Climate change and compassion fatigue

I’m a climate scientist, and I don’t worry about climate change very much. I think about it every day, but I don’t let it in. To me climate change is a fascinating math problem, a symphony unfolding both slowly and quickly before our very eyes. The consequences of this math problem, for myself and my family and our future, I keep locked in a tiny box in my brain. The box rarely gets opened.

The latest IPCC special report tells the world what I and all of my colleagues have known for years: we’re seriously running out of time. In order to keep climate change in the category of “expensive inconvenience” rather than “civilisation destroyer”, we’re going to have to decarbonise the global economy in less time than many of the people reading this have been alive. But given the priorities of most of the world’s governments, it seems uncomfortably plausible that we’ll be facing the sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland I’ve only ever seen in movies. Will the rich and privileged countries be able to buy their way out of this crisis? Maybe. But maybe not.

I know all this. I’ve known it for years and it’s why I chose the career that I did. It’s the backdrop to my every working day. But I can’t seem to imagine my future intersecting with this future. I can’t picture myself or my family as part of the movie, only as part of the audience. It feels deeply intangible, like my own death.

Instead I surround myself with the comforting minutia of academic life. I worry about small things, like how I’m going to fix the latest problem with my model, and slightly larger things, like what I’m going to do when my contract runs out and whether I will ever get a permanent job. But mostly I just really enjoy studying the disaster. An ice sheet which is falling apart is far more interesting than a stable ice sheet, and I feel privileged to have access to such a good math problem. So I work until my brain feels like it might turn into liquid and slide out of my ears, then I cycle home in the mist and eat Cornish pasties on the couch with my husband while watching the BBC. In so many ways, I love this life. And I don’t worry about climate change, I don’t open that box, for months at a time.

“Compassion fatigue” is a term used to describe healthcare professionals who become desensitised to tragedy and suffering, and lose the ability to empathise with their patients. It begins as a coping strategy, because fully absorbing the emotional impact of such harrowing work would eventually make it impossible to get up in the morning. I think I have compassion fatigue with climate change. The more I study it, the less I actually think about it. The scarier it gets, the less I seem to care.

And maybe this is okay. Maybe compartmentalisation is the healthiest response for those of us close to the issue. Accept the problem, fully let it in, and decide what you’re going to do to help. Then lock up that box in your brain and get on with your piece of the fight. Find joy in this wherever you can. Open up the box once in a while, to remind yourself of your motivation. But for the most part ignore the big picture and keep yourself healthy and happy so that you can keep going. Even if this, in and of itself, is a form of denial.

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12 thoughts on “Climate change and compassion fatigue

  1. Perfect words, thank you. I have long enjoyed your superb lessons. And it is totally appropriate to extend discussions deeper into the personal, the social and the related philosophies… please continue

  2. I don’t worry about Climate Change either, but every waking day I think about the intolerable suffering of future generations. What exactly does it mean that we have 10 to 12 years to solve the problem before the world reaches a point of no return? History tells us that no one will do anything to solve the problem in the next 10 to 12 years so future generations are definitely doomed after the world reaches the point of no return.

  3. “Being happy” is not really a choice – the brain, in its inherited and environmentally and historically shaped particularities, takes care of how “happy” to feel at any given moment. I don’t believe ignoring the Big Picture makes any cognitive sense, since knowledge can’t be stuffed back into the corner once it is shaped and entered into consciousness, so I would never counsel anyone to be a happy idiot.
    I think Roger is basically right, but “doom” is a vague term – we have been “doomed:” to live in such stupid, inhumane times, but that is nothing like the “doom” that Roger accurately forecasts as guaranteed by history and logic to be coming down the pike.

  4. I recently traveled to northwestern North Dakota where a satellite image of the night sky looks like the center of an erupting volcano. Ask the locals, who voted en masse for donald duck, which is more important, making millions off their fracked oil wells or Climate Change? No contest. Ask the locals around Fort McMurray, which is more important, three million barrels per day of carbon-rich sludge remaining in the ground or forced like peanut butter through pipelines headed south? No contest. I also recently walked beneath the trans-Alaska pipeline. My, are those locals proud of their engineering marvel!
    “Money, money, money
    Must be funny
    In the rich man’s world
    Money, money, money
    Always sunny
    In the rich man’s world
    Aha aha
    All the things I could do
    If I had a little money
    It’s a rich man’s world
    It’s a rich man’s world”

  5. Most people’s view of the 20 year-old hockey stick controversy is how often they see players whacking each other on TV, but mine is of the nearly perfect correlation between global temperature, CO2, and CH4. How much more does the temperature hockey stick have to rise before the controversial methane hockey stick shoots out of sight, indicating the real beginning of the end, runaway release of 1 to 5 tera tons of methane locked up in permafrost and on ocean shelves? Some estimates put the locked-up carbon in CH4 at 100 to 500 times the amount released into the atmosphere annually from burning fissile fuels. I’m sure that climate scientists already have models capable of accurately predicting mean air and ocean shelf temperatures required to send this methane hockey stick into orbit. Rice-eating cows will be happy to learn that their gassy belches and farts may soon not be the leading source of the methane hockey stick controversy.

    Don’t get me wrong; we live in a solar-heated house with no furnace. So in the winter when the sun refuses to shine for several days in a row, the global temperature hockey stick is welcomed.

  6. I wish I could offer you hope, but I have none. I wish I could offer you a way of dealing with it all, but I don’t even have a consistant way for myself.

    My team (follow, not own) won the grand final and it just seemed so meaningless, but the coffee this morning was good. Cognitive dissonace works sometimes, sometimes acceptance of my own mortality brings a wonderful calmness (not just knowing life is limited, but being OK with that) Today’s technique is trying to live in the moment (and cognitive dissonance).

    Doing what is right is it’s own reward, even without hope action will be effective. The humming bird fighting the forrest fire story comes to mind.

  7. Wise words, and I envy you your Cornish pasties. Hard to get pasties in the Canadian prairies, along with finding acceptance of climate change science as settled (as far as science can be) and the reality of an impending return to pre-Pliocene climate already expressing in heatwaves here in Canada and the rest of North America, and of course back in my home country, Australia. But there’s hope.
    I had a colleague’s Masters student drop by my office last week asking about climate change and my ‘deep time’ perspective (I research the global hothouse of the Eocene epoch), prompted by the press from the same climate report. We had a good chat – bordering I fear on a bit preachy from me; that the science of CO2 as a greenhouse gas is actually very old and established, that the evidence for both a warming planet and a human role is pretty firmly understood and accepted. But he and I closed on a good note; I said – perhaps with too much cheer – that the biosphere will survive because it has survived multiple past warmings in the geological past, including the whopping geologically rapid warming of the PETM about 56 million years ago, an event that appears to mirror in so many ways what we are now forcing on the planet through human greed and hyper-partisan politics.
    But of course a geological perspective on survival (I noted to the young Masters student) still leaves massive potential for societal disruption and the inevitability of war as countries and corporations fight for diminishing resources as crops fail, water becomes scarce, and coastal cities and agricultural lands are flooded by rising seas. OK, that’s gloomy. But he prompted and I then amplified on the capacity for human surprises – technological ingenuity and the promise of the current generation to say ‘enough’ and elect governments that will give a damn about realistic measures to both combat climate change and to adapt. I say adapt because frankly the ‘limit warming to 1.5°C’ bus has left, but even as bad as 2.0°C looks, its survivable. Oranges grown in Manitoba?

  8. I guess my response is to fight for the future by 1. supporting groups like 350.org, Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club and many others who are fighting against climate change, 2. living in accord with a low carbon footprint…veganism, electric vehicle, obsessive recycling, and 3. speak up when I can, talk to people about it, recently began blogging, and tweeting….action is the antidote to despair! We have to fight. It’s war.

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