World leaders rely on the research of thousands of climate scientists: modellers, biologists, physicists, chemists, geologists, and myriad more experts that spend their waking hours conducting thorough, comprehensive research into every facet of climate change. They write reports, publish academic research, and contribute to the collective understanding of the state of the planet. For decades now these scientists have been compiling more information, and painting a more detailed and progressively more dire picture of what the future holds.
This reality takes a mental toll. It has been known for some time that environmental change can lead to emotional distress but more work is needed, particularly exploring the effects that might be felt by climate researchers.
Climate anxiety is beginning to be explored in the literature but more work is needed, particularly exploring the effects that might be felt by climate researchers.
As scientists and communicators, we see increasing awareness that, for those working on the front line of climate change, there are real mental health risks. Burnout, climate anxiety, and climate grief are all being felt.
In this comment piece for The Lancet Planetary Health, the authors acknowledge that climate scientists are experiencing a wide range of emotions and aim to inspire safe spaces where these feelings can be shared.
Between 2014 and 2020, Joe Duggan approached climate scientists from across the world, asking them to handwrite a letter on how climate change makes them feel. 5 years after the initial project launched, he returned to some original contributors and asked them the same question. These letters were shown in galleries and housed online under the banner, is this how you feel? They have been the focus of preliminary research and have planted the seed for discussions around climate grief and anxiety.
The authors coded the 73 letters written by climate researchers as part of this project and present the findings in the article. 50 were from first-time contributors to the project and 23 were from those that wrote follow-up letters approximately five years after their first.
Generally speaking, negative emotions featured much more frequently than seemingly positive ones across both sets of letters. Throughout the coding process, it became clear that negative sentiment was being conveyed with a greater diversity of words, with terms such as anger, exasperated, anxious, distressed, upset, and infuriated being used, whereas positive terms were much fewer, with the word hope being the most common.
In response to the results, the authors call for openness to diversity in feelings and approaches among climate researchers while still acting collectively as a community. It is important that climate researchers know that they are not alone in having these emotions, and that sharing them can be cathartic and inspire a sense of community. Something that is needed now more than ever.