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Scientists study emotional reactions to 2023 being the hottest year ever recorded

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we incorrectly refer to Samantha Bova as Stephanie.]


2023 is the hottest year ever recorded on Earth. How does that make you feel - scared, anxious, guilty? Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk says scientists feel the same way and have some advice for how to deal with those feelings.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Scientists don't usually get asked about their feelings.

So 2023 is the hottest year on record. How does that make you feel?

STEPHANIE BOVA: (Laughter) Um...

HERSHER: Stephanie Bova (ph) is a climate scientist at San Diego State University. The first feeling that came to mind for her was concern.

BOVA: ...Nervous and concerned about where we're continuing to head.

HERSHER: But there are other feelings, too.

BOVA: Frustration? Absolutely. Anger sometimes...

HERSHER: Because, she says, we know so much about what's causing the planet to heat up - greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Seeing temperature records keep falling is frustrating. Or does that make you feel anxious or sad? Dekila Chungyalpa of the University of Wisconsin-Madison studies the emotions related to climate change.

DEKILA CHUNGYALPA: One of the things that the research is suggesting right now is that young people, in particular, have a tendency to move towards emotions like anxiety and anger, which are activating - you know, they compel you to do something.

HERSHER: Whereas older people are more likely to react with numbness, resignation, sadness - emotions that can lead to more passive behavior, she says. Guilt or shame also show up. It's the feeling that you should be doing more, or that you're complicit in causing climate change. And one person can feel many different emotions, Chungyalpa says. I asked her how she feels about 2023 being the hottest year.

CHUNGYALPA: Well, how do I - I would say it's a combination of emotions, you know. I definitely can feel exhausted.

HERSHER: Exhausted by the endless cycles of elation when it feels like humanity is taking steps to rein in emissions, followed by despair when another record falls or there's another climate-driven disaster. Chungyalpa says she tries to stay even keeled, but it's hard.

CHUNGYALPA: I tend to veer between grief and determination, I think, personally.

HERSHER: For those who also experience grief around climate change, whether it's an amorphous sense of loss or a more traumatic experience like surviving a wildfire or hurricane, she has this advice.

CHUNGYALPA: I just allow myself to absorb it and to let it wash over me. You know, there's only so much you can suppress. And there have been years I've suppressed it because I sort of, you know, said, I have too much work. I have too much to do. I don't even have time for my grief. But sooner or later - (laughter) sooner or later, it all comes crashing.

HERSHER: One emotion that Chungyalpa is wary of is hope, not that there's anything wrong with hope. But she says sometimes it seems like people treat hope as the antidote to more negative emotions.

CHUNGYALPA: There is a certain subset of our population that wants to focus on hope, you know, that really is chasing this emotion (laughter), this very elusive emotion when it comes to climate change. And personally, I've learned to really trust courage.

HERSHER: Bova, the climate scientist, holds on to hope.

BOVA: Courage is taking action. I think you need hope to have courage.

HERSHER: She gets hope from her work as a scientist, she says. Bova studies what the Earth's climate was like millions of years ago and how it's changed and bounced back from cataclysm over and over.

BOVA: I think it's just kind of a general sense of awe - right? - that this is where we find ourselves and - well, and it's a pretty special place, and we shouldn't take - necessarily take that for granted.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 3, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report we incorrectly refer to Samantha Bova as Stephanie.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.