As raging wildfires continue to burn in British Columbia, Alberta, and now Nova Scotia, the escalating destruction and displacement associated with these catastrophic events is also fuelling ecological anxiety among Canadians, according to experts.
“Some people have ecological grief, which is a sadness about what they’re seeing. Other people have anger, other people have guilt. And for many of us, there’s a mixture of all of these different emotions,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife-based emergency doctor and the vice-chair of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
She stressed that eco-anxiety is a normal human reaction to the news that the world is changing, especially Canadians who are experiencing this extreme wildfire season.
As people witness these extreme weather events, she said a common concern may be: “If the smoke is bad now, what does this mean for my kids?”
But it’s not just wildfires that are increasing in severity in Canada. Climate change is magnifying extreme weather across the country, including record-breaking heat waves, devastating floods, and more intense hurricanes.
Climate change is widely recognized as one of the most serious global health threats of the 21st century, according to the World Health Organization. Scientists have also said humans are “unequivocally” to blame for global warming.
Over the last 70 years, Canada’s average temperature has increased by 1.9 C, according to Environment Canada, adding that the country’s average annual temperature has also been rising at a rate twice as fast as the global average.
The warming is also projected to intensify in the future, meaning more extreme heat, less extreme cold, thinning glaciers, thawing permafrost, and rising sea levels.
“And we know that based on all plausible emissions trajectories, we’re going to keep warming until at least 2040 here in Canada. So we’re not at a new normal. This is going to get worse,” Howard said.
“You can’t yoga breathe out of the situation like a car bearing down on you and your kids. There’s a real threat here and we’re going to have to move out of the way. So making a plan, and taking action is going to be a really important part of removing this emotional discomfort that we’re feeling.”
How eco-anxiety affects us differently
Physical and mental symptoms of eco-anxiety can range from panic attacks, irritability, sleeplessness, depression, numbness, helplessness, or feeling scared or uncertain, according to a 2021 article published in the Journal of Climate Change and Health.
But they often impact us differently, explained Howard, as these emotions are often rooted in someone’s lived experiences.
For example, with the wildfires raging on the east coast, Howard explained that people’s reactions vary depending on whether they are witnessing the events from a distance or experiencing them firsthand.
“So for the people who actually had to evacuate, there’s an acute disruption to daily life that many studies show later can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder type symptoms,” Howard said.
“We see higher levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression in people who have had to evacuate from wildfires. Sometimes this can be particularly pronounced in children and it can last over a year after the event.”
A 2019 study out of the University of Alberta found that 18 months after the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, many students in Grades 7 through 12 remained traumatized. More than one in three students were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 31 per cent cited depression and 15 per cent said had probable alcohol or substance use disorders.
On the other hand, she said, some people, who may be physically distant from the immediate danger, such as the Nova Scotia wildfires, empathize with the experiences of others and contemplate, “What would I do if I that were me?”
'Sense of betrayal and anger'
While eco-anxiety impacts individuals across generations, Howard argued the younger generation appears to bear the brunt of its effects.
“Youth can be seeing this threat approaching and are looking at the news, and seeing that we’ve known this was going to happen for a long time,” she said.
A 2021 study asked 10,000 young people in 10 countries how they felt about climate change and government responses to it. Nearly 60 per cent said they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” and reported that this “eco-anxiety” has a negative impact on their daily lives.
Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, said he’s had students tell him that they “don’t want to bring children into this world” due to the state of climate change.
“Older people are probably going to escape all this sooner than younger people,” he said. “And younger people worry about it more because it’s obvious if things continue this way, it’s going to affect their life more than it’s going to affect older people.”
Gifford, and his colleagues at the University of Victoria, have currently submitted a study for peer review on this topic of climate anxiety. The study, “Predicting Climate Change Anxiety,” found that young individuals expressed more climate change anxiety than other people.
Ways to help eco-anxiety
Although eco-anxiety is prevalent among younger people, Gifford stressed the generation’s resiliency.
Climate cafes started popping up in places like the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. They are a space for people to speak about their worries related to the climate and ecological crisis, Gifford explained.
This is because an effective approach to address anxiety associated with climate change is by engaging in open conversations about it with others rather than suppressing or bottling up those feelings, he added.
“The children and youth who are part of families who talk about this openly and who start to seek solutions as a family, feel more taken care of,” she said. “Sometimes, the best thing to do is just to admit and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I understand that you’re feeling worried. I’m feeling worried, too, as a parent.”
Howard also emphasized the significance of contacting local politicians to voice concerns about climate change and share ideas on how to address it.
But the top priority for individuals grappling with ecological grief is to prioritize self-care, she said.
“Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. … Try to get half an hour of exercise every day,” she said. “And get out into nature when the air quality is good and make sure you feel that sun on your face.”