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OUR PLANETARY HEALTH: Climate anxiety, and how to deal with it

By Megan Tomlinson
Our individual health is directly impacted by our planetary health. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE

By Megan Tomlinson

Special to the Record

This year, summer approaches with a discerning dichotomy.

Spring has felt unusually long and cold - the warm summer days will undoubtedly be welcomed by most. At the same time, the impression left by last summer’s heatwave and wildfires remains fresh. The memory of intolerable heat and smoke-filled air provokes anxiety for many.

It is not surprising to learn that climate anxiety is on the rise. Described as a chronic fear of environmental doom, climate anxiety is a natural response to the warnings of increased extreme weather events, such as last year’s heat dome.

Climate change is now commonly accepted as the result of a century of unsustainable land and energy use. It is anthropogenic (human-caused) and driven by human behaviours of consumption and production.

It is a good thing that human activity is responsible for climate change because we are ultimately the solution. Understanding this can be empowering and help to shift anxiety into action. There are modifiable risk factors to tackle that can reduce the impact and progression of climate change. The latest IPCC report published in April 2022 is solution-focused and points the way to effective, meaningful action.

According to the report, the biggest barrier to individual action amongst populations from higher-income countries such as Canada is the fear that quality of life will be negatively impacted. We have become so embedded in a carbon-dependent paradigm that we’ve been unable to see living any other way. Used to validate inaction, mathematical analysis confirms that one person switching to active transportation or reducing food waste, has no statistical effect on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

All of this can feel demoralizing and further instil feelings of hopelessness. However, there is relational context to account for when contrasting the impacts of individual action with collective action. Quite simply, we are social creatures, and we influence one another in multiple ways. The ripple effect that occurs when a colleague implements a green team in the workplace, or our friend rides their bike to school, cannot be underestimated.

One of the most impactful ways we can take individual action is to talk with our friends and neighbours. Connecting to others who understand the experience of climate anxiety can provide comfort and spark community action. For example, the Comox Youth Climate Council (CYCC), a self-driven collective of youth concerned about climate change, recently held a forum to hear municipal leaders speak about the strategies they are taking (or not taking) to transition to a low carbon future. As a peer-led initiative, CYCC creates a safe space for youth to share their climate anxiety while also influencing local policymakers.

The IPCC report identifies cities and municipalities as critical, grassroots players in tackling climate change. Municipal leaders, who ultimately work to grow our communities based on collective values, are integral to delivering key climate solutions. Given the mandate from their electorates, mayors and councils can dramatically improve the well-being of citizens.

Walkable and compact centres, options for active transportation and preservation of green spaces will support mitigation efforts and improve the health of citizens.

Extreme weather events, alterations in food security and an increased prevalence of infectious disease all have a profound impact on human health and are imminent manifestations of climate change. Such an encompassing and pervasive issue naturally produces feelings of tension and worry. When the enormity of climate change overwhelms us with anxiety, we might reflect on the words of singer-songwriter Joan Baez: “Action is the antidote to despair.”

Megan Tomlinson, R.N., is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment