The ecological disaster is taking its toll on scientists’ mental health, with top researchers saying those working in the field must be supported and “allowed to cry”.
Leading researchers have published a letter saying many scientists experience “strong grief responses” to the ecological crisis and there are profound risks of ignoring this emotional trauma.
The letter, published in the journalScience, calls on academic institutions to support scientists and allow them to address their ecological grief professionally.
Professor Andy Radford from the University of Bristol, and co-writer, said: “The emotional burden of this kind of research should not be underestimated. Grief, when unaddressed, can cloud judgement, inhibit creativity and engender a sense that there is no way forward,” he said.
Authors of the letter say environmental scientists often respond to the degradation of the natural world by suppressing or denying painful emissions while at work.
Tim Gordon, lead author of the letter and a marine biologist from the University of Exeter, said: “We’re documenting the destruction of the world’s most beautiful and valuable ecosystems, and it’s impossible to remain emotionally detached.
“When you spend your life studying places like the Great Barrier Reef or the Arctic ice caps, and then watch them bleach into rubble fields or melt into the sea, it hits you really hard.”
Researchers say academic institutions could learn from other professions where distressing events are common, such as in emergency services or the military. In these fields, employees are trained to anticipate and manage emotional distress with training, support and counselling.
Dr Steve Simpson of the University of Exeter, also a co-writer of the letter, said: “Instead of ignoring or suppressing our grief, environmental scientists should be acknowledging, accepting and working through it.
“In doing so, we can use grief to strengthen our resolve and find ways to understand and protect ecosystems that still have a chance of survival in our rapidly changing world.”
The IPCC report has warned that humanity urgently needs to change the way it consumes resources to avoid catastrophic levels of climate warming.
In 2018, the report warned that we faced major environmental catastrophe within our lifetimes, and potentially as soon as 2040.
Almost 70 per cent of British people want urgent political action, but there is a growing gap between announcements on climate change and the implementation of policies.
Dr Gordon said: “If we’re serious about finding any sort of future for our natural ecosystems, we need to avoid getting trapped in cycles of grief. We need to allow ourselves to cry – and then see beyond our tears.”
Open letter: Climate change and the integrity of science
Full text of an open letter from 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences in defence of climate research
We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.
Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modelling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial— scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of "well-established theories" and are often spoken of as "facts."
For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5bn years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14bn years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.
Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected.
But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:
(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.
(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.
(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.
(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.
Much more can be, and has been, said by the world's scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business- as-usual practices. We urge our policymakers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.
We also call for an end to McCarthy- like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.
• The signatories are all members of the US National Academy of Sciences but are not speaking on its behalf or on behalf of their institutions.