I was occasionally so saddened by the science I would literally cry. I ended up researching the psychology of climate change and begun a journey of meditation which helped in many ways to come to peace within myself.

    I would just comment that compassion fatigue is no longer the terminology used for those in helping professions.  It's more nuanced name is empathic distress fatigue (  Withdrawal and burnout are related to empathy. Compassion is about cultivating the antidote to this (if interested in exploring).

    My compassion for the needs of other beings insects, bees, birds, fish, animals has grown more and more because of the science that this website lays out.  Each time I log on to Skeptical Science I make a point of noting the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb count.  I feel dismay and sadness which makes me want to develop a compassionate response. The discomfort and the science is what sets my intention as I begin another day with the understanding that I have an opportunity try to walk lightly on this Earth.  This is not that easy when the culture of waste and consumption surrounds.  I cannot do big things but I just try to do something however small.  I am not a climate scientist, I have no particular skills of repute, I am not in a position of great power and influence.  But still I am walking to work today.  I can do that.  

    John Cook started Skeptical Science which is extraordinary in a way because it educates and inspires change and takes very complicated scientific data and creating easy to use resources for ordinary people like me. Thank you to so many scientists who have contributed also and who I believe are helping to develop a more compassionate world.

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