The spleen of those who give you (more and more) bad news about the climate

All climate status lights are bright red. Not a day goes by without a researcher, a scientist, a climatologist writing an alarmist article on the degradation of the climate. Journalists take up only a tiny part of it, as there is so much information on the subject. In the long run, won't this flow of bad news degrade the mental health of those on the front lines: climate scientists and specialist informants? This strange question was asked by an American academic who wrote an article in the prestigious journal Nature. What are the consequences of this daily dive into depressing information and what are the sources of resilience? Knowledge will, no doubt, prove to be very useful when this exposure to bad news becomes the pre- and post-traumatic daily life of the entire population on our planet.
Alimate change is affecting all ecosystems on the planet, but it is not without consequences for the mental health of human beings. A growing body of research describes the implications of climate change for physical health but also documents a range of potential effects on mental health. Severe weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, floods, heat waves and forest fires - all of which are expected to become more frequent as climate degradation intensifies - are clearly associated with psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Slower but deeper changes in the environment as a result of rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and rising sea levels will also have negative effects on human well-being. More and more people are experiencing levels of fear and anxiety about the climate that affect their mental health. The intensity of these disorders varies from one population to another. When you are located in a threatened geographical area, such as ocean coasts or areas of severe drought, you are likely to develop more symptoms of what experts call "climate trauma".

Professionally depressed

These disorders are those that can affect any human being, regardless of culture. But what about those whose job it is to be exposed daily to information about climate threats? American academic Susan Clayton asks this question in an article just published in the journal Nature. Climatologists, scientists specializing in the subject as well as journalists who follow these issues, are confronted daily with the changes in our environment. They are attentive and better informed than the rest of the population. « Awareness is certainly a prerequisite for an emotional response. " writes Susan Clayton. The author bases her analysis on a model proposed by researchers[1] by psychologist Graham Bradley's team that the experience of environmental degradation predicts the perception of risk, which in turn predicts distress. According to them, "the experience of environmental degradation predicts risk perception, which in turn predicts distress. Psychological adaptation, which consists of paying more attention to climate change, accepting it as a threat and adopting a problem-solving attitude towards climate change, would strengthen the relationship between the perception of risk and distress. ".
One can imagine that, on average, climatologists in the broadest sense are likely to have more pro-environmental values than the average citizen. For them, climate risks are more painful to bear because they are aware that they threaten something of value. Studies[2] have already shown that people with a pro-environmental orientation report more cases of psychological distress. Similarly, climate specialists may face threats to their personal identity and sense of identity: they may feel helpless in the face of rising CO2 emissions, and climate change may undermine their sense of professional identity. Linking the profession to mental health, Camille Parmesan, an IPCC collaborator, described herself as "...a person who is a climate scientist, a person who is a climate scientist.... professionally depressed "[3].
Journalists dealing with climate issues are probably overwhelmingly aware of the traumatic risk of repeating bad climate news. For the litany of announced or proven disasters is long. Some are even forging protection mechanisms by reducing the scope of information. The new published in recent days on the acceleration of the weakening of the ocean current and in particular the Gulf Stream is a significant example. The information is crucial, it is highly traumatic for most of the scholarly community concerned, but she did, ultimatelyThere have been very few developments in the press, particularly in the French press. Is it to avoid adding to the anguish or is it to protect oneself or unconsciously protect the readers from a possible traumatic risk?


In her article, Susan Clayton notes that while climate specialists are particularly vulnerable to the risk of psychological distress associated with their involvement in the subject, they may also benefit from protective factors that are less accessible to lay people. The most important of these is a sense of community. Perceiving that one is working with others towards a common goal is certainly a source of support and validation. Graham Bradley's model shows that seeking social support reduces the strength of the relationship between perceptions of risk and distress. During the Deepwater HorizonAfter the explosion of the offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, follow-up research with people affected by the disaster showed that - in contrast to the effects seen immediately afterwards - attachment to the community served to protect people's mental health over time.[4].
On another level, the author reminds us that working with others to solve a problem can also provide a sense of empowerment and meaning. According to a theoretical model[5]community activism can lead to empowerment. For example, in a sample of Black and Latin American students, political activism helped to mitigate the negative effects of discrimination on mental health.[6]. More generally, community participation has been found to predict (more strongly than one might think) a sense of personal empowerment.[7].
Of course, climate specialists are not a priori community activists. However, they do share some of the same characteristics. Through their research and work, they try to disrupt the status quo on how companies use natural resources and relate to nature. Their profession enables them to publicly affirm their common goals and values, providing the basis for a strong social identity. The experience of collective action that comes from working in groups can lead to the development of new social relationships and sources of social support, the experience of positive emotions, and increased self-esteem and empowerment.
The spleen of climate specialists is likely, but Susan Clayton's analysis suggests that, more than others, these people are developing means of protection. Do we have any evidence that the mental health of climate scientists or climate specialists is deteriorating? The author found no studies on the subject. There is, however, a body of evidence to suggest that these populations may be at greater risk of distress than others. In a survey[8] of environmental specialists, 77 % of the respondents expressed great concern about environmental degradation, 35 % expressed continued concern about environmental degradation and 49 % expressed concern about the future state of the environment. When describing a specific event of environmental damage, respondents used words such as "angry", "raging", "regret", "anxiety" and "desperate". A series of follow-up interviews with environmental educators and environmental graduate students about emotional experiences of climate change suggested that it triggered severe emotional distress.
In another survey[9]A much smaller sample of climatologists (43 people) were asked by a science journalist what they thought about climate change. The survey makes no scientific claim, but its results are particularly enlightening. Many climatologists reported strong negative reactions such as "hopeless", "scared", "overwhelmed" and "outraged". At the same time, however, respondents reported optimism and hope.
For Susan Clayton, climatologists, a population highly exposed to "climate trauma", are developing resilience mechanisms that it might be useful to know about in order to help wider populations. Among the means of resilience, being informed, prepared and socially connected are paramount.
The theme developed by Susan Clayton in her article deserves to be explored further. Data on this subject are still very partial, but it seems clear that increasingly large populations will be exposed to this climatic trauma. Future work could help the most vulnerable to cope with the multiple forms of mental distress that climate change is bound to multiply.
[1]Bradley, G., Reser, J., Glendon, A. I. & Ellul, M. in Stress and Anxiety: Applications to Social and Environmental Threats, Psychological Well-Being, Occupational Challenges, and Developmental Psychology (eds Kaniasty, K. et al.) 33-42 (Logos, 2014).

[2]Searle, K. & Gow, K. Int. J. Clim. Change Strateg. Manage. 2, 362–379 (2010).

[3]Richardson, J. H. When the end of human civilization is your day job. Esquire (7 July 2015).

[4] Cope, M. R., Slack, T., Blanchard, T. C. & Lee, M. R. Soc. Sci. Res. 42, 872-881 (2013).

[5]Drury, J. & Reicher, S. J. Soc. Issues 65, 707-725 (2009).

[6]Hope, E., Velez, G., Offidani-Bertrand, C. & Keels, M. Cultur. Miscellaneous. Ethn. Minor. Psychol. 24, 26-39 (2017).

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[7]Christens, B. D., Peterson, N. A. & Speer, P. W. Health Educ. Behav.38, 339-347 (2011).

[8]Fritze, J. G., Blashki, G. A., Burke, S. & Wiseman, J. Int. J. Ment. Health Syst. 2, 13-22 (2008).

[9] Fraser, J., Pantesco, V., Plemons, K., Gupta, R. & Rank, S. J. Ecopsychol. 5, 70-79 (2013).

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