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‘Sink into your grief.’ How one scientist confronts the emotional toll of climate change

‘Sink into your grief.’ How one scientist confronts the emotional toll of climate change

“I was trained to be calm, rational, and objective, to focus on the facts,” sustainability scientist Kimberly Nicholas recalls in her new book, Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World. But as research has increasingly revealed how climate change will forever alter the ecosystems and communities she loves, she has struggled to address her feelings of sadness. “My dispassionate training,” the Lund University researcher writes, has “not prepared me for the increasingly frequent emotional crises of climate change,” or how to respond to students who come to her to share their own grief.

It’s a situation many scientists and professors are facing these days, Nicholas writes. “Being witness to the demise or death of what we love has started to look an awful lot like the job description.” But Nicholas says the untimely death of a close friend helped persuade her that the only way forward was to acknowledge that “we are not going to be able to save all the things we love.” Instead, she says, we have to “swim through that ocean of grief … and recognize that we still have time to act, and salvage many of the things we care about.”

Nicholas is no stranger to the emotional blowback climate science can provoke. In 2017, she and climate scientist Seth Wynes, now at Concordia University, published a high-profile paper showing the most effective actions to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint—such as flying less or shifting to a vegetarian diet—are rarely emphasized by governments or educators. But it was the study’s finding that going childless could dramatically reduce a person’s contribution to global warming that generated headlines—and controversy—around the world.

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