3-6 Chapter 3. How Does Addressing Climate Change Make Us Healthier?
Art by Ely Astorga for ArtistsForClimate.org
In order to help you have conversations with your students about how they are feeling about the existential threats of climate change, we recommend several additional resources to consult. Before feeling ready to create a safe space where students can explore issues of climate change, you should feel supported and informed with the help of expert voices on the subject. Here is a list of both theory and practices from some of the leading voices in this field:
- Jennifer Atkinson – (Climate grief podcast) – Facing It
- Sophy Banks, Transition Town: What is ‘Inner Transition’
- Dr. Avivit Cherrington – Global Education (Episode 17): How Children Experience Hope
- Leslie Davenport – Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change
- Bob Doppelt – Transformational Resilience
- Katie Hayes – 5 Ways Communities are Coping with Climate Anxiety
- Rob Hopkins with Lise Van Susteren – Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder & The Imagination
- Renee Lertzman – (TedTalk) How to turn climate anxiety into action.
- Panu Pikhala – Climate Anxiety
- Sarah Jaquette Ray – Teaching Climate Change.
- Espen Stoknes – How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming.
- Jennifer Atkinson – Emotional Impact of Climate Change
- Climate Therapy Alliance – Emotional Resilience Toolkit for Climate Work
- Leslie Davenport – Climate Psychologist on using guided imagery
- New Zealand Ministry of Education (2020). Climate Change Wellbeing Guide (second PDF listed)
- Panu Pikhala – Spectrum of ecological emotions activity
- David Selby and Fumiyo Kagawa – Unleashing Blessed Unrest – Climate Change Despair and Empowerment
- Dr. Lise Van Susteren’s Resources: Climate for Health
- Anuradha Rao – One Colour People of Colour Protecting our Planet
- Harriet Rohmer – Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who are Helping to Protect our Environment
- Professor Fikile Nxumalo
The climate is changing at a rapid rate, and this change continues to have implications for human health in a profound way. It is important to consider human health as more than simply the absence of disease; human health is a multidimensional framework that encompasses mental, physical and emotional well-being as equal contributors. Climate change has both direct and indirect implications for mental health and psychosocial well-being. Overall, recent studies have found that Canadians are increasingly experiencing mental health conditions and symptoms related to the effects of climate change. As well, in terms of the impacts on physical health, “climate change can affect human health directly and indirectly through changes in the ranges of disease vectors (e.g., mosquitoes), water-borne pathogens, water quality, air quality, and food availability and quality” (IPCC, 2001). In order to properly address the urgency of climate change in Canadian classrooms within a health and well-being framework, it is important to understand the impact of climate change on all facets of human health.
Educating students about the health-related effects of climate change is critical due to the close link between comprehending and acting on climate change. Psychological Research and Climate Change showed that people are better able and more motivated to act on climate change solutions when they can relate information and solutions to their own health and well-being or local environment.
There are many additional factors that can affect an individual’s or region’s susceptibility to the negative physical effects of climate change including: geographic location, the presence of pre-existing illness or disability, and inequalities (socioeconomic, demographic, education level, economic status and age).
The Public Health Agency of Canada has classified physical health risks as a result of climate change into five categories: temperature-related morbidity and mortality, weather-related natural hazards, air quality, water- and food-borne contamination, and health effects of exposure to ultraviolet rays. Some health effects can be directly linked to concrete climate events like natural disasters (droughts, floods, storms), but other changes are more gradual. (Health Canada)
Temperature-related morbidity and mortality: periods of higher than normal heat and the numbers of days per year above 35 degrees Celsius are multiplying and, on this trajectory, will continue to do so throughout the next century, causing:
- respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses
- increased occupational health risks
Weather-related natural hazards: climate change is increasing both the severity and frequency of natural hazards throughout Canada which can cause:
- damaged public health infrastructure
- injuries and illnesses
- social and mental stress
- increased occupational health hazards
- population displacement
Air quality issues: cars, planes and industrial facilities are causing air pollution and it is being intensified by warmer temperatures, causing:
- increased exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollutants and allergens
- respiratory diseases
- cancer, heart attacks, strokes
- other cardiovascular diseases.
Water-borne contamination and food safety: climate change causes increased precipitation, storm surges, and water temperatures which can contribute to flooding and runoff that can spread sewage, chemicals, diseases, bacteria, and toxic algae. Climate change can also put food safety at risk due to changing environmental and social conditions that increase the likelihood of contamination.
Health effects due to exposure of ultraviolet rays: Increased UV exposure poses a high risk and has the potential to cause:
- skin damage and increased risk of skin cancer
- disturbed immune function
Mental health is influenced in many ways by climate change, both directly and indirectly, and it can have both acute and chronic impacts on human health. Chronic mental health impacts can be less obvious than in physical illness, but no less important. Individuals may experience fear and feelings of helplessness that can manifest into serious mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, grief, substance abuse disorders, and others.
Acute mental health consequences often occur as a reaction to a natural disaster which has caused damage to infrastructure, food systems, medical services, transportation, home and belongings, or loved ones. Natural disasters can cause or exacerbate stress, and the psychological effects can be profound and long-lasting.
Chronic mental health consequences can occur as a result of gradual climate changes. Feelings of powerlessness, despair, and constant worry about the future of the planet, one’s own health, and that of future generations have been termed “eco-anxiety.”
According to Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, both acute and chronic mental health effects can include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Compounded stress
- Loss of personal and occupational identity
- Feelings of fatalism and helplessness
- Trauma and shock
Click here for an in-depth look at the specific impacts of climate change on mental health.
It is crucial to be informed about and cognizant of students’ mental health when addressing climate change in the classroom. There are clear risks associated with catastrophizing the problem and leaving students feeling helpless or solutionless. However, when the emphasis is placed on taking action against climate change, the impacts on mental health can be positive rather than negative. Encouraging students to make lifestyle choices that benefit the environment or taking collective action can curtail some of the negative effects of climate change. According to the American Psychological Association, “climate solutions not only improve the quality of air and food but also enhance our cognitive abilities and strengthen our mental health.”
Learn more about the relationship between Mental Health and Climate Change by reading
This chapter offers 3 different structured and scaffolded inquiries to support ideas associated with “How Does Addressing Climate Change Make Us Healthier?” Each of the 3 inquiries begin with a provocation followed by numerous strategies and examples. These explorations can be completed in their entirety as stated, however, because we know inquiry is an organic and fluid process based on student input, educators may wish to take parts of each of the 3 ideas presented and even adapt, modify or replace what’s suggested to create their own inquiry with their class. It is therefore suggested that teachers review the whole chapter first in order to determine and plan what works best with their particular group of learners.