As recently as 2009, Camille Parmesan had a career that most scientists can only dream of.
That year, the University of Texas professor was named one of Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “Brave Thinkers” for her efforts to save species whose habitats are threatened by climate change.
The distinction — which placed Parmesan on a list alongside Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama — arrived two years after she shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for serving as a lead author of the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
But beneath the acclaim, Parmesan recalls, her work left her “professionally depressed” and panicked — so much so that she eventually abandoned her life in the United States for a new one on the other side of the Atlantic, according to the environmental news website Grist.
“To be honest, I panicked 15 years ago — that was when the first studies came out showing that Arctic tundras were shifting from being a net sink to being a net source of CO2,” she told Esquire’s John H. Richardson for a recent piece about the emotional toll of climate science. “That along with the fact this butterfly I was studying shifted its entire range across half a continent — I said this is big, this is big. Everything since then has just confirmed it.”
Today, Parmesan is a professor at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, where, she told Grist, she is no longer forced to spend the first half of her talks convincing audiences that climate change is real.
Her experience is hardly unique.
As climate change accelerates, weather patterns around the world become more extreme and models become more dire, scientists find themselves fighting a war on two fronts. The first battleground is a professional one and carries with it the burden of charting humanity’s potential demise, all while enduring targeted attacks that, according to Esquire, include “death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund.”
The second front is a personal one and involves finding ways to maintain hopefulness when days are spent digging into apocalyptic scenarios that go largely unnoticed — or fiercely dismissed — by the general public.
According to Esquire, there is even a term to describe the existential angst brought on by immersing oneself in the science of melting glaciers and rising tides: “climate trauma.”
“So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic disorder — the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts,” Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and climate activist, told Esquire.
Among them is Gillian Caldwell, a human rights activist and former director of WITNESS, who has investigated human trafficking in Russia and rape as a tool of war in Sierra Leone. And yet, Caldwell writes, her efforts to get her country to tackle global warming remain the most emotionally demanding task she’s ever performed.
Sometimes the struggle is as simple as going outside and looking up at the sky. In a tear-filled interview about “climate advocacy trauma,” Caldwell says that one of the sacrifices climate activists make is never being able to experience weather the same way again.
“Whether it’s an unpredictable snowstorm followed by a 70 degree day or an early spring or a late summer — whatever it is, you know — it’s hard not to attribute it to and not to connect it to erratic weather conditions, which are going to become increasingly frequent,” she says in a two-part interview posted online several years ago.
“I spoke to another longtime climate advocate who said that on some level he’s been robbed by the possibility of happiness by virtue of doing the work,” she adds.
Caldwell devised a list called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she advocates exercise, laughter and mediation. But she acknowledges that the challenge is at times overwhelming.
“It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home where the problems are petty by comparison,” she writes.
Adding to the mounting stress faced by climate change scientists is the inevitable backlash they can expect to encounter from unqualified critics of their research, according to Jeffrey Kiehl, a senior scientist for climate change research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
“How would that make you feel?” Kiehl told Grist. “You take this information to someone and they say they don’t believe you, as if it’s a question of beliefs. I’m not talking about religion here, I’m talking about facts. It’s equivalent to a doctor doing extremely detailed observations on someone and concluding that someone needed to have an operation, and the person looks at the doctor and says, ‘I don’t believe you.’ How would a doctor feel in that moment, not think, but feel in that moment?”
A 2012 National Wildlife Federation report — “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is Not Adequately Prepared” — describes the challenge faced by scientists in stark terms, as a daily confrontation with a “devastating threat.”
“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan is quoted as saying in the report, in reference to an ocean reef she has spent more than a decade studying. “It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again, because I just know I’m going to see more and more of it dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae.”
Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, told Esquire that climate-change deniers have demoralized his colleagues, leaving one suicidal. Despite promising developments, such as increased public awareness and the recent agreement between the United States and China on emissions, Mann continues to battle nightmares and struggle under the weight of his own environmental awareness.
He has broken down in front of his students and can’t shake the fears he has about his daughter living in an alien planet that no longer resembled the one she was born into.
“I don’t want her to have to be sad,” Mann told Esquire. “And I almost have to believe we’re not yet there, where we are resigned to this future.”