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Pre-traumatic stress syndrome: Climate trauma survival tips

By Judith Curry | Climate Etc. | October 29, 2014

Climate depression is real. Just ask a scientist. – Madeleine Thomas

Wow. Here I was, hard at work on my long promised post on clouds, and I spotted this article on twitter. Much easier to write about this one than about clouds.

At Grist, Madeleine Thomas has penned an article Climate depression is real.  Just ask a scientist. Excerpts:

Two years ago, Camille Parmesan, a professor at Plymouth University and the University of Texas at Austin, became so “professionally depressed” that she questioned abandoning her research in climate change entirely.

“I felt like here was this huge signal I was finding and no one was paying attention to it,” Parmesan says. “I was really thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’” She ultimately packed up her life here in the States and moved to her husband’s native United Kingdom.

“In the U.S., [climate change] isn’t well-supported by the funding system, and when I give public talks in the U.S., I have to devote the first half of the talk to [the topic] that climate change is really happening,” says Parmesan, now a professor at Plymouth University in England.

From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged.

“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan is quoted saying in the National Wildlife Federation’s 2012 report, “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is Not Adequately Prepared.”

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. — and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation’s report — calls this emotional reaction “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term she coined to describe the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.

What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears. “How would that make you feel? You take this information to someone and they say they don’t believe you, as if it’s a question of beliefs,” says Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist for climate change research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “I’m not talking about religion here, I’m talking about facts.”

“I could imagine that if scientists start to talk about how they’re feeling about the issue and how emotional they’re feeling about the issue, those who are critical about climate change would seize that information and use it in any way they could to say that we should reject their science,” Kiehl says.

It’s only natural then that many climate scientists and activists often feel an extreme pressure to keep their emotions in check, even when out of the spotlight.

“You don’t just start talking about unbelievably fast sea-level rise at a cocktail party at a friend’s house,” Tidwell says. “So having to deny the emotional need to talk about what’s on your mind all the time … those are some of the burdens that climate aware scientists and activists have to endure.  But nobody talks about how it makes them feel personally.”

So how does a climate scientist handle the stress? Van Susteren offers several “climate trauma survival tips” for those in the field. Meditation and therapy are two, as are taking particular care to reinforce boundaries between work and one’s personal life. But she also says being honest is just as important. “[Don’t] believe that you are invulnerable,” she writes. “In fact, admitting what you are going through makes you more resilient.”

And a dose of honesty may be more than just therapeutic. Some real talk about how we’re all screwed may be just what the climate movement needs. “Forgive my language here, but if scientists are looking for a clearer language to express the urgency of climate change, there’s no clearer word that expresses that urgency than FUCK,” [Grist’s Brentin] Mock writes.

Perhaps it’s time for those deeply involved in climate science to come forward about the emotional struggle, or at the very least, for those in mental health research and support to start exploring climate change psychology with more fervor.

“There’s a taboo talking about it,” Lertzman says, adding that the tight-lipped culture of the scientific community can be difficult to bridge. “The field of the psychology of climate change is still very, very young … I believe there are profound and not well-recognized or understood psychological implications of what I would call being a frontliner. There needs to be a lot more attention given to frontliners and where they’re given support.”

JC reflections

Oh my, where to start with this one.  Lets try this:

I feel your pain.  Circa 2007 I felt the same way you did, and ran around turning off lights and unplugging things, feeling really uncomfortable about the carbon footprint of myself and my surroundings.  But then I woke up as a scientist and realized that my belief in dangerous anthropogenic climate change was second order belief –  based on the IPCC consensus.  That is, I believed in the consensus without having done a real detailed assessment of my own.  Then when climategate triggered me to closely examine everything, notably the IPCC’s attribution argument, I realized that the fingerprints were ‘muddy’, the climate models are running too hot, the forcing data is uncertain, no account is made for multidecadal and longer internal variability, and they have no explanation for the warming 1910-1940, the cooling 1940-1976, and the hiatus since 1998.  Once you raise questions about 20th century attribution, then your angst about impacts that you think are attributable to AGW becomes much less justified.

In terms of tips, try reading some literature on history, philosophy and sociology of science – you will become more humble as a scientist and less likely to believe your own hype.  Read Richard Feynman.  Hang out at Climate Etc.  Listen seriously to a serious skeptic.

If these strategies don’t work, try learning about aberrant psychologies, such as the God complex and paranoia and look in the mirror (there are probably others, but I don’t know that much psychology myself).

And also inform yourself about psychological hardiness (something I learned from days at U. Chicago and hanging out with grad students in Salvatore Maddi’s group).  Excerpt from Wikipedia:

The coping style most commonly associated with hardiness is that of transformational coping, an optimistic style of coping that transforms stressful events into less stressful ones. At the cognitive level this involves setting the event into a broader perspective in which they do not seem so terrible after all. At the level of action, individuals high in hardiness are believed to react to stressful events by increasing their interaction with them, trying to turn them into an advantage and opportunity for growth, and in the process achieve some greater understanding.

The ‘pre-traumatic stress’ thing clicked a link in my mind to my old U. of Chicago pal Colonel Paul Bartone, a military psychologist and a member of the hardiness group.  The following paper seems relevant:  A Model for Soldier Psychological Adaptation in Peacekeeping Operations.  I think these concepts are relevant for what is going on with Parmesan et al.  Seems like skeptics are more hardy?

The psychology of all this is probably pretty interesting, and worthy of more investigation.   But Jeff Kiehl is right – whining scientists aren’t going to help either the science or their ’cause.’

October 30, 2014 Posted by | Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , | Leave a comment