Michele Koppes, Ph.D., is a geographer and associate professor at the University of British Columbia, where she’s spent the last 20 years watching massive glaciers melt away as a result of the climate crisis. She, like many people who follow the news about global warming and its effects, is aware of climate change anxiety, the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness about the fate of our planet.
Koppes’ work at the intersection of climate science, glaciology, geomorphology, human adaptation, and resilience involves examining how landscapes are reflecting the changes we’re seeing in ice and its ability to store fresh water on the land. The changes can be “disheartening,” she tells Inverse, but she doesn’t believe that feeling anxious about climate change is the only direction that people have to go in.
Here, she shares how she feels about melting glaciers, coping with climate change anxiety, and the importance of small climate change interventions amid systemic changes.
Tell us a bit about your work and what your day-to-day is like.
I got involved in this early on because I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and I grew up in Switzerland, and I was always up in the mountains, walking in and among glaciers. They are of the few things we can see changing and moving on the landscape in our lifetime — although, when I started, they seemed relatively slow and static. Over the time that I’ve been looking at them, the pace of all these changes has accelerated. There are iconic bodies of ice that have just disappeared in the last decade or two.
About 20 years ago, when I first went down to places like Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska, and Patagonia, and began examining the changes in the glaciers, a lot of the science community was just like, “Hey, look, this is what we’re observing, and we’re losing ice.” Ice is a feature of the Earth system than can help people understand the impacts of warming temperatures and climate change. But what I think is more important now, and what is more urgent, is to help communities be more aware of the cascading effects of climate change.
When glaciers are shrinking, what does that really mean for the people downstream? It means changes in the amount of fresh water that we need, and it also means changes in the quality of that water. We’re seeing increased chances of floods, and when the water comes it’s less predictable. Some of the communities that are most vulnerable today to climate change are the people who live in the high mountains. These people are feeling the effects of changes in their water supply and the hazards associated with that.
What does it feel like to see that a glacier looks different than it once did?
It’s disheartening; I feel a sense of loss. There’s the knowledge that we as a species are increasingly influencing and destroying an Earth system. I have a daughter who is 7, and by the time she is my age, she might not be able to see some of the things that I have seen.
"Over the million-year timescale, the Earth will rebound. It will be resilient. It just won’t have us with it."
A part of me feels that way. I also come at it from the perspective of my geologist background, and I think a big part of being an Earth scientist is that we realize how small we are as humans in relation to Earth’s history. When we talk about climate change and destroying the Earth, we are destroying it for other species, sure, but we’re primarily destroying it for humans.
Over the million-year timescale, the Earth will rebound. It will be resilient. It just won’t have us with it. So I’ve also always had this kind of humbling feeling that Earth is so much more powerful than we are. In the geologic time-run, the planet will recover from this moment in time where one species came and, you know, decimated itself.
I often think about how dinosaurs lived here a lot longer than we have.
Right. We’re a fraction of a fraction in geologic time.
There have been reports of people telling their therapists how anxious climate change makes them. Climate change anxiety was even a plot point on Big Little Lies. People are feeling hopeless: Is that feeling wrong, or is there a way to absorb the news and avoid responding that way?
It is a really, really challenging idea to work with. On one hand, I understand that, yes, these changes are happening, and you can feel like we’ve already gone too far and, therefore, we should do nothing and hide our heads in the sand.
That’s one direction people can go in, but I don’t feel like it has to be that way. The next big change that has to happen in the climate change debate is thinking about how it affects our psychological health. How do we process steady trauma like climate change versus dramatic trauma?
Fifteen years ago, I was working on the Hill in Washington, D.C., as a congressional science fellow and working on climate change policy. It was the time of the first Inconvenient Truth, and we knew there were these changes happening. Yet, there was this sense of anger and sense that nobody wanted to listen.
Speaking for myself as a climate change researcher, I feel like I’ve gone through the four stages of grief. There’s anger, there’s resignation, and now, I’m in this new phase of saying, “Okay, but how do we move forward?” Accepting change can be difficult based on your personality, and the media does science a disservice if it only focuses on the fear factor of climate change. There are other ways to evaluate what’s going on and make a decision to embrace large systematic changes that will alter the way we work and how we live our lives. We need to erase some of the ways we’ve lived our lives.
Is it fair to say a person who wants to take action can channel their negative feelings around climate change to push for large-scale adaptation strategies?
"This is a collective impact, and we need a collective response."
Absolutely. This is a collective impact, and we need a collective response. I think there is a fallacy of thinking that we live in this individualistic consumer culture, and that keeps us from embracing collective responsibility. We can’t rely on individual responses to this. We need to work with governments to ignite decisions that benefit communities and the Earth system.
This also means working with communities and helping them come up with adaptation responses, all while knowing the baseline is constantly shifting. It’s hard for people to embrace that there is no baseline. Things like flood levels and hurricanes are changing, and those changes are accelerating.
Sometimes it feels like small things you can do to combat climate change, like recycle or use a metal straw, don’t matter in the face of systemic changes. But is there room for both?
Yes, I believe so. I don’t think it’s an either-or. I think people are more aware of the situation than maybe they were a few years ago. Using LED light bulbs and low flush toilets won’t solve climate change, but the use of them is an indicator that we are a part of a community that cares — that is interested in changing the system. That element of cultural signaling is important, too. I think there’s room for all of it, especially if those actions involve conversations about how we can have these systematic shifts.
This interview has been edited and condensed.