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I Left Academia and Became a Climate YouTuber

Harnessing climate anxiety to help convince others

Courtesy of YouTube

As I wandered the corridors of San Francisco’s immense Moscone Center, my heart sank deeper and deeper. This was my first international conference—the American Geophysical Union’s 2013 Fall Meeting—and I felt lost among the thousands of attendees. I dipped in and out of darkened seminar rooms, learning of accelerating ice losses, increased extreme weather risks, and temperature targets slipping out of reach—all of this delivered in careful, measured tones as if we were talking about a scientific curiosity, perhaps a peculiar new rock. I didn’t feel measured. I wanted to scream.

This was not the first time I had felt overcome with anxiety about climate change. I had decided to undertake a doctorate so that I could help combat—in some small way—one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced. Month after month, I whittled away at my thesis. The more I worked, the more papers I read, and the more seminars I attended. And the larger the problem loomed.

I had thought that all we needed to solve climate change was a clearer picture of the problem and its solutions. And during my doctorate, I met countless fantastic researchers who were skillfully filling in the blanks. But the deepest issues were elsewhere: the chasms between our scientific understanding and public understanding; between planetary necessity and political “feasibility.” While I learned of groundbreaking new techniques and technologies, I also learned of politicians who denied long-settled science. The deeper I looked, the deeper this divide appeared and the deeper my sense of despair. 

I also began to realize something else. When I met someone and they asked what I was doing with my life, we would often end up in a discussion about climate change. In some ways this was a familiar feeling: As an undergraduate, I had loved sharing fantastical physics with my arts student friends. But now sharing knowledge took on a new dimension—this information wasn’t just interesting, it was fundamentally important. And I felt considerably more calm in these conversations than I did in the midst of my research.

In 2014, I found myself discussing my work in a pub with a man considerably older and drunker than I was. “Here’s something that will disprove your climate change,” he slurred, gesturing at his gin and tonic. He correctly explained that the ice melting wouldn’t raise the level of his drink. “So why,” he demanded, “are scientists going on about sea level rise?” I explained that it’s ice on land, among other factors, that will drive oceans upward. “Oh, fair enough,” he replied, to my astonishment. Those four syllables felt more substantial than anything I’d uncovered while toiling on my thesis.

Realizing I felt both more productive and more peaceful discussing climate research than conducting it, I decided to pivot. Ever the physicist, I concluded that optimizing to talk to as many people as possible meant creating a YouTube channel. I aimed to make playful videos that embraced the medium and happened to be about climate change, rather than create dry scientific talks that happened to be on YouTube. I hoped this would not only reach new audiences, but also make an overwhelming topic slightly less daunting to discuss.

Today, some five years after I completed my thesis, my aim is still to talk about climate change as much as I can. As a science journalist and climate change YouTuber, I make videos and podcasts and write about climate change. While just as much of my life is dedicated to the topic as it was during my doctorate, communication feels more constructive than adding my small offering to the mountainous body of research that is already ignored by much of the world. What’s more, talking about climate change allays my anxiety—so successfully, in fact, that I’m not discouraged by hateful comments from riled-up climate contrarians. Given how much I adore approval, this is no mean feat.

I’m not arguing that this is the sole solution to escaping climate anxiety. When Joan Baez told us that “action is the antidote to despair,” I’m certain she didn’t mean we should all start YouTube channels. Different despair requires different antidotes. For some of my friends, the cure is policy. Others take to the streets. Many still research. We need all of these approaches to fight climate change.

Our anxiety needs other treatments, too. Nonstop action isn’t sustainable, and I’m glad to have distractions. As a science journalist, I can break from climate change to examine the origins of humans or the building blocks of the Universe. And I am eternally grateful that although they share their first two letters, climbing and clubbing feel far away from climate.

At the end of 2018, in the hope of communicating something new, I found myself at another, grander conference. This was the twenty-fourth annual Conference of the Parties—the United Nations climate negotiations—in Katowice, Poland. The world was sprinting in the wrong direction, as carbon dioxide emissions continued to rise rather than fall, and I felt more despondent than ever, despite keeping busy producing daily videos. As I walked around the conference center, I saw countries and organizations boasting of—what seemed to me—insubstantial progress. Every round of applause sent cold shivers down my spine.

And then I met with friends—climate scientists, journalists, activists. They reminded me that our anxieties are shared, and my feelings were valid. Over the years, talking about climate science had allayed my anxieties.  And now talking once again—this time about climate anxiety itself— helped me find my way from fear.