Climate-related depression: How to handle it

At this point, talking about climate change doesn’t bother biologist Camille Parmesan.

She mentioned this after she finished telling me how 40% of species are moving to escape climate change, 60% of species are adjusting their seasonal timing, and many species won’t be able to move or adjust to avoid extinction. And, by the way, the U.S. is being seriously threatened by tropical diseases moving north with the climate.

“I’ve been talking about it for ten years. So it does sort of roll off my tongue, and I really don’t think about it deeply anymore,” Parmesan said.

That’s not to say she’s not emotionally affected by seeing the impacts of climate change. She just tries to avoid seeing them now.

“When I go back into the field, I try to go to the places I know are still in good shape. Intellectually, I know what’s happening,” Parmesan said. But she purposely keeps herself too busy to really think about what the data really means.

A few days before our interview, Parmesan had been invited to give a talk on Capitol Hill, in front of an audience of Congressional staffers and NGO workers. As you’ll hear in EarthSky’s radio podcasts with Parmesan (in the coming weeks), she’s a great communicator on the subject. She didn’t think what she had to say would surprise them. Even the Bush administration acknowledges human-caused climate change.

“Somehow, they hadn’t quite seen the summary numbers,” she said. “But when I started pointing out the large population reductions in polar bears, and ringed seals, and Adelie penguin, and Emperor penguin, and the 30% loss of the coral reefs, they had never put that together. So even people who had read quite a bit – this is what your brain does, is somehow filter the information as being not quite as dramatic as it really is.”

By the end of the talk, everyone was depressed.

At the end of my interview with Parmesan, I was depressed, too. On some level, I already knew everything she told me. I’ve talked to scientists studying dying coral reefs, I’ve talked to more polar scientists than I can remember (thanks, International Polar Year). But like Parmesan said, our brains filter the information. You become a bit hardened against new studies showing dramatic sea ice loss.

But sometimes, it really gets through. A new image, or some new serious impact I had never considered before. And then I feel depressed. I write the scripts, and when friends bring up climate change in conversation, I try to change the subject. But I also try to live my life in a way that reduces my impact on the atmosphere.

I know not everyone acknowledges the realities of climate change. But for those who do, how do you deal with it?

November 10, 2008

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