Stop asking climate scientists how we feel

Comment: A recent focus on scientists’ emotional responses to global warming is misplaced; the important question is how society will manage climate risk

Scientists on an Arctic research expedition (Pic: Flickr/WMO/Kim Kenny)


In recent weeks in France, there has been a profusion of articles about the “climate scientist blues”, which has apparently been affecting them “scientifically”. This follows a spate of similar articles in the US and Australian media. But what is the point of knowing the mood of scientists, or whether so-and-so is optimistic or pessimistic?

Are epidemiologists asked if they are depressed when they anticipate an epidemic outbreak, or meteorologists polled about their anxiety because they predicted a storm or a heatwave? In these cases, society organizes to manage the risk related to these forecasts (orange or red alerts, weather watches and warnings) and does not care about the emotions of the scientists. The main reason most climate scientists come out of the lab and engage publicly is not to share their subjective emotions about the state of the world, but rather to discuss the results and consequences of our science.

On an individual basis, the scientists can sometimes be proud if their forecast has been useful for better managing the consequences of an event, or be upset that it wasn’t, but the quality and relevance of their expertise does not depend on their state of mind. The principal role for climate scientists is to inform the public debate about the outcome of collective science efforts and the risks associated with the different trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions, not how they feel about it.

More broadly, climate change science also provides multiple insights into how to manage climate risks. It offers new opportunities for partnership between the scientific researchers and society as a whole to help make decisions in a context of uncertainty about the future evolution of the climate, especially at the local and regional scale. New knowledge is emerging on how to build ethical and just transitions, to maximize the synergies between climate action and the other aspects of sustainable development.

With more than 20,000 scientific publications each year with the key word “climate change”, the production of new knowledge is proceeding quickly. The challenge in interpreting this is not the state of mind of researchers, but the regular synthesis of this knowledge and how to share it with the whole of society in order to encourage solutions to manage climate risks, preserve biodiversity, and allow everyone to live with dignity by improving the well-being of all.

Analysis: 37 things you need to know about 1.5C global warming

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on 1.5C reminded us, the real issue is that we currently face three types of major risk.

The first risk is related to each additional fraction of warming, with humanitarian, agricultural, environmental and migratory crises, increasingly challenging to manage.

The second risk is the burden passed on to today’s younger generations, who would face the triple trouble of coping with the impacts of global warming; having to accelerate abruptly the transitions to a low-carbon economy if we delay in putting it in place; and lastly, to have to choose options that are potentially very risky for both biodiversity (for example through massive use of biomass energy) or global governance (for example, geo-engineering) in an attempt to contain global warming or its consequences.

The third risk is rapid transition to the economy and the current global financial system through the ‘stranded assets’ of capital invested in the fossil fuel industry.

The real challenge is therefore the mobilization of collective intelligence and democratic debate on the choices of risk that we are willing to take. The Paris Agreement seems to indicate that nations who have ratified it want to avoid the first two risks and organize themselves to face the third.

What if the focus on the moods of climate scientists was a way to disengage emotionally from the choices of risk or solutions to global warming? Since the experts are worrying about it for us (it’s their daily life, isn’t it?), let’s continue our lives in peace. If feelings and expressing emotions – fear, anger, anguish, feelings of helplessness, guilt, depression – in the face of risks are legitimate, even necessary, to take action demands that we go beyond that.

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Catastrophism often leads to denial, a well-known psychic mechanism for protecting oneself from anxiety. Managing risk is part of our daily lives and supposes that we are not in such denial (active or passive) as it prevents clear and responsible action. Because we know that many hazards carry predictable risks, human societies have learned to anticipate and cope, for example, to limit the damage of storms or epidemics. The challenge of climate change is to build a strategy not in response to an acute and clearly identified risk, but in anticipation of a gradual, chronic increase in climate risks.

The climate scientists are alright (mostly), but that’s not the important question. The dispassionate management of climate risk will require that everyone – citizens, decision makers, teachers, intermediate bodies, companies, civil society, media, scientists – in their place and according to their means, take the time for a collective reflection, first of all through mutual listening. The news shows it every day: this process is hobbling along, too slowly for some, too fast for others. It will need to overcome emotional reactions, vested interests, and false information from the merchants of doubt.

Those who are unable to review their strategy and have everything to lose from the exit from fossil-fuel based energies will use nit-picks, manipulation, short-termism, and promote binary and divisive visions, all of which undermine trust and pollute the debate. But despite that…

Every degree of warming matters, every year counts, every choice counts. The challenge is immense because of the nature and magnitude of the unprecedented risk. It requires doing everything to overcome indifference and fatalism.

Eric Guilyardi is a professor of climate science at the University of Reading. Valérie Masson-Delmotte is co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s working group one. This article was originally published in English on RealClimate, reproduced here with permission from the authors.

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