Science·What on Earth?

UN report delves into how climate change is affecting mental health

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, the new IPCC report highlights the mental health dimension of climate change, and we look at the movement to protect the night sky.

Also: The movement to protect the night sky

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • IPCC report delves into how climate change is affecting mental health
  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the question of oil
  • Why some astronomers are trying to preserve the night sky

IPCC report delves into how climate change is affecting mental health

(Ben Nelms/CBC)

While the effects of climate disasters are piling up on people and communities, the damage goes well beyond physical destruction.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a sprawling report on the impacts, vulnerabilities and adaptation options of a warming planet. One of the things the report zoomed in on was research done over the past few years on how our mental health is suffering from climate change — whether we are witnessing it directly or not.

"Watching people experience the floods in British Columbia, watching people be evacuated from wildfire areas, all of those things take a toll on our mental health," said Sherilee Harper, lead author on the report's chapter on North America. 

"Seeing those images, seeing suffering, seeing infrastructure damage impacts our anxiety as well."

Harper is a professor at the University of Alberta and specializes in the link between climate change and health. She said growing research suggests the climate crisis is impacting mental health in three ways: it affects people directly when they experience floods, heat waves and other disasters; it affects people when their livelihoods are threatened; and it affects people who watch this misery unfolding on the news.

"The report shows for the first time, in an in-depth manner, how climate change is already impacting health in these different ways, but also how it's going to continue to do so into the future," Harper said.

These mental health challenges will not be felt equally. The IPCC points out that certain groups are more vulnerable — for instance, farming communities, whose livelihoods are directly threatened by extreme weather. Indigenous communities will also face greater challenges from the disruption to ecosystems they rely on for their food, culture and social ties.

Young people are especially vulnerable, as they face an increasingly uncertain future. In its summary for policymakers, the IPCC report said "mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, are expected to increase under further global warming in all assessed regions, particularly for children, adolescents, elderly and those with underlying health conditions."

Robert McLeman, an environmental studies professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and a lead author on the report's chapter on health and well-being, said health care systems need to start preparing for these challenges.

"There's growing evidence that younger people feel [climate change] as a source of anxiety, as a source of stress, as they look to the future and they start to worry about their own place within it," McLeman said.

What's the solution to all this? The obvious answer is to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. But even if the world can limit warming to 1.5 C — it's at about 1.2 C today — mental health challenges will likely grow and countries will have to adapt.

The IPCC suggests "improving surveillance, access to mental health care and monitoring of psychosocial impacts from extreme weather events." Research has also highlighted the various co-benefits of other adaptation plans on mental health. Implementing measures to hold back floods, for example, would improve the mental health of farmers. 

Just being outside in nature has been linked to better mental health in people, forming yet another incentive to protect and grow green spaces.

The mental health dimension speaks "to the underlying message that the time for talking about action on climate change has long passed," McLeman said. 

"It's yet another reason why we need to start working constructively and quickly to meet the targets under the Paris agreement that we've set for ourselves as a global community."

Inayat Singh

Reader feedback

Jennifer Tett wrote:

"In addition to finding alternate sources of power, we must also figure out ways to reduce our consumption. Computers that will last for 10+ years, clothing that stays in fashion for more than a year or two, cars and other technology that have a long life rather than the 'design for obsolescence.' Buying local rather than from the cheapest labour source. The list goes on….  

"We need more information and encouragement to have a sustainable attitude towards what living rich is. We need to be thinking about the whole cost (human, environmental, financial) and long-term consequences of whatever we buy."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! The latest UN climate report warns that now is the time for communities to prepare for climate change. What On Earth guest host Loren McGinnis finds out how Fort Simpson, N.W.T., is tackling the problem, months after the village flooded. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The Russian invasion and the question of oil

It's astounding how much Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began a week ago, has already changed the world. The human cost is obviously the most urgent consideration. But in trying to persuade Russia to cease its assault, Western countries have not only assembled a series of crushing sanctions but also reconsidered their longstanding reliance on Russian resources, especially oil and natural gas.

Germany, for example, cancelled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have carried Russian fuel to Western Europe, and is looking to accelerate its goal of reaching 100 per cent renewable energy from 2040 to 2035. On the face of it, it would seem that Russia's military aggression could inadvertently hasten the carbon transition. But not so fast. While most countries acknowledge that moving toward renewable energy is a worthy goal, there are more pressing needs – namely, affordable fuels in a time of global inflation.

To that end, Germany is considering building a couple of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in order to receive gas from other sources, and it may burn coal for energy for longer than originally planned. Meanwhile, the U.S. and allies in Europe and Asia have announced they will release some of their oil reserves to counter a supply disruption from Russia — and temper the price at the pumps. It's foolish to make predictions about the outcome of this conflict, but in the last week we've seen how quickly countries can recalibrate their energy needs if they feel morally compelled to do so.

(Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The peatlands in the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the most effective carbon sinks in the world. But as this arresting New York Times story shows, protecting them is no small task for this poor African country. 
  • Road rage sometimes bleeds onto social media in the form of threats against cyclists. One fed-up cyclist is fighting back by contacting the posters — and has had success getting many of the threatening posts removed. Here's how.
  • In a net-zero future, where do gas utilities go? Three Massachusetts utilities are testing out the idea of building a network of pipes for geoexchange (also known as geothermal) heating alongside their existing gas pipes.
  • Letenda, a Quebec-based builder of buses, has unveiled a line of electric buses designed for maximal effectiveness in cold temperatures, an environment known to sap battery capacity.

Is the night sky part of our natural environment? Some astronomers say yes

(T. Hansen/IAU OAE/Creative Commons)

Samantha Lawler walked out of her farmhouse in Edenwold, about 30 kilometres northeast of Regina, one morning and looked up at the sky.

The astronomer noticed a slow movement of light among the stars. Then another, and another. She eventually stopped counting. Lawler knew all too well what those faux-stars were: satellites.

"I saw a dozen in, like, a minute of looking up," she said. "I mean, it's really bad. It's quite noticeable."

Astronomers around the world are concerned about a handful of commercial companies — chiefly SpaceX — proposing to flood low-Earth orbit with tens of thousands of these satellites. There's also the risk of satellites crashing into one another and adding to the space junk already in orbit.

All this, astronomers say, is a threat to the preservation of our night sky.

As a result, on Feb. 3, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced the formation of the Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference. Their goal is clear: to work with industry leaders, amateur astronomers, Indigenous groups and scientists around the world to protect the sanctity of the night sky.

So far, there has been little to no disagreement between astronomers and industry leaders. But that could change.

"[Companies are] there to turn a profit," said Connie Walker, co-director of the new centre and an astronomer with the National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab). 

"But I do think we have their ear, especially at this point in time. And I do think there is authentic good will in trying to do as much as they can. But that has limits."

The night sky has been a driving force in human history. We used the stars to navigate, to help us decide when to plant and to record time. We tracked the planets and noted when a new "star" (a supernova explosion) appeared in the heavens. 

But nowadays, the Milky Way is something most people have only seen in photographs or on TV. A 2018 study found that the Milky Way is hidden from roughly one-third of humanity, including 80 per cent of North Americans.

Satellites are responsible for so much in our day-to-day lives, from global positioning systems that help us get around to weather surveillance. 

According to the European Space Agency's Space Debris Office, as of Jan. 5, there were roughly 7,840 satellites in orbit, with about 5,100 still operational.

But there's another issue that concerns Lawler, one that doesn't involve the night sky. Starlink satellites, which are providing broadband internet access to rural locations, have a life expectancy of roughly five years, after which they will be de-orbited and burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

"If you do the calculation, they want to replace 42,000 satellites every five years," said Lawler, who wrote an assessment on constellations for the federal government. "That means they'll be de-orbiting 23 a day. When you just look at the mass of them, they're like car-sized, right? So, that comes to six tonnes, of aluminum mostly, that will be added to the upper atmosphere every single day."

Why does that matter?

In the fight against climate change, the injection of alumina particles into the upper atmosphere has been proposed to help cool the planet, but the wider implications are not yet well understood.

"Low-Earth orbit is not legally considered an environment," Lawler said. "So nobody's looking at this."

Nicole Mortillaro

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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