Scientists need to face both facts and feelings when dealing with the climate crisis | Kimberly Nicholas
I was taught to use my head, not my heart. But acknowledging sadness at what is lost can help us safeguard the future
Over the course of my career, the climate crisis has changed from something only experts could see – reading clues trapped in frozen air bubbles or statistical patterns in long-term data sets – to something that everyone on Earth is living through. For me, it has gone from being something I study to a way that I see the world and experience my life. It’s one thing to publish a study on the hypothetical impact of increasing temperature on California’s people and ecosystems; it’s another to feel my stomach gripped by fear as my parents flee a catastrophic California wildfire cranked up by longer, hotter, drier summers.
Bearing witness to the demise or death of what we love has started to look an awful lot like the job description for an environmental scientist these days. Over dinner, my colleague Ola Olsson matter‑of‑factly summed up his career: “Half the wildlife in Africa has died on my watch.” He studied biodiversity because he loved animals and wanted to understand and protect them. Instead his career has turned into a decades-long funeral.
As a scientist, I was trained to be calm, rational, and objective, to focus on the facts, supporting my claims with evidence and showing my reasoning to colleagues to tear apart in peer review. I was trained to use my brain but not my heart; to report methods and statistics and findings but not how I felt about them. In graduate school, I was surrounded by brilliant, serious men who spoke in even, measured tones about the loss of California snowpack and crop yields; I tried to do the same.
I felt my credibility as a scientist was on the line, as was the respect of those who would sit on my future hiring committee and determine whether I would get a tenure- track job. I internalised the idea that scientists should be “policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive.” I was not supposed to have a preference, much less an emotional attachment, to one outcome or another, even on matters of life and death; that was for “policymakers” to decide. (This reticence goes against the wishes of 60% of Americans, as expressed in Pew Research polling, that scientists take an active role in policy debates about scientific issues.)
My dispassionate training has not prepared me for the increasingly frequent emotional crises of climate change. What do I tell the student who chokes up in my office when she reads that 90% of the seagrasses she’s trying to design policies to protect are slated to be killed by warming before she retires? In such cases, facts are cold comfort. The skill I’ve had to cultivate on my own is to find the appropriate bedside manner as a doctor to a feverish planet; to try to go beyond probabilities and scenarios, to acknowledge what is important and grieve for what is being lost.
Kimberly Nicholas is associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden. This is an edited excerpt from her new book, Under the Sky We Make