University of Maine climatologist Jacquelyn Gill examines a cone of a western pine at the Sawyer Environmental Research Center, May 4, in Orono, Maine. Gill says his work as a paleoecologist and climatologist has given him hope for the Earth’s resilience despite global warming. (Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — In a single year, University of Maine climatologist Jacquelyn Gill lost her mother and stepfather. She struggled with infertility, then during research in the Arctic she developed emboli in both lungs, was transferred to an intensive care unit in Siberia and nearly died. She was flown home and then had a hysterectomy. Then the pandemic hit.
Her trials and perseverance, she said, seemed to make her a magnet for emails and direct messages on Twitter “asking me how to keep hope, asking me, like, what’s gets me going?”
Gill said she embraced the idea that she was “everyone’s climate midwife” and trained them to hope through action.
Hope and optimism often bloom among experts working in the dark fields of global warming, COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease.
How climatologists like Gill or ER doctors at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic coping with their depressing day-to-day jobs, while still holding out hope, can offer help to ordinary people facing a world going off the rails, have said psychologists.
“I think it’s because they see a way out. They see things can be done,” said Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Hope is to see a path, even if the path seems far, far away.”
UN Environment Program director Inger Andersen said she simply couldn’t do her job without being optimistic.
“I don’t mean to sound naïve in choosing to be ‘the realistic optimist,’ but the alternative to being the realistic optimist is either to cover your ears and wait for the apocalypse, or to party for let the Titanic orchestra play,” Andersen said. . “I’m not a subscriber either.”
Dr. Kristina Goff works in the intensive care unit at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and said she sometimes felt overwhelmed during the pandemic. She keeps a folder at home of “little notes that say ‘hey, you made a difference’.”
“I think half the battle in my job is learning to take what could be very overwhelming anxiety and turn it into productivity and resilience,” Goff said. “You just have to focus on those little areas where you can make a difference.”
Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps one of the darkest diagnoses a doctor can pass on, one where the future can seem hopeless. Yet Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and a man described by his colleagues as optimistic and passionate, doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think it’s depressing. I don’t think it’s dark. It’s tough. It’s tough,” Petersen said. But “we are so much better off today than five years ago, 10 years ago.”
The coping technique that these scientists have in common is to do something to help. The word they often use is “agency”. This is especially true for climate researchers – tarred as pessimists by political types who reject science.
Gill, who describes herself as a lifelong cheerleader, also struggled with depression. She said the key to dealing with eco-anxiety is that “regular depression and regular anxiety tools work just as well. And that’s why I tell people, ‘Be an actor. Go ahead. Don’t just doomscroll.’ There are entry-level ways that anyone, literally anyone, can help. And the more we do that, “Oh, it really works,” it turns out.
It’s not just about individual actions, like giving up air travel or becoming a vegetarian, it’s about working with other people in a common effort, Gill said. Individual action is helpful on climate change, but not enough, she said. To bend the curve of rising temperatures and the buildup of heat-trapping gases, regular collective action, like the activism movement and the youth climate vote, gives real agency.
“I think that may have helped stave off some of that desperation,” she said. “I go to a science meeting and look around at the thousands of scientists working on this. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this.'”
Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University, said at 35, he thinks it’s his relative youth that gives him hope.
“When I think about what could be, I gain a sense of optimism and create an attitude that this is something I can do something about,” Gensini said.
The UN’s Andersen is a veteran of decades of work on ecological issues and thinks the experience has made her optimistic.
“I have seen changes on other critical environmental issues such as banning toxic materials, better air quality standards, fixing the hole in the ozone layer, phasing out leaded gasoline and so much more,” Andersen said. “I know that hard work, backed by science, backed by strong policy and yes, backed by multilateral and militant action, can drive change.”
Deke Arndt, chief of climate science and services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Center for Environmental Information, said what drives him with overwhelming optimism is his personal faith and remembering all the people who have helped his family over the generations – through the Dust Bowl for his grandparents and through infertility and then neonatal issues for his son.
“We experienced the miracle of hands-on care from other human beings,” Arndt said. “You kind of spend the rest of your life trying to pay it back.”
“Where people don’t suffer from their own buying, it makes me want to recommit myself as a scientist and a Catholic,” Arndt said. “We have to do everything we can.”
Additionally, Gill and several others said science tells them it’s not over for Earth.
“The work I do inherently gives me a sense of agency,” Gill said. “As a paleoecologist (who studies the past) and climatologist, I have a better idea of Earth’s resilience than many people.”
It helps that she studies plants and deals with changes on a glacial time scale. She pointed to Georgia Tech climatologist Kim Cobb, who spent much of her career diving and studying the same coral reef in the Pacific, only to return in 2016 to find it dead: “I can’t imagine what a punch.”
Cobb laughed heartily when she heard how Gill described the life of a reef scientist.
From 1997 to 2016, Cobb dived on one of the tiny islands of Kiritimati in the Pacific, monitoring the effects of climate change and El Nino on a delicate coral reef. Super hot water killed it in 2016, with only faint signs of life hanging on.
This fall, Cobb made one last trip. It was during the elections. A huge fan of Hillary Clinton, Cobb wore a Madame President shirt when she heard the news of Donald Trump’s election. She said she fell into a pit of despair that lasted perhaps a few months.
“And then on New Years Eve I decided I’ve probably had enough and I know my husband had had enough, my kids had had enough. So people needed their mothers and wives back” , Cobb said. “I decided to look for another way there.”
“I’m not able to wallow that long before I start asking myself questions like, ‘Listen, you know how you can put your post to work? How can you put your resources to work? ‘” Cobb said.
She and her family have reduced their personal carbon emissions by 80%. She no longer flies on airplanes. She became vegan, composted, installed solar panels. She works on broader climate action instead of her more focused previous research. And she rides her bike everywhere, which she says sounds like mental health therapy.
She tells people when they worry about climate change, “there will be no victory, a shining moment when we can declare success”, but “it will never be too late to act. It will never be too late.” late to fix it.”
NOAA’s Arndt said the 20th century climate he grew up with is gone forever. He mourns the loss of that, but also finds that the mourning of what has become “strangely liberating”.
With climate change “we kind of have to keep hope and sorrow at the same time, like they’re sort of twins that we’re cradling,” Maine’s Gill said. “We must both understand and bear witness to what has happened and what we have lost. And then fiercely commit ourselves to protecting what remains. And I don’t think you can do that from a place of despair. .”