The climate and biodiversity crisis is the greatest challenges that humans and all fellow inhabitants of planet earth have faced. It is a challenge of our own making – the unprecedented global heating and devastating destruction of animal and plant life are a direct result of human behaviour. Addressing these challenges – by mitigating our changing climate, stalling biodiversity loss, and restoring nature – is within our power. But we all – collectively – need to take action now.
My Climate Awakening
The climate and biodiversity crisis is a globe-spanning, all-encompassing force that, for decades now, has provided a slowly shifting background to our lives – or, to use an fMRI analogy, it has formed a slowly rising baseline. What grabs our attention are the big events that rise above this baseline – the unprecedented wild fires, the “record-breaking” temperatures, the lowest levels of sea ice, the once-in-a-century floods that now happy annually. But of course, the less rare and more frequent these events become, the more they become part of the background – they become the new baseline.
And the new events are of greater magnitude than ever before.
And we are troubled, and we have climate anxiety.
But yet, we do what humans are very good at doing – we are resilient, we adapt, and we get on with our lives, all the time avoiding or suppressing the truth – that our planet is dying and that if we do not take radical and urgent action, and now, it will be too late. This is a difficult truth to face, and to accept. I have had and continue to have a hard time with it.
But we must accept it. And we must channel the anxiety, the fear, and the anger we feel into action.
The trouble is, that most of us don’t know where or how to start. As neuroscientists, psychologists, researchers, academics, we doubt what contribution we could possibly make to addressing the climate crisis. We worry that we don’t have the right expertise, that we have to change too much about what we do, or that any small changes we make won’t have an impact on such a huge problem.
For a long time, I felt the same. I am not a life-long climate activist. I have always cared about environmental issues and throughout my life, I’ve made choices informed by that – I have always commuted to work by bike, for example. And for quite a while, those minor lifestyle choices that were no real inconvenience to me served to combat much of my climate anxiety and allowed me to do all the things that we academics do – I worked hard, built a career, started a family, got a house, got a permanent job and a lab, and kept my head down as I tried to get grants, students, papers, and promotions. And all this while, I kept “doing my bit” – watching my personal carbon footprint – but with a growing awareness that there was a significant disconnect between what I was doing and what I knew was happening in terms of the escalating climate crisis.
Then, a major trigger for action came in the form of a paper. In late 2019 Adam Aron published this paper. It was his first major appeal to the field of cognitive science to take action. In that paper, Adam lays out the urgency of the crisis we face, but also very clearly describes possible avenues for action.
All of these actions resonated with me, but one spoke to me in particular – Teach and Research. In the article Adam describes how he began teaching a module on the psychology of the climate crisis – despite having no special knowledge of the subject – and he reports that it was very successful in that the students were deeply engaged and 30% reported getting involved in climate action after taking the module. I realised that teaching was one way in which I could do something that has the potential to make a difference.
So, with the support of willing and generous colleagues from the School of Psychology, across the College, and beyond, I was able to turn this intention into action – first, by creating an advanced (Sophister) module on The Psychology of the Climate Crisis that was offered to Psychology Students, and then, during the 21/22 academic year year, by creating a Trinity Elective, The Psychology of the Climate Crisis, which is available to 2nd and 3rd (SF/JS) students across disciplines in TCD and features contributions from colleagues in Psychology, Natural Sciences, Politics, Economics, Law, and Religion. During its first year, the Elective was completed by over 100 students. I hope that this number will grow in coming years. Further details on the module (topics, assignments, etc) will be available through this site soon. Please email clare dot kelly at tcd dot ie if you have any questions about the module.
I run a climate-focused twitter account associated with the module.
Finding your Community
The best thing about making Climate Action a primary focus of what I do is that I have “found my community” both in the College and beyond. Finding like-minded folks to meet and talk with is one of the best things you can do to support yourself in taking action – you’ll find inspiration, motivation, solidarity, support, information and resources.
Within College, in addition to being part of the Smarter Travel Committee, I am part of the humorously named “Ad Hoc” climate action group that pushed to make the climate and biodiversity crisis a central focus on the 2021 Provost Election in TCD. These efforts included organising an election hustings focused on the issue, chaired by Mary Robinson. After the election of Linda Doyle to Provost, the group continues to push for action on the climate and biodiversity crisis across the university.
While many of my lab’s activities to date don’t fall under Green Lab initiatives, a new lab project means that attaining Green Lab status will be a priority. TCD’s Green Lab initiative will support this.
Within the world of cognitive neuroscience, I am a member of the OHBM Sustainability and Environmental Action Special Interest Group. As part of that group, and together with wonderful climate champions from the world of cognitive neuroscience and beyond – Charlotte Rae, Anne Urai, Milan Klöwer, and Adam Aron – I contributed to a Symposium entitled “How Can Scientists Respond to the Climate Emergency? A guide from the SEA SIG,” which was part of the OHBM 2021 Meeting. The slides from that talk are available here.
There is a growing community of climate activists in cognitive neuroscience – there is an excellent ClimateActionNeuPsych slack group that you can request to join: https://t.co/mb5g64XH0P?amp=1
Here are just some of the learning resources I have found most valuable over the past few years.
Absolutely everything that Amy Westervelt does is awesome, but her DRILLED podcast series was an eye-opener for me. It’s equally inspiring and infuriating. Listen to it and follow the excellent Twitter account (and Amy’s too!).