Selective focus on rosehips in different stages affected by drought on a greenway in southwestern British Columbia.

Passion and purpose are not enough to prevent burnout for climate change professionals. Credit: iStock/Kathryn Hatashita Lee

On grief, burnout, and climate work

by Dylan Clark

Summer is increasingly bringing a darkness with it.  

A season that used to stand for the leisurely parts of life — vacation, sunscreen, grilling, beaches — now carries an air of danger. Given low snowpack levels across B.C. and mild El Niño conditions, this summer could yet again usher in dangerous heat and smoke conditions. 

For those of us working in climate change-related jobs, summer can be the ignition point for burnout.  

For years, I tried to ignore the fear, frustrations, and sadness that can come with working in the climate field. In the end, I had to face the root cause of the problem—to stay in the game, I had to make space to grieve.  

Long work hours, strong moral ideals, feelings of loss  

Summer in B.C. no longer means just fun in the sun. For climate professionals, it often means burnout. Credit: iStock/Wirestock

Work in the climate change field has never been easy. Climate jobs in the non-profit sector often bring some financial uncertainty, lower compensation, and lean staffing. Climate policy jobs are often susceptible to whiplash, given the politicized nature of the work. And the deep moral commitment to climate issues — which professionals often feel — can lead to unsustainable practices like frequently working overtime and moonlighting.  

2021 was a watershed for many climate practitioners in B.C., though, with the early summer heat dome, the extended wildfire season, and the fall’s atmospheric river and floods. 

First responders, healthcare professionals, and emergency managers were especially vulnerable to burnout and mental health impacts that year (compounded by the pandemic’s toll). A recent article published by B.C. paramedic Brooks Hogya sheds light on the psychological toll. 

“During the 2021 Heat Dome, [first responders] encountered scenes of severe medical emergencies, sudden deaths, unresponsive patients, and distraught family members. Although these professions commonly deal with emotional stress, the demand during the 2021 Heat Dome appears to have exacerbated the concern.” 

– B.C. paramedic Brooks Hogya

2021’s disasters vividly animated the climate impacts experts had spent decades foretelling. Afterwards, the importance of ambitious mitigation and adaptation policy felt clearer than ever. But in the past year, the debate over the carbon tax has re-emerged, and adaptation policy continues to fall short across Canada. When these boulders roll back down the hill, it affects society as well as the practitioners dedicated to moving climate action forward. These backsteps are a blow to morale and fan a key ingredient of burnout: feeling powerless.  

Grief is a product of empathy and compassion 

Why did it take me so long to acknowledge the sadness of this work? A mixture of hubris, masculinity, and the culture of this profession.  

For years I told myself I was not justified in feeling sadness from behind a computer. I do not work as a paramedic, social worker, or emergency manager. None of my family has died in a disaster. My home gets hot but is safe enough. 

The climate change professional culture makes grief difficult, too. While the profession is getting better at acknowledging the emotional dimensions of work, practitioners regularly bury or filter their feelings.  

First, there is the fallacy that emotions conflict with objectivity. During my work in government and in research organizations, I often felt a need to be detached to protect my impartiality.  

Second, there is a widespread belief in the climate profession that climate progress hinges on practitioners having the “correct” emotions. The mantra “we have to be optimistic” permeates my LinkedIn feed and is spoken at nearly every workshop or conference I attend. Recently, Christiana Figueres, former head of the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, implored climate scientists to be ‘stubborn optimists’ and not buckle to feelings of despair. This culture raised the stakes of speaking from my heart — for apparently the world hangs in the balance. 

Making space to recognize the unique way this work affects my heart has been essential. In conversations with colleagues and friends, I have found both shared and distinct feelings across the profession. The sense of speed at which the climate is changing seems to be ubiquitous. But there are also emotions and terms that don’t resonate across the board. ‘Ecological grief,’ for example, reflects how some people feel, but my own grief is more about the loss of human life and the lack of policies in place to protect historically marginalized communities.  

Steps to support the climate practitioner and research community 

It helps to cultivate an environment where staff can express their sadness. Credit: iStock/fotostorm

At the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, we have been thinking about how we can better support our staff in managing the psychological tolls of this work. We have ensured all staff can access licensed mental health professionals for individual support.

And we are working to cultivate an environment where staff can express their grief and sadness in the office —if they so choose. 

There is real potential this summer is going to be difficult for many across B.C. and heart wrenching or catastrophic for others. As of June, people living around Fort Nelson have been under the shadowy plumes of fire for a few weeks already. 

Grief is a key step on my path to hope and action. The climate threats of today and those on B.C.’s horizon are painful to dwell on. But in that pain, there is empathy. And, at least for me, in that empathy, there is some faith that people may feel the shared imperatives of climate action. 

Dylan Clark is associate director of research and operations with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.