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Burned out, but still burning

You’re tired. You’re burned out. You don’t know how you keep getting up in the morning, keep switching on the news, keep looking after everyone around you – or asking for help, again and again.

What keeps you going?

Maybe it’s the friend who sends you just the right message at just the right moment. Maybe it’s seeing the tireless efforts of others, and the sense of community in working together. Maybe it’s the energy and creativity of young people, and our duty of care.

I’m talking, of course, about Covid-19. But there are parallels in climate change. And in other fights: structural racism, entrenched sexism and homophobia, the inequalities of disability, class and poverty, culture wars, fear and dismissal of others with different views. I see it every day – on social media, on video calls – this tiredness. Why persist? How to carry on?

Too many exhausting examples this year to list them all, but here are a few in environmental change.

On climate, the UK were found to have met only four of their 21 progress indicators for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Global CO2 emissions decreased by a record-breaking 7% due to the pandemic: 2.4 billion tonnes. But we must cut them by around half this amount or more in every year of this decade to descend the steep cliffs to the Paris Agreement.

I wrote in June about the extreme Arctic heatwave, and the Earth’s temperature and Arctic sea ice loss winning first and second place in a competition nobody wants them to keep winning.

On Covid-19, the pandemic has amplified inequalities such as the greater exposure to air pollution and other health and financial disadvantages faced by Black people and people of colour. This has given us a terrible insight – and preview – of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on those made vulnerable by greed, power and indifference; of the intertwining of climate change, racial justice and gender justice.

Air pollution was said to have “made a material contribution” to the 2013 death of nine year old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, living 25 metres from a traffic-filled major road in London, in a recent landmark ruling advised by environmental law charity Client Earth. Three years earlier, Ella had begun suffering severe asthma attacks, and the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee heard that in London around 3,500 people were dying prematurely each year from air pollution, or perhaps 8000, and Mayor Boris Johnson decided to delay an extension to the city’s Low Emissions Zone. In 2015, the number of Londoners estimated to be dying prematurely was revised to nearly ten thousand a year.

I reflected on the parallels and intersections between these throughout the year: in March, on the gendered impacts of climate change – and of being a climate scientist – for the Care International #March4Women rally; in April, on interactions between Covid-19 and the environment for BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth; in September, on equity in climate change, coronavirus and cancer in the context of placing people and planet at the heart of design.

Care International #March4Women rally, Royal Festival Hall, London, 8th March 2020. From left to right: Beauty Musewe, a democracy activist and refugee from Zimbabwe; Lucy Siegle, journalist; Madara Hettiarachchi, Head of Humanitarian at the Disasters Emergency Committee, and me. Photo: Julie Edwards.

Transmitted as fast as the virus, we saw cultural divides deepen and polarised views draw further apart, following in the footsteps of the increasing polarisation of climate change news and leading to political differences in exposure to Covid-19. Protests ranged from the fight to recognise that Black Lives Matter to the right to choose to risk lives. Suspicion, judgement and anger bred mistrust, and sometimes violence.

For my part, as both a climate scientist and a lecturer (official job title ‘Reader in Climate Change’, but with pandemic concentration I’ve barely even touched the pile of books on my bedside table), I burned out several times this year. I feel unreservedly grateful to have a job that is both permanent and immensely rewarding. Many people work longer hours, regularly, with less security or comfort. But an average of 65 hours a week during the autumn, sometimes more than 80, was physically unsustainable – even with the support of my partner and colleagues, and without any caring responsibilities (beyond occasionally entertaining two thoughtful and empathic teenagers).

The long hours were caused by both the pandemic – moving teaching online, supporting struggling students, having more students – and by commitments that were, or felt, impossible to move or change. Some of it was also, inevitably, from saying yes too much. I say no a lot, but inherited from my father a compulsion to squeeze as many experiences into life as possible; to leave footprints in the sediment. And I increasingly realise the degree to which I spend far too long on things.

I mention these hours not to boast or compare. I usually avoid discussing any long hours publicly, so as not to contribute to a culture of unrealistic expectations in academia. But in mid-October, I was interviewed for a documentary and could barely finish a coherent sentence.

The day before, a kind colleague had sent me just the right message at just the right moment, after I showed up to an online meeting looking numb and exhausted. It was a link to a podcast hosted by Brené Brown about recognising and addressing burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long;
  2. Depersonalisation – the depletion of empathy, caring and compassion,
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment – an unconquerable sense of futility; feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

Worringly, I recognised I’d had moments of the second. As I lay listening in the dark, Brené repeated a quote she’d once heard:

“If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire.”

If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire. But how can we follow this advice, when – from west to east, north to south – the world is on fire? We can’t simply sit and say “This is fine“.

A Black Lives Matter protester burns a sign outside the courthouse in Portland, Ore. Photo: AP Photo / Noah Berger

What keeps you going?

Not only this, but we are living in an uncertain world. Uncertainty is tiring, because you have to keep adapting to new information. In November, I talked to the Government Actuary’s Department and Civil Service Environment Network about how we map out possible futures with climate models to help people imagine and prepare for different scenarios. But when I compared stories with David Spiegelhalter in May, we talked about how different it feels to live at the “pointy end” of probabilities – in our case, for cancer recurrence – rather than simply to predict them.

Uncertainty requires resilience, but we feel less resilient than ever. So we try to create certainty: we simplify, categorise, search for people similar to ourselves with whom we may find reassurance we are right. Uncertainty requires us to be brave, so we seek bravery in the group. Uncertainty requires us to be flexible, but we seek the comfort of rigidity and rules. Barriers between people and thoughts are quicker – less tiring – than unpredictability, nuance and complexity, whether in coronavirus, culture or climate change.

I switched on the radio just before starting this blog post to find uncertainty was the theme:

“As a writer, I think about uncertainty all the time, and I understand how scary it can be, how exhausting. But if I may say this: it is certainty that scares me the most. The certainty of people who have unshakeable opinions and convictions, people who are so sure of the ground beneath their feet that they do not listen. The enormous confidence that comes from dogmas, and the sense of belonging in rigid tribes based on sameness. That is something that I find far more frightening than uncertainty.” — Elif Sharak

I agree: though we all give in a little to certainty, sometimes.

The uncertainty I struggle with most at the moment is myself: fatigue, an after-effect of the chemotherapy I finished over two years ago. Getting tired from doing too much is not so bad: it’s fairly predictable, and so is the fix (immediately stop talking to anyone, get home and get to bed). But the other side of my fatigue, the morning after a too-deep sleep, is worse. Sleep inertia – a state of severe grogginess that I can only compare, cognitively, with being drunk – is the part I dread. Each day is a roll of the dice – it might last an hour as I drink my coffee, or stretch on into the evening. If it’s mild, I will be a little sluggish, switching work tasks around to do easier things until it passes. If it’s the longer, deeper state, I am frustrated and tearful, unable to think a single clear thought all day.

I can often move work around it – my colleagues are unendingly supportive, picking up for me wherever they can – and I’m very lucky that it no longer happens every day. I don’t notice as much how I continuously adapt around it, though spending 12 hours in bed to get enough rest makes a 10 hour workday feel less sustainable. But I dread Long Covid, a return to the depths, and I feel for those trapped in its unpredictable landscape.

What keeps you going?

This week, I was criticised for being “optimistic about climate change” in a 2020 science round-up on the radio. Actually, that’s an over-simplification – neither did I say that exact phrase, nor, when I asked about it, is that quite what the tweeter meant. I’d intended to say that UK government climate laws and goals have largely followed science advice, via the independent Climate Change Committee (such as the 2008 Climate Change Act; Net Zero emissions by 2050; banning petrol and diesel cars by 2030), and that the recent pledge under the Paris Agreement had done so very directly. But in failing to say explicitly that past laws and pledges had not been met, I’d accidentally implied they were successful (emphasis added):

Adam Rutherford: What is the sense of how optimistic people are feeling in your domain right now?

Me: Well, I think people have been pretty cheered, actually, by UK announcements. I think one thing to note about the UK is we have a really, really strong link between the scientific evidence and advisors and what the government do, and that’s been around for many years. So we had the Climate Change Committee made recommendations that the government should cut greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by 2030, relative to 1990 levels, and the government took that advice and have made that announcement.

So I think – it’s all about, obviously, how you get there – the devil is in the detail – but the Climate Change Committee lay that out – they say exactly, you know, how many electric cars, and how many heat pumps, and so on, by which dates, when do we ban petrol and diesel cars, and they lay out very, very detailed guidance which the UK government, on the whole, tends to take up.

I’m happy to clarify this difference between intent and achievement here, as I did at the start of this post by mentioning the (lack of) progress indicators.

But the conversation set me reflecting about optimism: or, more accurately, hope, as this rich and varied article by Diego Arguedas Ortiz articulates. Personally, I need hope to keep me going, and I know I’m not the only one. I don’t see a contradiction between being angry but hopeful. Outraged and optimistic. Burned out, but still burning.

“It’s useful to hold two ideas in your head at the same time”
– Barack Obama, BBC Radio 4, 19th November 2020

Here are some of the things that have sustained me this year.

the friend who sends you just the right message at just the right moment…

Character. Colleagues that went out of their way to help me with work when I was overwhelmed, gave me advice, sent a kind word or supported me – thank you to Kevin Lougheed, James Porter, George Adamson, Daniel Schillereff, Bruce Malamud, David Demeritt, Mark Mulligan, Megan Bowman, Helene Hewitt, Sophie Nowicki, ‪Gonéri Le Cozannet, Peter Thorne, Matt King, Frank Pattyn, Andy Shepherd, and all the others. To family and friends, many with serious struggles of their own. My partner and his children.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died in November, said on the radio in March: “We have a system for dealing with the unpredictable: it’s called character…it’s called virtue. So that when something comes up that you never, ever thought would happen, it matters that the person making the decision has wisdom, has prudence, has courage, has humility, has openness to other voices.”

I am lucky to be surrounded by so many people of character.

the tireless efforts of others…

Progress in policies and pledges. I frequently recommend to people the Climate Action Tracker, which regularly updates temperature predictions for the year 2100 based on current national policies and pledges for greenhouse gas emissions. In October 2018, the central predictions I showed in my lectures and talks were 3.4ºC warming under current policies, and 3.2ºC under pledges – far off the Paris Agreement targets of “well below” 2ºC and to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5ºC. Just over two years later, these predictions are now 2.9 ºC and 2.6 ºC, respectively. The site now also shows an “Optimistic Targets” prediction, based on the countries that are considering or have adopted net zero emissions targets (covering 63% of global emissions, including China, Canada and the USA) – which is currently showing 2.1 ºC. This is the right kind of tipping point.

Climate Action Tracker snapshots of predictions for temperature change in 2100, taken in October 2018 and December 2020.

Of course, success will be a different story. But these net zero targets increasingly have detailed plans, and we need no longer despair that the problem is being ignored. I take my cues from Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Climate Change Committee. The UK commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by 2030? “Among the most ambitious of any country.” The ending of petrol and diesel car sales by the same date? “Massive... it will drive fundamental change in the whole energy system. So its impact can’t be overstated.”. Even the recent UK pledge to end financing for overseas fossil-fuel projects – not a simple story – still “good“. For me, this is about looking to the future, and recognising that the atmosphere – pardon the pun – really has changed.

And simple plans can make a difference. When Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London in 2016, he took a number of measures to reduce air pollution, such as tackling emissions from buses. These measures have reduced the number of people living with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide by 94%, and the number of schools by 97%.

Law. The lever of the law gives me hope. Client Earth are a well-known charity “using the law to protect life on earth”, but it is far from a fringe idea. I talked in January at the Pinsent Masons Client Retreat to senior in-house lawyers from a wide range of very, very large corporations and banks. They want to protect their businesses from risks of the low carbon transition – a transition they see as inevitable – such as ‘stranded assets’ based in fossil fuel infrastructure, or being sued for not acting on climate change. There are, as I write, 414 climate litigation cases listed in the Climate Change Laws of the World database led by Joana Setzer.

Creativity and ideas. I’ve been recording a new series for BBC Radio 4 with Tom Heap called 39 Ways to Save the Planet – starting 4th January 2021, daily at 1.45pm for two weeks. Each episode describes a fresh idea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – some brand new, some improved from the old – ranging from nature-based solutions involving plants and marine ecosystems to techno-solutions and engineering. I give a bit of science commentary at the end of each episode, with some help from experts via the Royal Geographical Society. Not every method will scale up to make a huge dent in emissions. But we need a diversity of approaches for different parts of the planet that, crucially, often have side-benefits that help people and planet too.

Creativity in the arts has somehow persevered through tremendous challenges this year. I’ve been so moved by tender, intimate and sad online performances by Maz O’Connor, covering a song a day during the first lockdown; an extraordinary performance by Laura Marling just up the road in Union Chapel, alone, as the sun slowly set through the stained glass windows; Nick Cave, playing Alone at Alexandra Palace; and Low, in their house on a Friday night.

…and the sense of community in working together…

Community. “Collective human behaviour is protecting us”, said Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, during an event in September on “Climate Justice and Inequality in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic”. The unbelievable energy and devotion of Trent Burton, Robin Ince, Helen Czerski and the rest of the Cosmic Shambles team, putting on shows for charities and community mental health. I was in some of their near-countless number: in April, with Dallas Campbell, talking climate scepticism, Werner Herzog and conspiracy theories; in May, with Liz Bonnin, for Sea Shambles; in July, talking about the oceans and climate again; and in December, for the 24-hour epic, Nine Lessons and Carols for Socially Distanced People, where I talked about the brain fog I was feeling (and I can’t remember what else).  

The People’s Army Islington were formed to help vulnerable people during lockdown, making dozens of hot meals three times a week, and organising deliveries of food and medicine. I’ve helped just a few times, but the impact – in terms of hope and connection – has been lasting, and I’m in awe of their stamina and commitment. Twitter, for all its faults, can be a fast way to find community: I recently swapped tips on post-chemo brain fog (putting my head in a freezing cold shower does help). I saw old friends through disco dance classes with Roz, shook it in Zumba with Stu, and took up capoeira again with my beloved community Cordão de Ouro, after a hiatus of seven or eight years.

There is resilience in groups and networks. But they should not be monocultures: so we can remember empathy, and weaken borders. In many ways, there is now greater support for hearing different voices: environmental activists are examining the barriers to participation described by Elias Yassin; universities are revisiting their curricula and readings; I’ve just started reading the collection of climate essays by women, All We Can Save. Other divisions continue to deepen. I found ‘Complicating the Narratives’ by Amanda Ripley to be a roadmap to resisting polarisation that resonates with my own experiences.

the energy and creativity of young people, and our duty of care…

Students. During my first two years at King’s, 2017-2018, we had 25-30 students starting our MSc Climate Change: Environment, Science and Policy. In 2019, we had the best part of 50, which George Adamson and I attributed in part to closing our MA climate programme. This year, we have around 80: a phenomenal increase. From the application letters and my conversations with students, I attribute much of this to a more widespread concern about climate change, as well as a reassessment of values in the light of the pandemic. They have incredible energy to make change; they devour knowledge from every module, seminar, and conversation.

Our first year undergraduate students are a joy, in their bouncy enthusiasm and desire for a fairer world. This year, replacing the usual exam due to Covid-19, I set coursework to create an infographic based on a recent news article of their choice. I was moved by their emergent concerns for coral reefs, Australian fires, permafrost. The thoughtful research of some of our third year students, persisting through a tough year, helped me start thinking about the 39 Ways series.

And finally, it’s a privilege to be PhD supervisor to three young men who are ethical, thoughtful, kind, helpful, feminist. Thank you to Andreas (my first PhD student to complete), Jamie, and Oli.

Children. I was impressed at the sophisticated questions and concerns from primary schoolchildren in March, teenagers studying A-level physics in November, and kids inventing their own ways to save the planet for the wonderful TeenTech with Dallas Campbell in December. And then there is the indomitable Greta: “indomitable” not only in the sense of “people whose courage and persistence helped them to succeed in difficult situations”, but also in the original sense of “wild”.

Burned out, all these people may be sometimes, but still burning.


This post is dedicated to Prof Chris Jackson, geologist and the first Black Christmas Lecturer in 195 years, whose lecture on the geological past of Planet Earth was first broadcast on the 28th December 2020. It was an honour and a joy to contribute a small part to your historic lecture, Chris.

Prof Chris Jackson and me, with John Tyndall’s greenhouse gas experimental equipment, after filming for the Christmas Lectures 2020.
  1. The greatest superpower anyone has. Is the ability to say No. To demands on our time and we’ll being. If it is important someone else can and will do it, so please think of your own health.

    Very different perspectives from me on your whole article.

    Client Earth. A charity. For example..

    I see Client Earth as a bunch of unaccountable activists. Using Lawfare to get political goals demanded by their unaccountable Anti democratic billionaire funded backers who have not ever had their lobbying goals tested by the public actually voting for them.

    Both perspectives can be accurate at the same time. A subset of the whole. Same people that funded XR. Funded Client Earth. The public are not even a consideration to the billionaire backers whims/agenda. (European Climate Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation_Sir Chris Hohn)

    1. Hi Barry – thanks, yes, and also it’s about letting go of the ego aspects of being asked or that you are the best person to do it. I like passing requests onto other people who have less exposure or experience.

      This article didn’t make as much effort to reach out the sceptical viewpoints as I have done in the past, did it… It’s interesting to hear your views. Although I don’t agree that a common funder implies two groups have the same goals, unless you can show that funder is influencing them both. We both agree transparency is important, of course.


  2. The ECF (as an exampe) works with all their grantees pursuing a common strategy and goals. It is their stated way of how they operate! (very people seem to read annual reports it seems)

    My point is these groups have zero public mandate. They only exist because of funding from unaccountable to the public very wealthy people and foundations. The climate bubble. And net zero is going to make brexit look inconsequential for political chaos, IMHO.. When the public finally demand to get involved because of what is proposed.

    Maybe the public will choose the same path. But at the moment the public is out of the loop. Hopefully with Brexit out of the way and vaccine rollout for covid. 2021 will be back to some sort of normality and climate policies will get proper scrutiny. It’s been a hell of a year

    1. Hey Barry,
      you say XR and CE have zero public mandate. But they would not exist, or at least not be in the news, if they would not have hundreds of thousands of people committing to send time and money in support. I am sure you agree that voting is only one part of democracy. Getting involved, active and yes, an activist is democracy as well. I am not sure what you mean by ‘unaccountable activists’ but if you stand on a street facing the police or send hard earned money to support your cause, it certainty feels like taking accountability.
      Didn’t you feel the same last time?

  3. A wonderful article Tamsin. It made me wonder whether I was surfing from burnout at the end of last year. It is also encouraging to see some evidence suggesting a tipping point in public and political opinion/action may be in the horizon.

  4. Thank you for this, and for all the work you do. I carry a lot of anxiety for the future of my toddler, and it is writings like this that help me feel slightly less hopeless and helpless.

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