Feeling Blue About Climate Change? You’re Not Alone
By Kristina Dahl
It's been a tough year for those of us in the climate change community. Each week has seemed to bring either a fresh report reminding us of how precious little time we have left to try to turn this ship around or a disaster that has climate change's fingerprints all over it. Friends, family, colleagues and reporters have all asked whether I'm optimistic or hopeful about our ability to limit the severity of future climate change. And I'll be honest: I'm not. But that doesn't mean we should give up—in fact that would be among the worst things we could do. Rather, we need to hold fiercely to a vision of the future we want to see and work like hell to make it a reality.
Major Climate Events in 2018 Made It a Particularly Grim Year
During 2017—the year in which Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement, three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. for the first time ever, and my home state of California witnessed its most destructive wildfire in recorded history—I found myself faced with the reality that we were witnessing the very events that climate scientists had long been saying we'd see as our climate warmed. And that was jarring. But 2018 marks the year that I truly started to grieve for what we have done and what we have failed to do.
There has been much to fuel that grief this year. So much, in fact, that words on a screen and cells in a spreadsheet didn't feel real enough. Instead, I had to write and draw about this in my notebook to make sense of it all, letting it pour out dot by dot into what I call my "Grief Graph."
My 2018 Climate Grief Graph. My son might call this a grief-o-MOM-eter. Not shown here are the many, many short spikes in grief triggered by the Trump administration's efforts to dismantle environmental regulations and prop up the fossil fuel industry. Kristina Dahl
For the first half of the year, the intensity of generating the data for our Underwater report mostly prevented the climate change arrows that were being slung from piercing my armor. Oh, blessed, messy data, thank you for distracting me from whatever was going on during those months. I trust that it was all unicorns and fairy dust.
But for the second half of the year the blinders were off. Shortly after taking my own turn at unleashing a new set of data showing just how profoundly changed our country will be if we continue along this path, and as wildfire smoke created a blanket of doom over the Bay Area, I had more time to ingest everyone else's dire reports. Oh, and there were two devastating hurricanes.
So What Happened in 2018?
Readers, because I care about your well-being, if you are immersed in this stuff day in and day out, go ahead and skip to the next section. Yes, I'm issuing a trigger warning regarding the following list, which highlights a few of the lowlights shown in the graph above.
1. "Losing Earth." On August 1, the New York Times devoted its entire weekly magazine to a piece by Nathaniel Rich called Losing Earth. In it, Rich provided a captivating history and timeline of the realization by scientists and politicians that climate change presented tremendous dangers to society and that we were responsible for it. The timeline covers my childhood from ages 1 through 11 (1979-1989). I realized as I read this how quickly climate change became entrenched in politics and how unable scientists were to get out of the trap of discussing levels of uncertainty so that policy headway could be made. The fact that so much was known so long ago means that we've wasted basically my entire lifetime debating whether climate change is real or not and whether or not we should do something about it.
2. In early November, my colleagues here at UCS provided a briefing of the recently-released IPCC 1.5 Report for our Climate and Energy program. I had read portions of the report on my own and taken in the incredibly sobering messages of its Summary for Policymakers. But hearing my colleagues succinctly describe how little time we have left to drastically reduce our emissions if we want to stay below 1.5°C of warming was devastating. To stay below 1.5°C , we'll need to reduce coal use by about 60-75 percent by 2030. Every tenth of a degree above that gets us a little closer to the 2 °C mark, at which coral reefs are a thing of the past.All the potential pathways that limit warming to 1.5 °C without overshooting that mark at all will require us to be actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I look at those timelines and feel like I'm having one of those anxiety dreams in which you realize you have a final exam in 5 minutes, but you didn't know you were registered for the class. The challenge before us is simply monumental.
3. Then came the Camp Fire near Paradise, California, and the horror of watching the death toll creep up to nearly 90 while we hunkered indoors for nearly two weeks because the air quality was so unhealthy. School was cancelled here in the Bay Area, and going outside felt like stepping into the pages of a dystopian novel.The sidewalks in my neighborhood, which usually host a steady stream of pedestrians? Empty. The hardware stores were out of N95 masks, and there were no air purifiers to be purchased within a 200-mile radius. Just the right time for the release of another sobering climate report! This time, the National Climate Assessment.
4. My grief ebbed a teeny bit during the COP24 talks in Poland–despite the Trump administration's chummy behavior with the world's major fossil fuel producing countries—because some progress was made in defining the rules by which countries will report their progress on reducing carbon emissions. But that was bracketed by the news that carbon emissions rose substantially faster in 2018 than they had in the two previous years for both the globe as a whole as well for the U.S.
A selfie from November's dystopia. Kristina Dahl
The Two Solutions to Climate Grief: Hard Work and a Positive Vision for the Future
The grief graph above demonstrates the grief-stemming power of two activities: being hard at work on activities that one hopes will make a difference and taking the time to think about the future you're working for. I'd like to focus on the latter here because the former is productive, for sure, but in terms of emotions, it is little more than a distraction from the grief.
In late August, my colleagues and I had a free-form conversation about what we're really excited to work on as a group. What energized us most focused not on climate impacts—our bread and butter—but on climate opportunities.
For a few weeks, when I closed my eyes, I envisioned a world in which our coasts are transformed by wide swaths of beautiful wetlands that have the space they need to migrate inland. A world in which the people who used to live on the land the wetlands inhabit have found new opportunities on higher ground and are thriving because they had the support and resources they needed to relocate. A world in which we can turn on A/C that's powered without carbon-based fuels and we no longer have that nagging feeling that by making ourselves comfortable, we are ultimately making the heat worse.
This sort of thought exercise can be much more than that. Competitions like Resilient by Design challenge us to envision what our communities could be like, and present us with beautiful, sustainable options that are even more appealing than what we see around us today. Similarly, the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network and the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene initiative have developed frameworks for workshops in which participants develop positive visions for a future in which the climate is warmer and extremes are more frequent.
We may not be able to decrease our emissions fast enough to keep warming to below 1.5°C. My children will likely see the extinction of species, the deterioration of coral reefs and ice-free summers in the Arctic. And with all of that, grief feels justified.
But I can also see a future in which we have done everything within our power to make our world as beautiful and healthy as it can be for our children and grandchildren. If hope and optimism aren't in your toolkit right now, I think that's ok. They're not in mine. But the last thing we're going to do is give up, right? So let's hold that beautiful future in our hearts and minds so that it can give us the courage, the ambition and the endurance to keep up the fight.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>