Tag Archives: climate change

Climate and Mental Health Series in the Toronto Star

Earlier this week — Sunday and Monday — the Toronto Star ran several stories of mine that draw a direct link between climate change and mental health.

OuchterlonyThe first story, which to my pleasant surprise was run above the fold on A1 on Sunday, starts with Ontario coroner and former palliative care physician David Ouchterlony, who says his anxiety and despair over the growing climate threat has affected him more deeply — emotionally and psychologically — than the years he spent caring for dying patients or investigating causes of death. But Ouchterlony isn’t alone. The mental health impacts of climate change, particularly on those most vulnerable to it, is expected to grow and could become a serious public health crisis that we’re not prepared for and which, in Canada, is not even on the radar. This article provides an overview of the issue, how the American Psychological Association is taking it seriously, and how its Canadian counterpart and public healthy agencies in Canada aren’t really paying attention to this sleeper of an issue. Be sure to also read Ouchterlony’s own words in this thoughtful response to an e-mail I sent him last month asking: How is something like concern over climate change different from the kinds of feelings you have as a coroner, or had as a palliative care physician?

The same day the Star also ran a story focused on farmers, and how crazy and more extreme weather events linked to climate instability are making an already tough job more difficult. Farmers are a group with some of the highest rates of depression and suicide, and the fear is that climate change is going to make the situation worse for their mental health. Again, there’s not a lot of research in Canada looking at this issue, so these people are largely struggling silently.

Prof_Ashlee_Cunsolo_WilloxFinally, on Monday the Star ran my article focused on climate change and its psychological impacts on northern and remote aboriginal communities. The story leans heavily on the pioneering research of Cape Breton University professor Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, who has spent considerable time over the past few years visiting Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, and documenting how populations there are coping mentally with the changes around them and how it’s impacting their way of life. Canada’s north is being disproportionately affected by climate change and these indigenous communities are on the front lines. They need our attention and our help.

The package touches on other vulnerable groups, such as scientists/environmentalists, the poor and elderly, and those directly affected by extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes. This last group I would categorize as sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The other groups are struggling with a more anticipatory, existential kind of anxiety about climate change that can fuel hopelessness, despair, guilt and depression. Some might group this as “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” which I think is a useful term. A person quoted in one of my stories called it “the slow drip of climate change.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 6.23.37 PMAs expected, some have commented that the series is alarmist and will only serve to feed anxieties. If telling the truth is alarmist, then so be it. Others will say I dwelled only on the problem and didn’t get deep enough into the discussion of how to bolster mental resilience. I should have focused more on positive developments, emerging new technologies, and adaptation as a way to short-circuit anxieties. I agree, that discussion is needed and that discussion will come. But first I had to identify that the mental health challenge is real — that it exists and has the potential to grow much worse as evidence of climate change becomes more apparent in our daily lives.

The first step to finding solutions is admitting we have a problem, and while only a small slice of the population suffers psychologically from what might flippantly be called the climate blues, I would argue that it’s a process we all have to go through if we are to become — emerge — more mentally resilient to the changes in our surrounding environment and how they affect our lives.

So let’s have the discussion. Let’s recognize the problem. Let’s devote resources to research. Let’s create a plan and the necessary support as part of municipal, provincial and federal adaptation measures. Both the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Psychological Association need to develop a position, remembering it’s both a public health concern and something that can affect the country’s economic productivity.

Finally, feel free to reach out if you have a story to share.

Fiscal, climate cliffs lead us to the same place

Sitting at a café in Washington, D.C., surrounded by local newspapers and watching a news channel on a wall-mounted television, you’d never know there was an international climate conference being held 11,000 kilometres away.

The talk here is fiscal cliff. There could be a 24-hour channel dedicated to it.

The talk in Doha, Qatar, is climate cliff. Try getting a 24-hour news channel to make more than a brief mention of it.

Indeed, much of what coverage there has been is about the irony of holding the 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference in a country with the world’s largest greenhouse-gas footprint, and in an oil-rich region expected to get pummeled severely by climate change.

The Middle East is already one of the hottest spots on the planet, so the added average rise of 2 degrees C expected by 2050 will make the heat that much more oppressive. It doesn’t get much rain to begin with, but it is expected to get even less over the years. Sand storms are likely to become more frequent and destructive.

And fresh water? Qatar is already one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with underground aquifers expected to be depleted within two or three decades.

People need to drink. Crops need watering. Lacking drinking water and food, folks start to get angry. As if the Middle East wasn’t volatile enough.

“For a region that is already vulnerable to many non-climate stresses, climate change and its potential physical and socioeconomic impacts are likely to exacerbate this vulnerability, leading to large scale instability,” according to a 2010 U.N. report on the Middle East and North Africa.

“Climate change is likely to act as a risk multiplier, aggravating water scarcity. Water scarcity on the other hand threatens food security by reducing agricultural productivity, as well as hindering human health and economic development.”

So what does Qatar and its neighbours see as the short-term solution to the water crisis? They have grand plans to use more solar and nuclear power, but the reality is that they’re burning more fossil fuels – a combination of oil and natural gas – to power the large-scale desalination facilities needed to turn sea water into water for irrigating crops or drinking.

In other words, the rising need for water desalination because of the impacts of climate change is leading to more use of the fossil fuels that spew heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s what one could call a positive feedback loop.

Saudi Arabia is arguably the worst offender on this front, as Canadian economist and author Jeff Rubin likes to point out. In his latest book, The End of Growth, he writes that the Saudis currently burn more than three million barrels of oil daily to meet their own energy needs, and nearly half – yes, half—of that oil is used for facilities that take salt out of seawater.

And let’s not forget all that salt has to go somewhere. Right now, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are dumping the salt back into the Persian Gulf. It’s estimated that Qatar alone by 2020 could be dumping the equivalent of 4,600 shipping containers full of pure salt back into Gulf waters – daily – increasing brine concentrations in an already stressed body of water.

Of course, the Middle East isn’t the only region that’s challenged. It’s why these annual U.N. climate conferences have increasingly drawn more business interest over the years.

Tackling problems like pollution, greenhouse-gas emissions and water scarcity will require hundreds of billions of dollars in capital, and most governments are tapped out.

The private sector is being looked to both as the source and funder of energy-efficient, low-carbon solutions. It’s why healing the climate is a massive economic opportunity, or as U.K. billionaire Richard Branson likes to say: “Saving the world is good for business.”

And big business should be at the table. According to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, there are 80,000 transnational corporations worldwide but 40 per cent of their total value is represented by just 147 of them – or one-fifth of 1 per cent.

These same companies want certainty, which is why more than 100 of the world’s largest corporations – including Shell, Swiss Re, Unilever and Statoil – have used the Doha conference to call on all governments to get on with creating a global price on carbon.

These same companies are also increasingly realizing that the natural world around them – what are often called ecological services, from an economic perspective – make their existence possible.

“They are not islands: corporations operate within a vast economic system that includes a multitude of players and variables,” the authors of the Worldwatch report emphasized. “Any vision of a sustainable future must include full recognition of the role that transnational corporations play in shaping the planet’s human and ecological destiny.”

Technology won’t solve all of our problems. It goes hand-in-hand with changes in behaviour. In many cases, whether talking about countries or businesses or consumers, it comes down to simply wasting less and being smarter about how we make and consume “stuff.”

Strangely enough, this all ties directly to the fiscal cliff issue, as wasting less, being smarter, embracing efficiency and improving productivity all help sustain economic prosperity. Failing to do all of this only pushes us that much closer to the edge of both cliffs.

The climate cliff and fiscal cliff ultimately lead us to the same place. One is Butch Cassidy; the other is the Sundance Kid. They both take the plunge together. Ignoring one to focus on the other is pointless, really, whether you’re sitting in Doha, Washington or Ottawa.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

International Energy Agency says current pace of clean energy development won’t cut it to avoid worst of climate impacts

My latest Clean Break column:

Tyler Hamilton

Climate-change skeptics like to call environmentalists “alarmists” because of their call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The skeptics say the science is too uncertain, that there’s no rush to act, and those who argue otherwise are sanctimonious lefties out of touch with reality.

For them it’s drill baby, drill.

It’s a convenient way of dismissing bad news, which is why it’s important when traditionally conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency weigh in on the issue with their own call for accelerated action.

This week, the Paris-based agency with an oil-soaked history said the world, if it has any hope of keeping the average rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees C, needs to double its rate of spending on clean-energy infrastructure between now and 2020.

It goes on to say that if controlling carbon emissions is truly a priority, the world needs to spend $36 trillion (U.S.) between now and 2050 on low-carbon technologies, on top of the $100 trillion or so needed under a business-as-usual scenario.

“This is the equivalent of $130 per person every year,” said the agency, pointing out that the spending should be considered an investment rather than an expense. “Every additional dollar invested can generate three dollars in future fuel savings by 2050.”

The clean energy technologies we require already exist, the agency’s executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, pointed out. Offshore wind power, concentrated solar power and carbon capture and storage were cited by the agency as the technologies with the most potential but the least traction.

“It’s there and we’re not using it,” she lamented, at the same time urging governments to wake up to the “dangers” of complacency. “The evidence of climate change, if anything, has gotten stronger. At the same time, it has fallen further down the political agenda.”

The fact investment is nowhere near what’s needed is reason for concern, she added. On our current investment path, global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to nearly double by 2050.

“Are we on track to reach out 2-degree goal? No, we aren’t,” she said bluntly. “Our ongoing failure to realize the full potential of clean energy technology and tapping energy efficiency is alarming.”

It bears emphasizing: these are not the words of Greenpeace or Al Gore or David Suzuki; these are the words of a 38-year-old international organization whose original mandate, and the reason for its creation, was to monitor and manage global oil markets in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

The International Energy Agency has until the past few years placed energy security and economic development well ahead of environmental protection, and it has been repeatedly accused of having a fossil-fuel bias while underestimating the potential of renewable energy.

But these days it’s singing a different tune. Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist, has been quite frank over the past three years about what lies ahead. Commenting on global CO2 emissions data last month, Birol said the trend is “perfectly in line” with a temperature increase of 6 degrees C by 2050. That, he added, “would have devastating consequences for the planet.”

Alarmist, granola-munching tree hugger!

Perhaps this puts into perspective why so many environmental groups and members of the general public are concerned about projects such as the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway oil pipeline projects.

The companies behind them aren’t investing billions of dollars for infrastructure that will only be needed temporarily. They expect a payback, and that means keeping the infrastructure flowing with oil at high capacity for at least the next half century. The same thinking applies to coal-fired power plants built today.

“Fossil fuels remain dominant and demand continues to grow, locking in high-carbon infrastructure,” according to the energy agency. “The investments made today will determine the energy system that is in place in 2050.”

That’s what many people are worried about, and not just environmentalists. They know that the decisions we make today will have a profound impact on the quality of life of our children and their children tomorrow.

Some, including certain federal cabinet ministers, may deem that radical. Most common sense folk would call it risk management.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

National Academy of Sciences blames media for climate confusion

Here’s a nice little nugget from a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (hat tip to Joe Romm):

Most people rely on secondary sources for information, especially the mass media; and some of these sources are affected by concerted campaigns against policies to limit CO2 emissions, which promote beliefs about climate change that are not well-supported by scientific evidence. U.S. media coverage sometimes presents aspects of climate change that are uncontroversial among the research community as being matters of serious scientific debate. Such factors likely play a role in the increasing polarization of public beliefs about climate change, along lines of political ideology, that has been observed in the United States.

The 50 “most prolific” writers on climate change in 2010, including me? Globe and Mail, meanwhile, let’s coverage fall by half

I was surprised to find myself on a list from Daily Climate that ranks those journalists around the world who best covered climate change issues in 2010. My inclusion was based on stories I wrote for the Toronto Star, and according to the list I wrote 35 stories for the year, giving me a rank of 46th — far from leader Andrew Revkin, environmental blogger/reporter extraordinaire from the New York Times, who topped the list with 146 stories. Frankly, I don’t feel I cover climate change enough, and I wonder if my blog posts were mistakenly included. I’m not an environmental reporter per se, though my focus on green energy and clean technologies obviously gives me grounds to write frequently about a broad range of environmental issues, including climate change, which occupies my mind daily. I’m happy to be on the list, but what’s disappointing is the overall results, as reporting dropped 22 per cent in 2010 compared to 2009. Daily Climate, however, singled out the New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press and the London Guardian for keeping most active on the issue. At the same time, other papers have dropped the ball, including Canada’s Globe and Mail, which let its coverage fall by 51 per cent. Shame.