December 17, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Illustration by Grace Nedelman
In the blinding artificial light of Olin Hall, as students and professors poke and prod at plants and petri dishes, one abiotic factor looms large – an underlying terror that gets terrible-er by the day.
Climate change is an all-consuming black hole.
Home to the bulk of Colorado College’s biology and ecology classes, the sturdy, essentially windowless science dungeon of Olin Hall is a constant reminder that the effects of atmospheric warming are entirely inescapable, even when you can’t physically see the sky (or any sort of daylight). In the study of ecology, evolution, and the natural world, the climate crisis is impossible to ignore and can carry a serious emotional toll.
“We often have tough conversations about what it might mean to commit to a life studying the natural world, as you might be the one documenting first-hand the impacts of climate change on creatures that you love,” said evolutionary biologist and Organismal Biology and Ecology (OBE) Prof. Rachael Jabaily. “Regardless of what creatures we study or at what scope, at some level we’ll all be studying climate change as biologists for years to come.”
Outside of Olin, the majority of the world’s ecological systems have already felt widespread effects of climate change, with documented impacts in nearly all essential ecological processes, from migrations to nutrient cycling.
While not all climate effects are negative for all species, extinction rates have exploded in the 200 years since the start of industrialization, driven by habitat loss, resource overexploitation, and climate change. With studies already indicating that we are experiencing a mass extinction, continued greenhouse gas emissions promise only to stoke the needless dumpster fire that is the climate crisis.
“My scope of research is macroevolutionary – I think about millions of years, the impacts of past climate fluctuations like the glacial cycles of the Pleistocene that contributed to species creation in my plant groups – so I’m used to thinking about a dynamic planet,” said Jabaily. “However, I know that the speed of climate change is far beyond what almost any lineages alive today have ever experienced, and I am here to witness it during my life. I also know about the magnitude of mega-extinction events of the past and how our current Anthropocene event is trending in that ranking – it isn’t looking good.”
For the students that make up the field of ecology’s next generation, this devolving view of the future can be a heavy emotional burden.
“It’s made things a lot more depressing,” said Jack Domeika ’23, an OBE major interested in conservation ecology. “It’s made education a lot less enjoyable, because you don’t necessarily feel like you’re working towards a future, you feel like you’re just constantly learning about how everything’s awful.”
“I get sad and existential, and I’m like ‘Wow, why am I doing anything, I should just go live in a hole in the woods,’” said Eliza Hayse ’22, a senior OBE major. “But I think that that cognitive dissonance leads to all of us continuing to contribute to climate change, allowing large corporations to get away with what they get away with.”
Climate anxiety is certainly not limited to the field of ecology. One recent study found that over 80% of young people are at least moderately worried about climate change. Nearly half of the 16–25-year demographic surveyed said that their concerns about climate change are negatively affecting their life.
But as the world copes with the daunting problems created by the climate recklessness of the rich and powerful, this is no time for young people to give up hope – or if not hope, motivation.
“I think it really comes down to not individual impact but collective impact,” said Domeika. “Scientists, compared to the rest of the planet, are a small community. You can spread the message, you can do good research, and teach everyone else about what’s going on, but eventually it’s going to have to be a much larger movement than just science.”
While one individual is certainly doomed in a fight against mass extinction, perhaps a sliver of hope can be found in the prospect of collective action.
“I think it’s kind of like that patchwork thing,” said Hayse. “One patch isn’t going to make a blanket, but if you sew them all together, you can actually create something that is really positive.”