The impact of climate change on mental health is something researchers have only recently begun to study and evidence is beginning to mount. It is part of understanding a changing climate as a looming public health crisis.
“Food insecurity, post-traumatic stress disorder, population displacement, trauma, cardiorespiratory impacts, and even deaths because of wildfires, floods, storms, heat waves and related poor air quality are some of the health concerns felt in Canada in the past few months alone,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, lead author of the Lancet Countdown report on Canada released Wednesday.
“The lack of progress by our governments is affecting us today and will increasingly put public health infrastructure at risk,” she said.
The report cites growing evidence, much of it the result of research done in Canada, about not only the physical, but also the mental health effects of climate change.
They include eco-anxiety, ecological grief and something called solastalgia, described as “feeling homesick when you are at home.” The word, coined by Australian philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht, specifically refers to environmental pain and is related to an Inuit word that refers to a friend behaving in an unfamiliar way.
Researchers in Canada’s North have described some of those impacts in people whose landscape is rapidly changing, including the Inuit.
Climate change, which results in extreme heat waves, unusual forest fires and other direct impacts, also increases suicide risk among some, said Howard.
The Lancet Countdown 2018 Report, supported by the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Medical Association, was released at the same time as an international report on health and climate change. The Canadian report includes recommendations for policy-makers — including putting a price on carbon.
Carbon pricing, said Howard, is the best tool available for tackling the public health issues resulting from climate change. She compared it to efforts to reduce tobacco consumption.
“We know that it works because we have seen it work when it comes to phasing out tobacco.”
The report focuses on some of the effects of climate change seen in the far North, the impact of forest fires on individuals in Western Canada and the affect of recent heat waves in southern Canada. Dozens of deaths in Quebec this summer were attributed to an extended heat wave.
Among the report’s other recommendations are that Canada standardize reporting of heat-related illnesses and death and generate a public health plan to minimize the health impacts of heat now and in the future.
The report comes at a time when some Canadian politicians are rejecting carbon pricing and dire warnings about climate change are increasing.
Ontario ended its cap and trade program under the recently elected Progressive Conservative government and premiers from Ontario and Saskatchewan are fighting plans by the federal government to introduce a carbon tax. Ontario is expected to release a climate plan Thursday.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump, whose government has loosened environmental protection, says he does not believe a dire climate change report released by his government last week.
Some of the mental health impacts of climate change are directly related to physical effects. Extreme forest fires around Yellowknife in 2014 led to people feeling lonely, isolated and anxious because of their inability to get outside and do things like berry picking and walking, said Howard.
But anxiety can relate to fear of the future and feelings of helplessness in the face of approaching calamity, she said. Taking action to reduce greenhouse gases, she said, as the UK has done with its 2007 climate change act, can reduce anxiety. Greenhouse gas emissions in the UK have been reduced significantly during that time.
In Canada, which is home to some of the most visible impacts of climate change in the Arctic, greenhouse gas emissions are steadily increasing.
“I think what we are seeing happen in Canada is we have gone from this place where scientists are telling us about climate change to where we are feeling climate change.”