How I quit neuroscience to focus on preventing climate breakdown

Shifting fields takes courage, but if a tenured professor can’t take the leap to address the ecological emergency, who can, asks Adam Aron

November 12, 2021
A head silhouette with the Earth superimposed on it
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I am a tenured professor of neuroscience at a major US research university. I recently wrote to the National Institutes of Health to terminate my main research grant, now in year 13, two years before possible re-renewal.

For 20 years, I was pretty successful, with thousands of citations and various honours bestowed, but the work no longer feels worthwhile or justifiable because I’m now in a position to work on preventing climate and ecological breakdown.

I had long been worried about global heating, but I was busy being a parent, building the lab, writing grants and doing the work. From 2018, I got involved in the fossil-fuel divestment movement at the University of California, and in 2019 my department chair agreed that I could teach a class that is now called Psychology of the Climate Crisis.

In preparing for the class, I pored over the actual data for the first time. I was simply stunned. I now understood that most of the emissions pathways mapped out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) entail the fiction of technological salvation way in the future and that we are currently on the high-emissions pathway, which entails a disruption to organised existence in our lifetimes. I also learned that heating is distributed unevenly around the world, in terms of both historical responsibility for it and in its impacts, meaning that the southern Africa I grew up in is experiencing roughly double the global average, and there will be little to no adaptation even while most of the people there have done almost nothing to incur the emissions.

One way I could respond would be to continue my career by day and be a climate activist by night, and indeed, I wish more people would do that. But I’m going much further – I’m not just spending time being a climate activist, I’m also shifting my entire focus and career within the university.

Wow, you might say, is that even possible? Yes it is, at least for me. I’m lucky on two fronts. First, I’m a tenured professor with a stable position from the state of California (so I’ll have nine months out of 12 of salary without grants). Second, I’m in a field (psychology) that makes this shift of focus possible. So I can stop being a psychologist focused on the brain and instead be a psychologist focused on how to understand and shift people’s beliefs about global heating, and also how to understand and drive more people to engage in action.

Actually, though, I think such a shift would be possible in many other fields, too. Surely, much of the humanities and social science, and many areas of STEM, can contribute key knowledge about how to reduce emissions and also how to adapt in the new, unstable climate. Sociologists can become social movement theorists; neoclassical economists can broaden their assumptions and become ecological economists; plant biologists can focus on the sequestration of carbon in soil; and applied physicists can focus on the renewable energy transition, and so on.

It’s not that I think everyone should shift what they’re doing academically, I’m just pointing out that many could. Meanwhile, they could take their responsibilities as local and global citizens seriously and engage within universities in myriad ways, from adding the climate crisis to their teaching to advocating for fossil-free energy and finance.

Taking this latest step required finding some courage. But I asked myself: is it so difficult to be courageous from a position of such privilege, in terms of financial support and job stability? And I asked myself: what am I going to tell my children in 10 years, when they ask: “What were you doing, Daddy, during that essential decade?” I’ll say, I did just about everything I could.

I’m also mindful that bold steps incur pushback and rejection. I’m experiencing plenty of that and also grappling with methodological and philosophical questions about the scope and applicability of “social science”. A major challenge for our new lab is to leave behind the comfort of well-controlled experiments and to grapple with the messiness of real-world human beliefs and behaviour concerning global heating: probably we’ll experience lots of failure!

But the wider context is the ongoing failure of most national governments to cut emissions. Indeed many, such as the US, Canada and Germany, are even now escalating fossil extraction while uttering platitudes about net zero and carbon neutrality. We need local action where we are. It’s a time-honoured, successful tradition of social change: local efforts ramify outwards and undergird national-level shifts.

This requires not only a vibrant climate justice movement at the grass roots but also a shift in social norms at every level of society. And that shift needs to include a focus on climate action by some of the most privileged people on the planet: tenured faculty.

Adam Aron is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

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