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The far-reaching effects of climate change on health and anxiety

Young girl hugging a tree

COVID-19 has been top of mind since it first emerged in 2019, but with climate change, it’s not the only virus that should be of concern.

Climate change and health

According to infectious diseases physician and Sunnybrook Research Institute scientist Dr. Samira Mubareka, our changing environment has helped arboviruses (viruses transmitted through insects, such as West Nile) and their vectors (such as mosquitoes) to thrive.

“With climate change, we’re seeing a change in mosquito behaviour and even in mosquito populations themselves,” she says. “It’s opened up the possibility of new viruses and existing viruses to change their epidemiology.”

Longer, wetter and hotter summers have meant arboviruses and their carriers are able to multiply faster and live longer, she says. And with shorter, milder winters, mosquito vectors are overwintering more. She adds that vectors have more opportunities to feed and transmit viruses to other hosts, including humans, plus, with higher temperatures, vectors that used to only live near the equator are expanding their range and creeping north.

“We’re seeing more exotic mosquitoes that normally would not have been able to survive Canadian winters,” says the infectious diseases physician. “Some have been introduced into Southern Ontario.”

And it’s not just viruses that are on the rise, she says. Other pathogens, like the bacterium Borrelia, which can cause Lyme disease, have seen an increase in prevalence too.

“I’ve seen so much Lyme in the past year relative to the 10 years before,” she says.

Reflecting beyond infectious diseases, Dr. Mubareka points out that climate change has done more damage to our health than just increase the spread of pathogens.

In recent years, we’ve also seen negative impacts on cardiovascular health (the federal government estimates 15,300 premature deaths per year in Canada due to air pollution) and sudden death due to heat (British Columbia saw the deadliest weather event in Canadian history last summer, with 595 people killed by heat), to name a couple things.

“We are only scratching the surface. We really need to understand more,” says Dr. Mubareka.

The rise of climate change anxiety

As more work is done to unpack and address this growing problem, and as climate change becomes more visible and harder to ignore, more and more, climate change anxiety is becoming a topic of conversation.

A few years ago, Dr. Anthony Levitt, chief of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook, spoke briefly with the Globe and Mail about climate change anxiety.

“It got such traction,” he says of the interview. “I got emails and letters from all over the world asking about the subject.”

To better respond to those questions, Dr. Levitt conducted a survey in the United States and Canada to understand climate change anxiety and who it impacts most.

In general, he found that individuals who live in close proximity to events triggered by climate change, such as British Columbians who saw massive floods and numerous fires last year, were more likely to experience anxiety, and sometimes, even depression. Canadians, females and young people between 18 and 29 are also more vulnerable to climate change anxiety.

“They’re experiencing it, they’re seeing it, they’ve been educated in school about it,” says Dr. Levitt, explaining why young adults are feeling the pressures most. “And now, they’re getting into child rearing age; they’re seeing their children, and they’re thinking about what kind of a legacy they’re going to leave them.”

Like other forms of anxiety, Dr. Levitt says if climate change anxiety is affecting someone’s daily functioning, then they should seek help from a professional. However, he says we shouldn’t try to get rid of it altogether.

“There’s a functional part to anxiety. If you’re anxious about climate change, you’re going to mobilize your resources and do something about it. So, we don’t want to completely remove anxiety because that might remove some of the motivation,” he says. “However, we have to be careful. If you become too anxious, it becomes a barrier to effective problem solving, and you end up being paralyzed.”

What you can do

Dr. Levitt says the “antidote,” to both addressing climate change and to mitigating anxiety, is to take everyday action. Feeling that you are contributing to a solution has the dual job of helping the environment and of helping your symptoms of anxiety.

Dr. Mubareka practices this in her own life.

From biking more often to work, to eating less meat, to studying and educating about the complexities of climate change, she says, “I personally find doing something relieves my anxiety.”

And while she wants people to know how serious and multifaceted climate change is, rather than being alarmist, she says she always wants to emphasize what can be done.

“We have an opportunity right now to prevent the spread of emerging infections through mitigating climate change,” she says. “Climate change is very multilateral, very multisectoral, but that means even the small steps matter. We can all do our part.”

About the author

Kaitlin Jingco