SFU measuring climate anxiety in the wake of the heat dome

A new study looks at climate anxiety in the wake of the deadliest climate-related event in Canadian history.

By Dustin Godfrey | January 26, 2022 |5:00 am

Khalid Boudreau was already struggling in late June.

“[I] was pushing myself so hard I had heat exhaustion. And that was just a regular hot day,” Boudreau said. “And I didn’t know that’s what it was, so I tried to push through it.”

The 22-year-old Burnaby resident works in a greenhouse, and the temperatures were rising to unseasonable levels. Soon, the heat in BC would be staggering.

And when the heat dome crashed into the region, Boudreau was still working in a greenhouse.

“You would be able to water something, then you’d have to go sit. It completely drains you of all your energy in the same way, a very similar way that being sick does,” he said.

“When it’s that hot, you can’t even think.”

The heat dome is likely a time that will be remembered for years, not just for the intensity of the heat but the time at which it came and the way it permeated the province.

And a new SFU study has shown what some may already have suspected: the severe heat wave has had real impacts on mental health in the province.

In the Lower Mainland, temperatures reached up towards, and even into, the 40s—a rare thing in August, let alone July.

“If this happened in August, we would probably have had a few days of 30 or 32 degrees weather. We’d be more acclimatized to it,” Scott Lear, a health sciences professor at SFU, said at the time. “Just like 10 days, 2 weeks ago, people were joking that we were in ‘June-uary’ because it was raining and cold.”

The heat dome was one of the most intense climate-related events in BC, leaving few unaffected, and it was the deadliest weather event in all of Canadian history.

While wildfires have scorched the province in years past, this was an existential threat. Throughout the province, extreme heat was directly linked to 595 deaths. Sixty-three of those deaths were in Burnaby.

‘The good times are over’

And the heat dome has accordingly taken a toll on people’s mental health.

“I would say [my climate anxiety] has gotten more acute. This year really hammered home that we just don’t have any time left. The good times are over. The time to enjoy what we have while we have it and to brace ourselves are over,” Boudreau said.

Marina Miller, another Burnaby resident, said witnessing climate change in her community in recent years, including the devastating events of the last year, has “definitely increased” her generalized anxiety.

Miller said she lost sleep after watching An Inconvenient Truth in Grade 7 but was able to turn that anxiety into something more productive in her high school and university studies.

“It’s your life and your kids, potentially, that are going to feel the effects of an elected official not wanting to take a tough vote. ... It’s gotten past sadness, and it’s really getting to that place of just rage.”

Photo: Shutterstock

“To be frank, my optimism has wavered. Events like the heat dome, the intensifying wildfire seasons, floods, and storms have brought the characteristics of climate change to our front doors,” Miller wrote in an email.

“I’ve felt less motivated to practice activism. Less motivated to volunteer. Less motivated to even read about current science and possible solutions.”

Climate anxiety getting on the map

Climate anxiety has crept into the public consciousness over the past several years, before exploding in 2020 and into 2021. A Google search for “climate anxiety” reveals the learning curve that has been collectively scaled recently.

In 2017, a headline reads: “Climate anxiety doesn’t have to ruin your life. Here’s how to manage it.” In 2019: “Climate anxiety is real, but there’s something you can do about it.” In 2020: “‘Overwhelming and terrifying’: the rise of climate anxiety.”

But in 2021, the media is awash in climate anxiety pieces. Climate anxiety is an “overwhelmingly white phenomenon,” Scientific American notes. The New York Times offers coping advice, while, according to the Guardian, therapists struggle to cope with growing patient lists.

The field has become increasingly topical, as climate-linked events occupy more and more of the public’s attention. And researchers have even developed tools for measuring the phenomenon.

The climate change anxiety scale was developed by College of Wooster psychology and environmental studies professor Susan Clayton and her team in 2020 to gauge levels of climate anxiety.

But the new SFU study has captured, perhaps for the first time, a near-real-time sample of that anxiety, with snapshots before and after a climate-related event—in this case, the heat dome.

Kiffer Card, assistant professor of health sciences and director of the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance, said his team had been looking to study climate anxiety in BC for a while.

And this study, led by UBC PhD student Andreea Bratu, just happened to fall into place at around the time of the heat dome.

Gathering data from the heat dome

The study was part of a broader project by MHCCA, which Card called the “climate distress monitoring system,” which is intended to periodically collect survey data on psychological distress from climate change.

“The heat dome happened to occur just shortly after we closed data collection for the pilot,” Card said.

“There was so much attention and so much interest in this and provided the perfect opportunity to go ahead and test this natural experiment to see: did this specific event increase climate anxiety?”

The team launched a second survey two weeks after the heat dome to not only compare answers with the pilot test but to gauge people’s specific reactions to the heat dome.

According to the study, 40.1% of respondents to the second survey said they were “much more worried about climate change” as a result of the heat dome and another 18.4% said they were “somewhat more worried.”

Another 34.6% said their worry had not changed, while a combined 7% said they were either somewhat less worried or much less worried.

And there were significant changes before and after the heat dome to people’s perceptions of climate change and its effects on their lives.

Respondents were asked how likely they believed it to be that their region would be “devastated due to climate-related changes,” a question with vastly different responses before and after.

Before the heat dome, 31.7% of respondents said it was “very unlikely,” but that number shrank to 15.8% afterwards. And the number saying it was “very likely” increased from 17.5% to 29.8%.

There were also minor changes in respondents’ beliefs about how likely it was that their industry would be affected, with an overall increase of 10.4% on the likely side of the scale and a corresponding decrease on the unlikely side.

Constructive anxiety vs problematic anxiety

Climate anxiety in itself isn’t inherently bad—but one has to parse useful anxiety from inhibiting anxiety, and that’s what the SFU study, and others like it, aims to address.

“Your body creates anxiety because it wants you to do something. Anxiety is a motive for action. … In some ways, we want people to be anxious and thoughtful about climate [change],” Card said, comparing it to hunger, thirst, and loneliness and the behaviours those feelings compel.

“The specific measure that we used aims to identify cognitive and functional impairment.”

That, he said, is an important distinction to draw, and other studies point out the need to not pathologize realistic climate anxiety.

“Doing so assumes these responses are maladaptive, unhelpful, or disproportionate to the threat posed,” notes a paper defining the Hogg eco-anxiety scale, an alternative to the climate change anxiety scale.

“To be frank, my optimism has wavered. Events like the heat dome, the intensifying wildfire seasons, floods, and storms have brought the characteristics of climate change to our front doors.”

Photo: SFU / Facebook

In Burnaby Beacon interviews, a recurring theme played out. It wasn’t defeat, but rather an understanding that events like the heat dome are no longer part of a theoretical, amorphous climate change concept—they are, in fact, reality.

“You sort of accepted, ‘Wow, this is just how it’s going to be in BC for forever, probably every summer. And it’s probably only going to get worse,’” said Cazzy Lewchuk, a 26-year-old Burnaby resident, of the heat dome.

While Miller said the climate change reality has inhibited her desire to read more about the science, Lewchuk said he takes some solace in it. Otherwise, he said, the imagination may run away and paint an even bleaker image.

“‘Everything could be extinct in 30 years.’ That’s not true. So I found actually learning the material, the science, the projection, helped me sort of understand, OK, in 20-30 years, temperatures are going to [rise], but it’s not going to be a total drought,” Lewchuk said.

Climate anxiety just one of many stressors

And it’s also hard to separate the climate crisis from all the other stressors of life today. Lewchuk called it an “underlying dread on top of everything else,” citing the pandemic and economic concerns as examples.

“It makes you more existential because you kind of think, ‘OK, what’s the world going to look like in 30 years?’ And you really have no idea how things are going to look, what it’ll mean for supply or food or the atmosphere in general,” Lewchuk said.

“You don’t know how much daily life will be affected or how bad it’s going to look, but the projections make it look pretty bad.”

Boudreau said his frustrations with the climate crisis response corresponds with his frustrations around COVID and other similar issues.

“It’s your life and your kids, potentially, that are going to feel the effects of an elected official not wanting to take a tough vote,” he said. “It’s gotten past sadness, and it’s really getting to that place of just rage.”

And part of that, he said, is a feeling that some lives are deemed to be worth less than others, something he said is shown by a decades-long unwillingness to address climate change.

“We just put our most vulnerable people in harm’s way, knowing it’s going to happen again. And it’s going to be probably worse next time,” Boudreau said.

And he said he can’t separate that from other systemic issues that trouble society, be it the toxic drug crisis or the pandemic or police violence, leading to a compounding impact on one’s mental health.

“The experience of climate grief is very similar to the grief you feel as a young Black man knowing that any day, just walking down the street, a cop could just kill you, and odds are they’re just going to walk away free afterwards,” he said.

What’s the lasting impact of climate anxiety?

The study published by Card and his team, which included researchers from around Canada but was centred around SFU, was only a snapshot of provincial anxiety.

The data is useful for understanding how climate-related events impact mental health in near-real-time. But the researchers don’t want to stop there.

The project is an ongoing one, and Card said he is still working on data around the atmospheric river and the nearly half-billion dollars of insured damage it’s estimated to have caused.

“We’ve got a number of research papers under review and in process. This is really only a research area that’s beginning to open up,” Card said.

There are still unanswered questions he wants to explore around the lasting impact of a climate event—how the immediate anxiety from an event compares to a more ambient climate anxiety months later, for instance.

“Do people eventually return to a normal state after a big climate event? Does successive climate events … keep ratcheting up people’s climate anxieties?” Card said.

“Because of accelerating weather events due to climate change, the accelerated frequency of them, we do think that we’re going to see this kind of compounding effect. And so that’s a big part of the future research, is seeing the scale of that compounding effect.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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