How climate scientists are keeping hope alive as the damage worsens

In the span of a single year, University of Maine climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill lost both her mother and stepfather. She struggled with infertility, then developed embolisms in both lungs while doing research in the Arctic, was transferred to an intensive care unit in Siberia, and nearly died. She was flown home and later had a hysterectomy. Then the pandemic struck.

Her trials and perseverance, she said, seemed to make her a magnet for email and direct messages on Twitter.

Gill said she accepted the idea that she was “the climate midwife for everyone” and coached them to hope through action.

Hope and optimism often bloom in the experts struggling in the murky fields of global warming, COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease.


How climate scientists like Gill, or emergency physicians, navigate their depressing daily routines while still remaining hopeful during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic can help ordinary people struggling with a world spiraling apart, psychologists said.

“I think it’s because they see a way out. They see things can be done,” said Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Hope sees a way, even when the way seems far, far away.”

The director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, said she simply cannot do her job without being an optimist.

“I don’t want to sound naïve in choosing to be the ‘realistic optimist,’ but the alternative to being the realistic optimist is either to cover your ears and wait for the end of the world, or to celebrate while the Titanic orchestra plays ‘ Andersen said. “I don’t subscribe to either.”

dr Kristina Goff, who works in the intensive care unit at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said she sometimes feels overwhelmed during the pandemic. She keeps a folder at home with “little notes that say, ‘Hey, you made a difference.'”


“I think half the struggle in my job is learning to take what can be a very overwhelming fear and turn it into productivity and resilience,” Goff said. “You just have to focus on those small areas where you can make a difference.”

Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps one of the direst diagnoses a doctor can make, one where the future can seem hopeless. But Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Research Center and a man colleagues describe as optimistic and passionate, disagrees.

“I don’t find it depressing. I don’t find it gloomy. It’s tough. It’s a challenge,” said Petersen. But “we’re doing so much better today than five years ago, ten years ago.”

The coping technique these scientists have in common is doing something to help. The word they use a lot is “agency”. This is especially true for climate scientists – who are disguised as naysayers by politicians who reject science.


Gill, who describes herself as a lifelong cheerleader, has also struggled with depression. She said the key to combating eco-anxiety is that “regular depression and regular anxiety tools work just as well. And that’s why I tell people, ‘Be a doer. Get others there. Don’t just scroll Doomscroll.’ There are entry points that anyone, literally anyone, can help with. And the more times we do that, ‘Oh, it actually works,’ turns out.”

It’s not just about individual actions, like not flying or not eating vegetarians, but about working with other people in a collaborative effort, Gil said. Individual action is helpful on climate change, but not enough, she said. To bend the curve of rising temperatures and the build-up of heat-trapping gases, steady collective action, like the youth movement for climate activism and voting, is giving real agency.

“I think maybe that helped ward off some of that hopelessness,” she said. “I go to a scientific meeting and look at the thousands of scientists working on it. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that.'”


Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University, said that at 35 he believes it is his relative youth that gives him hope.

“When I think about what could be, I get a sense of optimism and create an attitude that I can do something about it,” Gensini said.

The UN’s Andersen is a veteran of decades of work on environmental issues and believes the experience has made her optimistic.

“I’ve seen changes on other critical environmental issues like banning toxic substances, improving air quality standards, repairing the ozone hole, phasing out leaded gasoline and more,” Andersen said. “I know that hard work, backed by science, backed by strong politics and yes, backed by multilateral and activist action, can lead to change.”

Deke Arndt, director of the division of climate science and services at the National Center for Environmental Information of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said what fuels him with overwhelming optimism is his personal faith and the memory of all the people who have supported his family for generations helped through – through the Dust Bowl for his grandparents and through infertility and then newborn problems for his son.


“We have seen the miracle of hands-on care by fellow human beings,” Arndt said. “You kind of spend the rest of your life paying it back.”

“Where people do not suffer through their own purchases, I would like to get involved as a scientist and Catholic,” said Arndt. “We have to do as much as possible.”

Additionally, Gill and several others said science tells them the game isn’t over for Earth.

“The work I do gives me an inherent sense of agency,” Gil said. “As a paleoecologist (who studies the past) and climatologist, I have a better sense of the earth’s resilience than many people.”

It helps that she studies glaciers. So far, though they’re shrinking, they’re still there when she comes back to visit. Pointing out Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, who spent much of her career diving and studying the same coral reef in the Pacific, only to return in 2016 to find it dead: “God, I can’t imagine what for.” a punch in the pit of the stomach.”


Cobb laughed heartily when she heard Gill describe the life of a reef explorer.

From 1997 to 2016, Cobb dived on one of the tiny islands of Kiritimati in the Pacific, where he monitored the effects of climate change and El Nino on a delicate coral reef. Super hot water killed it in 2016 with only faint signs of life.

That fall, Cobb made one final trip. It was during the elections. Cobb, a big Hillary Clinton fan, was wearing a Madame President shirt when she heard the news that Donald Trump was elected. She said she fell into a pit of despair that lasted maybe a few months.

“And then on New Year’s Eve I decided I’d probably had enough and I know my husband had had enough, my kids had had enough. So people needed their mother and their wife back,” Cobb said. “I decided to look for another way out there.”


“I’m not able to wallow that long before I start asking myself questions like, ‘Look, do you know how to use your position? How can you use your resources?’” Cobb said.

She and her family reduced their personal carbon emissions by 80%. She no longer flies on planes. She went vegan, composted, installed solar panels. She is working on larger climate action instead of her more focused previous research. And she bikes everywhere, which she says is like mental health therapy.

She tells people when they are concerned about climate change, “there will be no victory, no bright moment when we can announce success,” but “it will never be too late to act.” It will never be too late to fix that.”

NOAA’s Arndt said the 20th-century climate he grew up in is gone forever. He mourns the loss, but also finds grieving “oddly liberating.”


With climate change, “we have to hold hope and sadness at the same time, like they’re some kind of twins we’re cradling,” Maine’s Gill said. “We must both understand and witness what happened and what we lost. And then work vehemently to protect what’s left. And I don’t think you can do that from a place of despair.”


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Justin Scacco

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