Practicing mindfulness can help climate scientists

Imagine being a scientist working on climate change.

The problems in front of you are enormous. Solutions seem inadequate and, perhaps, too late.

To make matters worse, the politicization of climate change has made you a target — on talk shows, in newspapers and across social media.

How do you cope?

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, ASU News talked to Zachary Reeves-Blurton, assistant director of the Arizona State University Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Reeves-Blurton co-authored a paper in the Society for Conservation Biology titled “Practicing Mindfulness in Addressing the Biodiversity Crisis.”

The paper was also co-authored by Leah Gerber, a professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; Nika Gueci, the inaugural executive director of the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience; Gwen Iacona, program lead for conservation investment in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation; Jessica Beaudette, a research associate at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; and Teri Pipe, the founding director of the Center of Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Here, Reeves-Blurton talks about the results of the study, and how these practices can help anyone dealing with these feelings.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What prompted you and your co-authors to write the article?

Answer: Here at the Center for Mindfulness, we were approached by the faculty at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. They noted that climate scientists, conservationists, sustainability scientists, etc., were facing a lot of burnout, workplace fatigue and morale issues. We wanted to kind of dig into not only why this is happening but look at practices that these scientists can use to re-energize and be able to refocus on the work that they’re doing.

Q: Is this stress, anxiety and despair a recent phenomenon?

A: It’s not. Climate scientists have known for decades that there are systemic challenges that our world is facing without simple answers. But I think what has changed over the past decade or so is we’ve seen an increased politicization of climate science and global warming. Between that and the advent of social media, the 24/7 news cycle and the polarization of issues like this, we’re really seeing climate scientists who went into this for the sake of helping humanity and helping the planet suddenly, to some people, they’re the opponent. That’s what we’re really seeing taking a toll right now.

Q: I want to get back to that politicization in a minute, but given the scope of the problem, is there a sense of hopelessness among these scientists?

A: That really seems to be what we’re seeing right now. These scientists come into the field wanting to do good, wanting to make a difference, and it’s a form of grief that they are suffering. There’s a sense of ineffectiveness of the work at times. Sometimes, scientists are ill-equipped to deal with what they’re getting as far as pushback.

Q: Do they feel like they’re under attack?

A: Many climate scientists do feel that not only are they maybe under attack as field, but there’s push to misconstrue the work or to disguise the level of trouble, that is to minimize the nature of the problem itself.

Q: Can you elaborate on some the ways these scientists – or anyone – can practice mindfulness?

A: Some of them simply come back to what they call the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. For instance, the ability to be patient not only with the arc of history and sometimes the slow sense of progress that we’re seeing, but also patience with themselves, understanding that they are doing what they can. We also talk a great deal in the article about rediscovering and/or reconnecting with their passion and their motivation for doing the work, and a sense of really refining that wonder of, “Wow, this is what we’re fighting for. This is what we’re trying to preserve or change.”

Q: What else can they do?

A: Within mindfulness there are a variety of practices, whether they’re simple things, like sitting and breathing, taking a few moments to be reflective and really examining what we’re feeling in the moment. That’s really one of the tenets of mindfulness. It allows us to really take a close examination of, “OK, I’m feeling anxiety, I’m feeling frustration. What is the source of that? What can I do with it?”

It’s so easy for all of us right now to be in this generalized sense of ongoing anxiety. And in our fast-paced world, we just have to push through anxiety and issue after issue without really taking the time to pause, breathe and say, “OK, so what is bothering me right now?” It’s just a constant focus on the present moment.

You can do mediation, you can do a reflective writing exercise, you can simply breathe. Anything that allows you to really be conscious about what you’re doing, what your movement is, how your body and mind are relating. Anything that brings your mind just to the task at hand has a biochemical effect on our brains, bodies and nervous system. That really calms the nervous system itself and allows us to regain the capacity for critical thinking and reasoning.

Q: This has to be a continual practice, right?

A: Absolutely. We look at mindfulness like any other exercise. If you do it once, if you and I were to sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to do a focused breathing exercise for three minutes” – and we see this in our workshops all the time – people will immediately say, “Oh yeah, I feel really calm right now. I feel really relaxed.” Five minutes later into their day, that’s all gone.

The more we exercise that mindfulness muscle, just like any other system of the body, not only does that allow us with time to reach a deeper level of that mental or that emotional equanimity and calm, but it allows that feeling to linger longer. It has to become a lifetime practice. The more we do it and the more we weave it into our everyday lives, the better the results for us are.

Top photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Scott Bordow