The human cost of a warmer future

Coping with my anxiety about the climate crisis

Madison Edward-Wright, News Editor

This summer, I spent most of my time working and hiking. If I wasn’t running around helping a client find something at the pet store I worked at, I was running around the woods with a backpack full of snacks, coffee, and water. I ventured past the city of Montreal to McGill’s Gault Nature Reserve at Mont St-Hilaire or to Mont-Rigaud, close to the Ontario-Quebec border. For the few hours I was in the woods, I left my earphones in the car and shut my phone off so that I could enjoy the sounds of rustling leaves, streams, and the occasional birdsong.

One Tuesday toward the end of July, I was staring out the window at work planning my next excursion when I noticed a haze hanging in the sky. In fact, the sky was more than hazy: It looked smoky. I quickly realized that it was actual smoke, so thick that I could not make out the cars on the other side of the parking lot that were a mere 200 metres away from me. When I looked at the sun, I could barely tell where it was in the sky. It was like a fever dream. I stepped outside expecting to see a building on fire, but there were no flames—just heavy air, thick with smoke and the scent of fire. When I left that night, the haze had passed, but the moon was glowing a deep orange colour.

Later that night, my research revealed the source of the apocalyptic scene as the major forest fires raging across Canada. The moon was orange because the smoke particles blocked shorter wavelengths of light, like blue and green. This year, Canada experienced 6,224 wildfires between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15. The week of July 20 saw the highest number of active fires recorded in a week in 2021 since the start of Canada’s official fire season on April 28. The week I noticed the smoky sky, there were 738 active fires. In those seven days, 580.6 thousand hectares of land were burned.

What startled me was that these statistics represented wildfires in Canada in 2021 alone. As I reflected on just how much the natural world is suffering, I was seized by a strong sense of impending dread. That sense of dread made me extremely anxious, depressed even, about the future of our planet.

This anxiety was not entirely new to me. It was something I had felt for years, but had buried deep down because I didn’t want to deal with the reality of the ongoing climate crisis. After witnessing the effects of climate change first-hand, however, I understood I could no longer ignore what I was feeling. Throughout my journey of researching the climate crisis, I learned that my anxiety was warranted, and that I was not the only one experiencing it.

“For me, it is just kind of like this sense of impending doom every time I think about [the climate crisis],” said Emily Hardie, U0 Arts, in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

Hardie describes this feeling as difficult to confront, admitting she simply doesn’t know precisely how to deal with these feelings. Such sentiments, ranging from fear to anger, now have a name: "Eco-anxiety,” or "climate anxiety.”

Research into the phenomenon of eco-anxiety has revealed that an increasing number of people are experiencing it. A study conducted by researchers from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that in 2018, 29 per cent of Americans said they were “alarmed” by climate change, while another 30 per cent were “concerned.” Statistics on eco-anxiety in Canada are not yet available, but unofficial reports and articles show that many Canadians experience some form of distress.

Even worse, research on environmental degradation and climate change only confirms our fears—eco-anxiety does not stem from fake news or faulty science. Rather, the changes occurring around the globe are serious and potentially beyond our comprehension. Nigel Roulet, a professor of biogeosciences and chair of the Department of Geography at McGill, has spent the last 30 years of his career studying the interactions between various ecosystems, climate change, and land-use change. Though he says he has hope for the future, he worries about our ability to grasp the major overhauls required to address the climate crisis.

“I do not think people understand the magnitude of the problem that we are faced with,” Roulet said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Imagine if I said to you, ‘I am going to require you to, over your next 20 years, reduce your carbon footprint by 80 per cent.’ You might say, ‘Sure, I am keen and interested in making the planet a better place. I will try and do that.’ But an 80 per cent reduction in your carbon footprint is huge. I mean, that requires an incredible change in lifestyle.”

In the last century, humans have dramatically changed how we interact with the land. A major finding of Roulet’s research was that one of the largest factors in climate change was land-use change, because such changes can dramatically affect peat landscapes. These landscapes capture a huge amount of carbon, since the carbon in the decomposed plant matter is trapped by the peat.

Land-use change puts all this carbon at risk. As peatlands are cleared to make way for infrastructure such as roads and railways, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Of course, more carbon in the atmosphere traps heat and warms the atmosphere, which leads to more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and so the story goes. We know it well. There is no escaping the news cycle of headlines reporting on the most recent ecological disasters or meltdowns across the globe.

But many people don’t just worry about climate change—they already live with its effects. Melting ice levels in Canada are threatening Inuit communities’ ways of life, as traditional hunting and fishing on the ice becomes more and more dangerous. Other Northern communities around the world have been forced to adapt as well. Mette Bendixen, an associate professor of geography at McGill, explained that throughout her time researching Arctic coastal changes, she has witnessed local men—whose families have sustained themselves for generations by fishing off the coasts of Greenland—move to urban centres to look for less precarious work.

Changes that happen in the Arctic don’t stay in the Arctic, however. Rising sea levels will have dire consequences for the more than 600 million people who live in coastal regions across the globe—nearly 10 per cent of the world population. Future sea level projections estimate that a 0.5 metre increase in sea level would result in the flooding of approximately 24,000 square kilometres of coastal land, displacing many of these 600 million people.

But such changes might not be obvious to those living in wealthy countries with strong infrastructure or regions that are geographically insulated. I often think of how privileged I am to live in a part of Canada that is not as affected as other regions. I am anxious about climate change, but I haven’t had to evacuate my home or abandon my way of life because of it.

“It is interesting to think of the differences in how you and I, in a big city, experience climate change [compared to other less-developed places],” Bendixen said. “Being Danish and having lived there most of my life, it is not affecting me. I might experience it, but it’s not really affecting my life because I am rich and privileged.”

Over his thirty years working in the field of climate science and geography, Roulet has learned that climate change disproportionately affects those in developing countries. But at the same time, climate change solutions have historically not addressed the needs of developing countries. While rich countries have been able to industrialize by burning fossil fuels with few restrictions, developing countries now face outcry when they do the same. Roulet does not believe that restrictions that unfairly target developing countries will ultimately help solve the climate crisis.

“80 per cent or 70 per cent of the world’s population does not live the way most of us live in North America or in Western Europe,” Roulet said. “We have reaped the benefits of [industrialization]. We are wealthy nations, and as individuals we live very, very well. We cannot say to other countries, ‘You cannot develop because our carbon debt has been all used up.’ It is not equitable.”

So far, global attempts to solve climate change have failed. Take the 2015 Paris Agreement as an example. The treaty aimed to lower countries’ carbon emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, but most of the 196 countries who signed the agreement have failed to follow through on the commitments they made. In the wake of its failures, world leaders will meet again this November to discuss how to tackle climate change at the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021 (COP26), with the ultimate goal of keeping global warming as close to 1.5 degrees as possible.

I can’t help but find it frustrating that the leaders of our world don’t follow through on the promises they frame as “revolutionary.” Despite the fact that we need tangible systemic change, leaders seem content with creating plans that will inevitably be modified to match their actions, rather than drive their actions. The upcoming COP26 conference will be a test of world leaders’ commitments to limiting global warming and preserving the environment. I have to put faith in them because I don’t believe we have any other choice. Every year, we get closer to the point of no return—that is, the point when we will have destroyed so much of our planet that we won’t be able to regenerate what is left.

Others don’t even share my checkered optimism. Hardie, a member of Divest McGill—a student group that has been pushing for McGill to divest from the fossil fuel industry since 2012—is cynical about COP26’s prospects. To Hardie, COP26 will likely end up as another performative measure against climate change. Even protests don’t hold real weight if they aren’t followed up by concrete systemic and individual change.

“Personally, I am against any symbolic action towards the environment,” Hardie said. “I think that is very unproductive if it is not actually action-based [....] For example, Montreal had half a million people go to [the climate strike on Sept. 27, 2019]. I think that is a lot of people, but how many people are going to actually take action?”

I agree with Hardie’s emphasis on action. Nowadays, I strive for concrete action in addition to community organizing. I have reduced the quantity of meat I consume; I use a reusable water bottle and Tupperware for my lunches; I use public transit and carpool when I can. These are my little remedies, my own individual actions. It doesn’t feel like enough, and it can’t be enough without larger shifts. But they help me cope from day to day as I struggle with the prospect of an unlivable future. Still, unless we collectively start making changes to protect and improve our relationship with the environment, I know my anxiety will only keep rising.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that nearly 10 per cent of the population would be displaced if there was a 0.5 metre increase in sea level, according to some projections. In fact, nearly 10 per cent of the population live in coastal regions across the globe, but the projections did not predict all of them would be displaced. The Tribune regrets this error.

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor