The mental health of climate scientists


Climate scientists are increasingly faced with a difficult reality that confronts their work and the well-being of the global society. Like most of us, climate scientists are deeply concerned with the deteriorating effects of global warming. A recent survey of a group of  Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) scientists, over 60% of the respondents reported feelings of anxiety, grief, and even distress when thinking about global warming. Although these might seem like natural emotional responses to the threat of climate change, they might also represent a rational cognitive response to the unfolding climate disaster.

The paper

A research group out of the United Kingdom was curious how compassion, as conceptualized through a psychological lens, could shape the experiences of these climate scientists. The researchers applied a form of therapy known as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to better understand the unique psychological burden for climate scientists working in the field. Central to CFT, is a ‘Three Systems Model’ that describes three main emotional regulation systems: threat, drive, and sooth. The ‘threat’ system is the component that helps individuals maintain their safety. The ‘drive’ system involves the motivated states that help people attain physical possessions and abstractions, like status. The ‘soothe’ system entails a sense of peace and calm. Together, these three systems place value in the interpersonal relationship and the opportunity for individuals to protect, motivate, and soothe each other. 

The argument

The research group positions the framework CFT to help people connect to themselves, to others, and -particularly for climate scientists- the larger ecosystem. They conclude that as a society we can compassionately attend to the threat of climate change, seek a common solution to reduce global warming, and reduce the collective suffering of global warming on our world.

The significance

By supporting climate scientists in their unique “eco-distress,” we might be able to best support those who are working hardest to develop solutions to combat global warming. The scientific application of compassion can continue to aid society and specific groups, such as climate scientists, to see compassion extend beyond individuals or societies and instead to a larger ecosystem.

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