13 Jun 2016

Now I know why my friends don't
want to hear about climate change

About three years ago I decided to devote a lot of time to writing about the threat of climate change. I felt then – and feel now – that the planet is going to be in one hell of a worse mess in a few years unless we take action on a scale never seen before concerning any other threat in history.

After I had published two or three items on various news sites, I was surprised – actually shocked – to learn that, compared to other topics I have written about – such as international financial mismanagement and the evils of neo-liberalism – very few people read the climate change articles.

To try to find out why this is the case, I spoke with a few friends. Most said the thought of dramatic changes occurring on earth were too overwhelming to deal with. Worse still, they felt they couldn’t have any influence on what will happen.

As it turned out, hardly any of my friends wanted to learn more about the threat or find out how they might help fight climate change.

People reacting emotionally to climate change

I don’t know the psychological state of my friends, but an Australian psychologist believes she knows why millions of people are reacting emotionally to climate change.

This climate activist traveled to Paris to demonstrate during the UN climate change conference in December. Masses of people must show the same resolve if we are to hold climate change at bay.

Dr. Susie Burke of the Australian Psychological Society says that, as life on earth becomes more abnormal over time, it can bring on all kinds of feelings in people. Knowing this, I’d say some of my friends are in what is perhaps an early anxiety stage concerning the threat of climate change. As conditions worsen, their symptoms can be expected to worsen.

“Many people may feel seriously concerned, frightened, angry, pessimistic, distressed, or guilty in response to climate change,” she says. “Qualitative research finds evidence of some people being deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel they are making a difference in stopping climate change.

“New terms such as ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate change anxiety’ are sometimes used to describe this.”

Dr. Burke says that if people experience something like an extreme weather disaster, the impact on them can get worse.

Mental health in danger

Disasters occurring because of climate change, in addition to destroying our environment, will also affect us psychologically and mentally.

“Depression, PTSD and complicated grief reactions are the most common mental health problems,” she says, “and many, many more people who do not end up with a diagnosis of depression or PTSD, nonetheless end up with heightened distress, grief, stress and strain.”

The most disastrous impacts are occurring in some developing countries. Recently a city in western India suffered through the country’s highest ever recorded temperature – a scorching 51 degrees Celsius (123.8 F). As a result of crops being wiped out by excessive heat, hundreds of depressed farmers across 13 states have killed themselves.

In Karachi, Pakistan, in anticipation of another heat wave this year, officials hired a digger to excavate three elongated trenches big enough for 300 bodies. In Canada, while climate change is not nearly as damaging – at least so far– as in many other countries, it already is having an impact on the mental health of many people.

Worst affected are the northern First Nations and Inuit, peoples who have a close relationship with nature. Melting permafrost is damaging vital ice roads, making them unstable and unsafe.    In the past, roads in Ontario used to import vital goods, were safe about 70 days a year. Now they’re passable only about 35 days. The changes have made hunting more unpredictable.  Changes in ice flow patterns have made hunting walrus more difficult.

First Nations people despondent

Isadore Day, Ontario’s regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, says that despair over climate change is contributing to mental health and social problems, possibly even record-breaking suicide rates.

Cunsolo Willox, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at Cape Breton University, says the impact of climate change on northern peoples was evident back in 2009, when she did her PhD dissertation in Labrador. She says family stress was elevated. Anxiety and depression seemed to be amplified. More people were turning to drugs and alcohol and having suicide thoughts.

Interestingly, Willox said the people she interviewed weren’t talking to each other about their fears – which, I think, is similar to the way some of my friends are responding to the emerging crisis.
Some farmers on the Canadian prairies are also experiencing severe anxiety. Farmers have always been at the mercy of the weather at the best of times.

But Kim Keller, who worked on her family’s grain farm about 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, told The Toronto Star that climate change is hitting some farmers hard. The dramatic changes are amplifying mental distress as farmers struggle with floods, unseasonable frosts, and windstorms scientists say are becoming more frequent and severe.

Extreme weather battering farms

Planting crops year to year is becoming a “roll of the dice,” said Keller, a third-generation farmer. “The weather we tend to experience lately seems to be at one extreme or the other — drought or flooding, -40 C or 35 C. These unpredictable and extreme weather patterns add to all the other stressors farmers experience and deal with.”

In Alberta, the lives of thousands of people have been upended by the massive Fort McMurray wildfires, caused largely by climate change. It’s not hard to predict that many people who will continue to live in the area will suffer anxiety. Meanwhile, the CBC reports that children who experienced the fires are suffering from stress.

On a worldwide scale, it appears that the impact of climate change on human health will be receiving much more attention in the future. A report by the United Nations Human Rights Council released in May says that massive action is needed to protect the human rights – particularly the mental health – of people.

The report warns: “The negative health impacts of climate change will increase exponentially with every incremental increase in warming. Limiting warming to the greatest extent possible and achieving the target of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels should therefore be the objective of all climate action.”

The problems in developing countries the report addresses also apply to native groups living in the Canadian North and prairie farmers: “States should establish, inter alia, early warning systems; utilize community-based monitoring, including traditional knowledge; enhance emergency response capabilities; and improve coordination in addressing climate migration . . . .”

No health-related action in Canada

While many Canadian mental health and some government officials are aware of the impact of climate change on human health, it does not appear that the actions recommended by the UN are being carried out in Canada.

Finally, thinking back to all those people who don’t want to deal with climate change: this is a serious problem. If the planet is to be a livable place, the masses of people have to become involved in the fight. Environmental groups must do a lot more on climate change than they’re doing – they’re failing to educate the public.

Governments must be both criticized and encouraged over what they’re doing. If fossil fuel corporations don’t embrace technologies favouring carbon reduction, they must be attacked and eliminated.

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  1. A few years ago I spoke with a government scientist whose work overlapped with climate change issues. On the job she was "we can still do this." After work, over a beer, it was "we're so screwed." Some climate science types go into therapy. Others simply walk out, perhaps get a job teaching.

    There's growing evidence that we've already crossed some major tipping points and that natural feedback loops, i.e. runaway global warming, is now a reality.

    I've been wondering whether the indifference of our governments reflects some realization that the horse has already left the barn.

    Some years ago I assembled a long list of climate change and other environmental threats and struggled to identify the common threads that ran through them. It took me many months to find the answer. There are three crises - climate change, overpopulation and over-consumption of renewable resources. They're all deeply connected. Each is existential. There is no chance, zero, of solving any of them without a solution to all of them.

    Our planet's carrying capacity is somewhere around 3-billion people, based on early 70s levels of consumption. Today we're at 7.5 billion and our per capita footprint has swollen to the point we're consuming 1.7 times the Earth's sustainable resource replenishment rate.

    For a long time I resisted James Lovelock's prediction that our species will end this century with a population of well under 1 billion. I now believe he's right.

  2. Humans are terrible at long term planning. Just look at how many don't have proper retirement planning: how many, at 25, have looked 40 years ahead, knowing very well that boomers would all want to hit the cash button roughly at the same time? I know I did, and was called a pessimistic fool back in 1980.

    "Underplan", "under-do", then fall into despair claiming "Nobody could have predicted this!!!" Such is human foolishness.

    Change your diet. This is well within your reach.

    1. Cut back on calories: go for the target of a healthy diet or 2,100 kcal/day.
    2. Cut back on meat: go for 152 kcal/day. That's the WHO's target for a healthy diet.
    3. Cut back on meat from ruminant animals: go for 10% max, similar to the died in China.

    Voilà! You've just reduced future warming by 2,4°C. The best leverage one can have from any single action one can take single handedly.

    Don't believe me. Check it yourself on the Global Calculator: http://uncached-site.globalcalculator.org/

  3. "Environmental groups must do a lot more"...
    Considering that we are underfunded, chastised by many, and not even on the radar screen for government funding....how exactly do you expect that to happen?

    1. Wow, I have a lot to say about this. I worked 14 years in the non-profit sector so I know what goes on. I'll direct my comments toward the 10 or 12 largest groups.

      First of all, there's a Climate Action Network that, as far as I can tell, doesn't take any actions. It seems to be for inner-networking. Why isn't it coordinating major campaigns?

      Collectively, environmental groups in Canada raise more than $1-billion a year. But millions are misdirected. There's too much overlap and duplication of effort. There are rivalries. The sector must have 20 different publications. These all are published with self-interest in mind, instead of combining efforts and working together.

      As climate change is the core problem behind dozens of causes you fight for, I think there should be a re-allocation of goals and expenditures.

      Common goals and activities should be decided among the top 12 groups through the Climate Action Network. Governments must be praised for what they are doing that is good, and criticized when they are failing -- like Saskatchewan.

      Fossil fuel companies should be criticized - and attacked - in an organized manner with end result goals.

      Unfortunately, environmental groups are not at all sophisticated politically. They don't want to go to the kinds of tactics that will make a difference.

      Some groups engage in protest marches of, what, fewer than 1,000 people. They send petitions to Parliament. Do they evaluate the lack of impact from such weak-assed activities? These things have absolutely no impact on the powers that be.

      By not showing the initiative to think big -- and beyond the interests of their own groups -- environmental groups are failing Canada.

      I do not use the term "environmental movement" because there is no co-ordinated movement.

      So, there are a few of my comments -- off the top of my head, as the saying goes.

      I note that you didn't use your real name in commenting here. I'm very keep to encourage environmental groups to improve what they do -- I would be pleased if you'd communicate with me via email -- and I will keep your identify confidential. Kind regards, Nick. fillmore0274@rogers.com

    2. Hi Nick. Your identification of the psychology and motivation issues sounds right. A helpful booklet "Branding Biodiversity" was put out in 2010 http://staging.futerra.co.uk.php53-17.dfw1-2.websitetestlink.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Branding_Biodiversity.pdf . For successful messaging, it highlights a need for people to know what they can do. Your suggestions for Canadian NGOs sound useful, too.

    3. Could the NDP's adoption of the Klein-Lewis LEAP Manifesto provide a focus for the disparate groups?
      Marty Dolin

    4. Have to Agree with Nick on the disorganization of the Environmental side of things. As an Exec on a local Green Party EDA, getting anything coordinated is next to impossible. Local NGO's will not listen nor even acknowledge anything we try to do because it would be "seen" as taking sides. Not to mention many of them are NDP backed, thus they will not cooperate period. Problem is, we are all fighting for the same damn thing. We can burn separately or go down fighting together.

    5. Marty - I think it would be a great idea, but the environmental groups are so screwed up, they won't go for it. See the comment here from the Green Party person. The environmental folks don't bring a political perspective to the table. It's a disaster. I'm thinking of devoting a month's work looking int what they do -- and do not do. (Personal - heading to NS for first two weeks of July, spending some time with Anne and Bill.)

  4. Alternate link to "Branding Biodiversity" http://bit.do/b7oyF

  5. The first suggestion I made to Cath McKenna's #CANClimateAction was to keep out of the TPP and other deals that allow investors sue gov'ts for any policy measures that might limit their profits. To have any policy options in future we must avoid walking into this trap.

  6. The first suggestion I made to Cath McKenna's #CANClimateAction was to keep out of the TPP and other deals that allow investors sue gov'ts for any policy measures that might limit their profits. To have any policy options in future we must avoid walking into this trap.

  7. I think that the reason most people are stressed over climate change is that those that support man-made climate change continually pound us with forecasts of immense disaster. This started back in the late 1970's with James Hansen and Bill McKibben telling us that by now we would be underwater or suffering from extended droughts. For the past twenty years there has been a minor increase in global temperatures, but again, we hear forecasts of doom for future generations. We should be ore concerned about those living in poverty today and giving them the tools to get out of poverty. These tools include access to reliable and plentiful power, likely generated by fossil fuels. We owe more to those suffering today than those that may suffer in the future.
    What we need is less focus on global warming and more focus on pollution. China needs to get its emissions profile under control. So does the USA and the EU. Stopped the hysteria and look at whatis actually happening. IS a 0.1C degree rise really matter? Have you not seen the recent reports on how the added CO2 is benefitting Canadian forest growth? We are seeing a significant greening of our boreal forests. And for heaven's sake, you can't seriously blame the Alberta wildfires on frossil fuel use. Just look at the oceanic weather trends to understand that La Nina weather events lead to drier conditions in northern ALberta.

  8. Great article! Just read it via Huff post and will be subscribing to your blog. Two points, the first quite minor:
    1. Are you referring to ice roads? "In the past, roads in Ontario used to import vital goods, were safe about 70 days a year. Now they're passable only about 35 days."

    2. I'm aware of some developmental work going on in Canada re: CC and mental health. Happy to discuss further if you're interested.

  9. Hi Nick, I'm reading a book that I think very precisely addresses the issues you've raised in this article. It's called "Acedia: The Darkness within (and the darkness of climate change) by Dave MacQuarrie. Get yourself a copy! It's really worth it.
    Rev. Matt Smith

  10. As a science writer, the climate change issue has changed my life in more ways than I would have imagined. Being a skeptic by nature, I would have discarded or, at least been much more cynical of the conclusions being drawn by the climatologists (i.e.those represented by groups such as the IPCC) if those conclusions were not evident to the average person through reasonable observation and judgement. BUT THEY ARE! The predictions of the scientists have been unfolding pretty much as they have been warning. If I were religious, I might be tempted to use the term, prophetic. Anyway, that is why I am now "gobsmacked" by the reluctance of the average person to, at best, sit up and take more notice or, at worst, to deny, deny, deny, basing their position on the flimsiest and most obviously bogus evidence available.

  11. November has warm days and cool nights. Mid-November conditions are much like those of October. During the last weeks of November there is a gradual decrease in temperature and thus winter begins, but it is not that cold. The first weeks of November are typically dry and the last week of November is cold. It is one of the driest months of the year, not only in Karachi, but most parts of Pakistan. On 9 November 2010 remnants of Cyclone Jal caused gusty winds in the metropolis.[16] The highest rainfall for November is 83.1 millimetres (3.27 in), which occurred in 1959.
    Karachi Weather Live