How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

U of T political science professors explain how fossil-fuel reliance perpetuates itself

How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

What is the fractal carbon trap, and how can the concept guide policy in reducing reliance on fossil fuels? Dr. Steven Bernstein and Matthew Hoffmann, professors at U of T’s Department of Political Science, published a paper in Nature Climate Change on how their concept can guide decarbonization.

The fractal carbon trap is a two-part metaphor which explains the difficulties of introducing sustainable technologies into society. The term ‘fractal’ refers to the complex nature of the carbon system. The ‘trap’ is created by the fractal nature of the system. When it comes to changing the system, there is a threshold point in the reduction of fossil-fuel use that must be crossed. Below that threshold point, any beneficial changes will be swallowed by the re-assertive forces of the system — this is the trap. However, above that threshold point, beneficial changes will be amplified by the systemic forces.

A local example of the fractal carbon trap at work is the Ontario government’s cancellation of the electric vehicle rebate program. Incentivizing the use of electric vehicles was a way of interrupting the system, but the political ideologies and economic concerns of those in power pushed back against earlier progress.

This paper is an introduction to their much larger project on analyzing climate politics and decarbonization, which is the reduction of fossil-fuel dependence. Bernstein and Hoffmann explained to The Varsity what the trap is and what needs to be done in order to change the future of climate politics.

Why there is no singular, effective decarbonization policy

The concept of the trap helps to address limitations on the road to decarbonization — that is, the process of minimizing the role of fossil energy in the fractal. When it comes to big-picture climate politics — those on an international scale — Bernstein argued that the problem lies not with the trap itself, but rather with the framework in which the climate crisis is often thought of.

Much like a mathematical fractal, the carbon fractal has many levels and layers which can be exploited to further decarbonization. However, as long as policymakers and governments are hung up on collective problem-solving, climate action will continue to be bogged down. Leveraging the multilevel nature of the fractal metaphor allows for many possible positive interventions to push climate action over the threshold.

With all this in mind, it’s only natural to wonder what a good policy would look like. There is no singular, agreed-upon policy plan for the climate crisis and, upon reading this paper, it becomes evident that the expectation of such is unrealistic.

Hoffmann argued that “the key to success is thinking about the interdependencies across the domestic and global, between local and national, and thinking about how you can generate or catalyze broad transformation.”

“The reciprocity ideas, the worrying about enforcement and monitoring is a holdover from the older way of thinking about the way climate politics works as a global collective problem.” Understanding how to successfully protect and implement individual policies is equally as important as setting goals for overarching policy plans.

One of the main things that Hoffman and Bernstein’s project will attempt to answer is the question of whether or not the threshold point for the fractal carbon system is too high —  that is, if it’s even possible to reach the point of positive reinforcement. In terms of this concern, both Bernstein and Hoffmann are generally optimistic about the progress being made to surpass that threshold point as more climate policies, such as  the carbon tax, become more common.

As more people like Bernstein and Hoffmann work at the problem, the tides may be able to shift, and the way the climate crisis is thought of may transform to help break free of the trap.

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Professor Danny Harvey on individual action at Science for Peace event

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Though the bulk of the damaging effects of the climate crisis are decades away, it is already “an emergency,” said Dr. Danny Harvey, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto, in a keynote speech.

“The time we have left is very short,” he continued, “compared to the time required to take the actions needed to avert otherwise inevitable catastrophic consequences.”

Harvey was speaking at a forum held by Science for Peace on January 14. The event was free and open to the public, attracting almost 200 attendees to Innis Town Hall.

What society needs to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations

Discussing solutions to the crisis, Harvey said, “We have to change the entire energy system. And not just that, we have to change social norms and values and the way people think, and that’s perhaps even harder… In fact, in many respects, it’s already too late.”

Displaying graphs of industrial carbon dioxide emissions in the past decades, Harvey pointed out that despite discussions of regulations and solutions, emission levels have maintained a steep and steady increase.

Harvey spoke about the need to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations and, ultimately, the climate. He discussed the need to decrease net emissions to zero in order to keep warming to below two degrees. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, this must occur by 2050. While a zero fossil fuel emission target will likely not be reached for a long time, negative emissions, such as reforestation, building up soil carbon, or directing capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide can be used to compensate for emissions.

Reduced costs and advancements in wind and solar energy will also help the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. According to Harvey, major reforms of the electricity system are required to completely adopt clean energy. From an engineering standpoint, the required technology is well on its way, and the changes may be attainable within 30 or 40 years.

Harvey also pointed out the need to change our current economy and industrial production process, but noted that this will be a complicated process that will also require behavioural shifts away from current mindsets of consumption and unlimited growth.

The importance of individual action

Whereas issues of energy and the economy largely involve systemic changes, individual action is also crucial, according to Harvey.

Diets, in particular, account for a significant fraction of global emissions, he explained. A 2018 research study has shown that meat consumption is disproportionately responsible for these emissions, compared to other sources of food.

Sustainable solutions such as clean energy still require resources — thus, our individual decisions to reduce consumption, purchase products to last in the long term, and use resources efficiently, should work in conjunction with systemic changes, and further reduce our environmental impact.

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Dr. Dan Weaver on spending the Global Climate Strike answering questions in the classroom

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Thousands of climate activists, including University of Toronto students, skipped their lectures to rally at Queen’s Park during the Global Climate Strike on September 27, demanding government action against the climate crisis.

But what happened to the U of T students who went to their lectures and classes?

Dr. Dan Weaver, an assistant professor at the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences at UTSC, recalled teaching a first-year class that day in a Twitter thread in December.

For the students who attended, he turned his lecture into a question-and-answer period to address climate crisis denial.

Climate crisis denial refers to being doubtful of the overwhelming scientific consensus and implications of the climate crisis. A recent survey by The Angus Reid Institute found that 10 per cent of Canadians believe that the climate crisis is simply a theory, and 20 per cent think that the crisis is a natural occurrence, devoid of human contributions.

Events preceding Weaver’s lecture

Weaver and colleagues signed an open letter to U of T to have class officially cancelled on September 27 in order to allow for students to attend the climate strike. Despite this request being denied, professors were instructed to not penalize students of their absence.

Weaver took this opportunity to initiate a class discussion on climate crisis denial, since he inferred that in this sample of  students, there would be climate crisis deniers present.

Speaking with The Varsity, Weaver recalled: “It was a very quiet class to begin with, very unsure whether they can ask, what they can ask, [and] what would my reaction be.” Weaver did not criticize any students for their views, but rather welcomed their questions and answered their inquiries with research-based evidence.

He continued by explaining that, as an instructor in an educational role, “What I can contribute from the classroom is an opportunity to engage with the science of the issue, and in particular with an audience that hasn’t had the opportunity most likely to talk to someone in the field directly.”

Engaging students and encouraging them to ask questions

Weaver evaluated the impact of his efforts by the frequency and type of questions he received over the course of the semester. “Because when someone continues to come back and ask follow-up questions, they are now intellectually engaged.”

From his viewpoint, “I already won: they are thinking critically.”

“Some people who are very passionate about this or other issues are much too quick to put down people of the ‘wrong opinion,’” noted Weaver, “and tell them to believe [and] get on board. That is the wrong approach.”

“There is a lot to be gained by giving people the opportunity to just ask questions in an honest and sincere way, and I think that is critical and often missing.”

Breaking down three common questions asked by climate crisis deniers

One of the main reasons for climate crisis denial is that some deniers don’t trust the consensus “that [the] climate is changing, and we are the cause, because of [information from] computer models,” Weaver explained.

Climate modelling utilizes mathematical computer programming to predict, to its best ability, natural and human impacts on the progression of climate change based on atmospheric, land, ocean, and sea level measurements.

Weaver continued, “We have teams… across at least a dozen countries doing it independently and coming to the same results… reproducing past climates and making predictions about where things are going.”

Another common reason promoting climate crisis denial is that “the narrative that climate change is entirely controlled by the output of the sun.” This view is promoted by the Canadian non-governmental organization Friends of Science Society — which Weaver said is one of “the world leaders in climate skepticism.”

Weaver countered their belief that, as he described it “The sun is a primary driver of [the changing] climate.” Weaver explained, “[The sun] is not the only one that controls it; it is a lot more complicated than that — that narrative sells a very simple answer to a very complicated question.”

Weaver continued, “If we had no atmosphere, the sun would still warm the planet, but the overall average temperature of the planet would be below freezing… The atmosphere is very important for moderating climate.”

In an email to The Varsity, the Friends of Science Society falsely disputed Weaver’s characterization of the organization. “Friends of Science Society sees the sun as the main direct and indirect driver of climate change, not carbon dioxide from human industry,” it wrote. “Friends of Science does acknowledge that humans contribute nominally to climate change, and CO2 emissions have a nominal role in that.”

The society’s position that humans have a small impact on the climate crisis contradicts the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report, it is “categorical in its conclusion: climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.”

A related common question from climate crisis deniers is, “Are we really having an impact, or is it all natural variability?” Addressing this, Weaver noted that “the climate naturally has variability and trends associated with it,” and these trends have been tracked, such as the measurements of the output of the sun during its 11-year solar cycle.

Weaver explained, “If you have an 11-year cycle and you think that climate is being driven entirely by the sun… logically then you expect to see this 11-year cycle in the climate going up and down, tracking with the sun.”

“And [then] we look at the data — is that actually what is happening in the climate? No, it’s not — there has to be more going on.”

Resources for understanding research on the changing climate

Weaver suggested the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Global Climate Change website as a resource to learn about the physical implications of the climate crisis. It provides information about the current state of the planet, including current measurements of carbon dioxide, global temperature, ice sheet melting, and sea levels.

Additionally, Weaver recommend looking at  the Climate Lab Book, a blog maintained by climate scientists featuring data visualizations of weather and climate patterns.

For discussions regarding climate crisis denial led by credible climate scientists, consider the blog RealClimate. If you prefer alternatives to blog platforms, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, engages with the public on Twitter and YouTube to discuss climate crisis denial.

“The best resource if you are a U of T student is probably to go talk to a faculty member involved,” noted Weaver. “You have that privilege that most people don’t have.”

Letter to the Editor: On the misleading definition of greenwashing

Re: “The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis”

Letter to the Editor: On the misleading definition of greenwashing

The article titled “The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis” published on November 24 in the Arts & Culture section gives a misleading definition of greenwashing. The author defines greenwashing as “people who jump on the climate crisis bandwagon, hoping to benefit from the environmental movement without any intention of protecting the environment.” 

The correct definition of greenwashing refers to when a company markets itself, or a particular product, as being ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green,’ when in reality, it is not. Greenwashing is a tactic used by corporations to specifically target environmentally-conscious consumers. 

This definition of greenwashing is supported by several outlets including Scientific American, Investopedia, The Guardian, and also peer-reviewed articles in both scientific journals, and business ethics journals. The author’s mistake lies in how they placed their definition in the context of the consumer instead of the corporation. 

Greenwashing was first coined by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in response to hotels that claimed they were environmentally friendly because they gave guests the option to not have their towels washed every day. 

Westerveld claimed that this tricked guests into thinking the hotel was environmentally conscious when it was just saving money. The irony is that it was still polluting in other ways — for example with the detergent it used to wash the towels. 

Another example of greenwashing is the marketing of compostable takeout containers over traditional plastic ones: this ‘compostable’ material is only compostable if the municipality has the industrial infrastructure to do so. Toronto does not. Every compostable container you’ve used in Toronto goes straight in the trash. Restaurants may tout the use of these containers as being better than the actually recyclable plastic alternative, tricking consumers into thinking they are making an eco-conscious choice by eating at that restaurant.

Later in the article, the author re-defines greenwashing as “when the pigment of our green hands washes off in the privacy of our own economic, social, and political decisions.” Again, this is misleading. Greenwashing is performed by corporations, not consumers. Consumers do not benefit by greenwashing — they are harmed by it. 

There are also additional issues with the article unrelated to incorrect definitions. Namely, referring to the climate crisis in the same manner as a sports team — as the author does when they refer to the “climate crisis bandwagon” — downplays the severity of the issue, and may even deter others from participating in climate crisis mitigation by making them feel unwelcome if they are newcomers to the movement. The climate crisis is not, and should never be, an exclusive movement. 

Clara Thaysen is a second-year Ecology & Evolutionary Biology graduate student. 

Disclosure: Thaysen previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Associate Science Editor.

U of T scientists sign open letter declaring climate emergency

Letter outlines where action can be taken, while four researchers share perspectives with The Varsity

U of T scientists sign open letter declaring climate emergency

Over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a letter entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which was published in the BioScience journal in November. Twenty-one of the signatories are faculty or graduate students at the University of Toronto.

The authors believe that public discourse on the climate crisis has been narrowly focused on global average surface temperature. They argue that this scope fails to fully capture how humans affect the planet, and communicate the dangers of the climate crisis.

Communicating the impact of the climate crisis

The authors note that a better solution for analysts would be to explore a wide range of indicators of the impact of human activity on the climate crisis.

They substantiated the letter with a series of graphs which illustrate the change of various indicators over the past 40 years, working with high-quality data collected by climate scientists.

Troubling trends that the graphs reveal include long-term increases in human and livestock populations, meat consumption, global loss of tree coverage, fossil fuel consumption, heightened airfare, and carbon dioxide emissions.

However, the authors note promising changes as well, such as decreases in global birth rates, the long-term slowdown of the rate of forest loss in the Amazon, rising infrastructure for solar and wind power, institutional fossil fuel divestment, and the prevalence of carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the authors warn that these changes may not last — for example, fertility rates have been stabilizing, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has risen once more, and while consumption of solar and wind energy has increased 373 per cent per decade, it was still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption in 2018.

Despite 40 years of climate negotiations, the authors believe that business has continued as usual, and that the world at large is still failing to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis. They warn that we have failed to meaningfully change the ways we live, and that we are dangerously close to losing the ability to secure a sustainable future.

Six key areas where action can be taken

The authors outlined six key areas where action must be taken: energy, short-lived pollutants, nature, food, the economy, and population. They emphasized that fossil fuels must be replaced with low-carbon renewables and other clean energy sources, and that the emissions of short-lived pollutants such as methane and soot must be reduced.

They also stressed the importance of restoring Earth’s ecosystems. “Marine and terrestrial plants, animals, and microorganisms play significant roles in carbon and nutrient cycling and storage,” the authors noted.

Restoring ecosystems alone could bring the world to a third of the Paris Agreement’s emissions reduction target by 2030.

The authors also advise the elimination of animal consumption, especially ruminant animals like cattle and sheep; the curtailing of excessive extraction of Earth’s resources; and equitable solutions to population growth, such as family planning and widened access to girls’ education.

This is only a selection of the many recommendations in the “World Scientists’ Warning” — their breadth reflects the magnitude of the climate crisis. Fittingly, scientists from a wide variety of fields are represented among the signatories.

To learn more about the scientists’ perspectives, The Varsity reached out to four of U of T’s 21 signatories from a diverse range of academic disciplines.

How the climate crisis impacts public health

Dr. David Jenkins is a professor at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine who is well-known for developing the glycemic index — a system which explains how carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels.

Jenkins believes that it is important to connect the climate crisis to all the factors that it impacts, with health being one of them.

He also discussed the spread of diseases that are usually found in warmer climates to parts of the world that used to be colder due to the climate crisis.

Jenkins therefore believes that changing the impact of humans on the climate is of the utmost urgency. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — two years ago — only gave us 12 years to turn the crisis around,” he said. “The world, in general, needs a wake-up call.”

This warning builds on all the other climate warnings that the world has received, Jenkins noted. The first was issued in 1798 by Reverend Thomas Malthus.

As a nutritionist, Jenkins believes that one way in which humans can reduce their impact on the climate crisis is by adopting plant-based diets — something which can also be incredibly healthy if planned well. For example, tofu and seitan are relatively inexpensive and healthy food sources.

However, he stressed that with plant-based diets, careful planning is important in order to meet nutritional requirements.

The urgency of addressing the crisis

The Varsity also reached out to Dr. Miriam Diamond, a professor at the Department of Earth Sciences who is cross-appointed to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the School of the Environment, and the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry.

Diamond highlighted that the climate crisis “is not just an issue… It is a crisis and needs to be treated as such.”

Natural phenomena such as the fires in Australia, the severe flooding in the Ottawa Valley, and the dramatic fires in western Canada and Ontario over the past two years all have a climate component, according to Diamond.

Diamond also brought up the recent federal election, noting that the climate crisis was not as high of a priority as affordability. “Our society is delicately positioned to function in [the] stable climate that we’ve known for the past several hundred years,” she said.

“[We do] not have the resources to cope with… the current and growing number of disasters,” she continued. “What’s coming further down are questions of food availability.”

“If we think we are worried about [it] right now… it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

On activism and the paper’s research

Dr. Steve Easterbrook, Director of the School of the Environment, and a professor at the Department of Computer Science, hopes the letter will give the media and the public an overview of the current knowledge that we have about climate change.

“One of the things that paper does very nicely is it shows how everything is interconnected,” he noted.

In his view, the letter is also in defence of student climate activists, who are often dismissed in the media for their youth. “Articles like this, I think, emphasize that the students conducting this process, understand the science. They’ve got it right.”

He also underscored the value of dialogue about how to effectively fight the climate crisis. His belief is that scientists in disciplines not typically viewed as relevant to climate — including his own area of computer science — should consider how they could apply their skills to this issue.

“If you take this notion that we’re in a climate emergency,” he said, “I think of it as an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ type of emergency.”

Easterbrook rejected the notion that individuals reducing their personal carbon footprints is the most effective way to curb changes in climate. Instead, he urged people to consider: “What can you do that other people can’t do?”

A perspective from the Department of Political Science

Dr. Richard Sandbrook, a professor emeritus of the Department of Political Science, presented a different perspective. “The problem is not that we don’t know what to do; it is rather that we don’t do it,” he wrote.

One of the letter’s recommendations is for wealthy nations to aid poorer ones in the transition to renewables, which Sandbrook strongly supports.

He also wrote that the global south, whose nations are mostly not major contributors to warming, must be supported, or else “these areas will become unlivable, [and] internal wars and state breakdown will occur, along with major population movements.”

Unfortunately, Sandbrook believes that the political consequences of the climate crisis are not widely grasped. That is especially true of Canada, as it is far from Africa and the Middle East — regions which will feel the impacts of the climate crisis most strongly, according to Sandbrook, and where most climate migrations will originate.

Notably, while the graphs accompanying the letter include indicators of human activities that cause changes in climate, indicators of how these will affect humans — such as migration — are missing.

To Sandbrook, organization is critical. “The radical actions needed to arrest global heating at below 2°C will only happen in time as a result of mass pressure from below,” he noted.

Strange Weather: The Science and Art of Climate Change

Without artists and humanists, science is frequently lost in translation, while artistic work that disregards science risks irrelevancy. This one day symposium will bring together climate scientists, humanists and artists to bridge this disciplinary gap. The School of the Environment, in partnership with co-sponsors the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) and the Centre for the Study of the United States (CSUS), will welcome guest scholars and artists who are committed to – and practiced in – the current paradigm shift to less siloed climate change thinking.

A new dynamic strategy to protect biodiversity: transient protected areas

In conversation with Dr. Marie-Josée Fortin on a new approach in response to the climate crisis

A new dynamic strategy to protect biodiversity: transient protected areas

An innovative, comprehensive approach to biodiversity conservation has been proposed by a research paper affiliated with the University of Toronto in the form of ‘Dynamic Protected Areas,’ which would be transient protected areas that change according to the biological concerns of the meta-population.

In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. Marie-Josée Fortin, a co-author of the paper and a professor at the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, broke down the advantages and disadvantages of both the extant strategy and the new strategy proposed in the paper.

The integration of the new conservation strategy would require significant updates of pre-established notions about biodiversity, conservation, and legislation. The co-authors ultimately concluded that the new strategy would be worthwhile, as current strategies will not be enough to keep up with the climate crisis.

What is biodiversity?

It is widely accepted that strategies to address the climate crisis must be multi-faceted in order to adequately treat a variety of connected issues, from flawed socioeconomic systems to biological limitations.

The term ‘biodiversity’ refers to the variety of all life on Earth. Biodiversity can be quantified or analyzed in a number of ways, which makes it a blanket term that encompasses many measures of diversity. Such measures include genetic variety in a single species, and species richness in specific regions.

Currently, the ‘Permanent Protected Area’ status is one of the main methods of preserving biodiversity in Canada. Permanent protected areas are fixed spaces that are set aside to minimize human intervention. Algonquin Provincial Park is an example of a permanent protected area, right here in Ontario.

The limitations of permanent protected areas

Fortin and her colleagues’ suggestions came from the limitations of ‘Permanent Protected Areas.’

Whether a provincial or national park, Fortin noted that permanent protected areas can take a long time to come into effect because the legislative process can be slow.

Furthermore, as more natural environments are converted for human use, it will be increasingly difficult to find land for permanent protected areas.

The static nature of permanent protected areas also poses a significant ecological dilemma. Fortin explained that biological organisms are categorized at many different levels, but the paper specifically addresses meta-populations, meta-communities, and meta-ecosystems.

The ‘meta’ prefix suggests a broader organization of each grouping. For example, a ‘meta-population’ refers to many populations at once and considers how they interact with one another, between different locations instead of one fixed location.

With these terms in mind, it’s no wonder that permanent protected areas alone may be inadequate in preserving biodiversity. The species within these areas are not completely isolated from their surrounding environments — they may engage in significant interactions with outside, unprotected environments, and vice versa.

Dynamic protected areas as an alternative

To better illustrate the concept of dynamic protected areas, Fortin referred to already-existing ‘no-take zones,’ which are marine areas that ban the exploitation of resources within that specific area, typically only until that resource is able to replenish itself. In other words, the region is only protected for as long as the environment demands.

The alternative idea of ‘Dynamic Protected Areas’ that Fortin highlighted would focus on terrestrial species that undergo annual migration. For example, if a particular species migrates south for the winter, the government could establish dynamic protected areas that travel with that species and that only last as long as the migration does.

With dynamic protected areas, there are still economic and legislative considerations. Nevertheless, Fortin and her colleagues support the strategy’s implementation, because it acknowledges that the environment has been and always will be undergoing change.

Confronting the rise of eco-anxiety

“Who am I in the context of climate crisis?”

Confronting the rise of eco-anxiety

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first introduced the world to the possibility of global warming. His research focused on the widespread effects of coal burning. However, his research was oversimplistic. People couldn’t imagine a future of mass extinction and forest fires, so his findings did not lead to widespread fear.

In 1956, a news report on long-term environmental changes from greenhouse gas emissions appeared in The New York Times. However, the article noted that as there was little risk of running out of fossil fuels, industries would likely continue consuming them. As long as it paid to consume coal and oil, and those resources were cheap and plentiful, then such practices would soldier on to generate profits. And so they did.

Now, half a century later, elementary school children are seeking psychiatric care to cope with debilitating panic and anxiety over the environmental crisis. A study conducted by Caroline Hickman at the University of Bath showed that 45 per cent of children suffer from depression after a nature disaster.

‘Eco-anxiety’ is a recently-coined term that encapsulates the rising emotional and psychological responses to the climate crisis. From 2008–2009, the American Psychological Association put together a task force that investigated the relationship between the climate crisis and human psychology. The results for this study revealed that people remained more or less blasé about the climate crisis.

In 2018, however, a Yale University and George Mason University study group reported that 29 per cent of Americans were “alarmed” about the climate, up 11 per cent from 2009. The denial that was prevalent just a decade ago is dissolving, and in some cases is being replaced by paralyzing fear.

The necessity for an intersectional approach

While eco-anxiety has only garnered attention in recent years, people are no strangers to our psychological states being under environmental influence. Dr. Romila Verma of U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning gave three possible reasons why the global population has seen a sharp increase in climate change-specific mental health issues.

As the climate crisis persists, environmental destruction becomes more visible and more serious, as Verma wrote to The Varsity. We’re told that if we haven’t suffered an extreme climate event yet, we will, and in the meantime, we’re being “bombarded” day-in and day-out with news of devastation occurring elsewhere.

Verma also mentioned social media being a contributing factor to anxiety in general, be it climate-specific or otherwise. “Before the advent of social media,” she wrote, “[a crisis] was not as visible unless you were directly hit by these issues.”

According to a press release from the United Nations in March, there are only “11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change.” Verma believes that this has increased anxiety among young people especially. This timeline tabled an ultimatum that children are forced to confront. Much of the action and campaigning since then was born of this responsibility, a burden that children know they inherited as the byproduct of centuries of reckless economic dreams.

While mainstream media tells us that eco-anxiety is a new, emerging dimension of the climate crisis, we would be ignorant to assume that this concern really is brand new for all populations. We would be just as mistaken to consider eco-anxiety an equal-impact phenomenon. Like many other crises, the climate crisis and eco-anxiety run along intersectional race, class, and gender lines.

For Indigenous communities, a loss of land and disrespect for the sacredness of the non-human is not a recent occurrence, but rather part of a centuries-long history. Furthermore, for individuals with disabilities, well-intentioned but under-researched practices, such as the plastic straw ban, come at the expense of accessibility. Exposure to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes has also been shown to increase the risk of gender-based violence, as it exacerbates the already vulnerable position of women.

There have been strides made in understanding the impacts of climate crisis. In recent decades, there has been recognition that gender is an important factor in the realm of developmental policy. In the 1970s, the concept of environmental refugees emerged, with particular regard to the desertification occurring in parts of Africa. These intersectional factors must influence the theory and methods of addressing the climate crisis.

“There are many instances of environmental injustices which are in direct violation of [the] human rights of indigenous, disabled, minorities, immigrants, refugees, homeless people,” wrote Verma, and not all have the 11 years to wait. “The vulnerable populations around the world are already being denied basic needs like food, water, and shelter.”

The harrowing reality is that regardless of a universal trend of growing urgency, we as a society still invest in climate protection for privileged populations at the expense of the already disadvantaged. Furthermore, we still believe that the limitation of harmful corporate activities for the safety of the marginalized is transgressive.

Eco-anxiety’s long history

Before the industrial revolution, before contemporary capitalism, and before modern urban development was the long history of Indigenous peoples battling colonialist environmental destruction. These struggles date back to early European settlement that operated on the ideology of ‘terra nullius’ — the concept of no man’s land, in which land that is deemed unoccupied can be occupied by a sovereign state. This was used by European settlers to justify expanding into Indigenous territory and incite genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Everything that has come of these territories since has been built on the notion that the Earth was made solely for human extraction. For the Indigenous peoples who fought to protect their land back then, eco-anxiety is far from a post-2000s phenomenon.

In a Toronto Star project, Anishinaabe journalist, Varsity alum, and Indigenous Issues Columnist Tanya Talaga highlighted the seven Cree communities that form the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council lining the James Bay coast. She writes that, eco-anxiety for them has been “a reality for decades.”

In Concordia University Magazine, William Gagnon posits that among Indigenous peoples, there is a growing understanding of a socially created feeling of homesickness without even leaving home, which he dubs “solastalgia.” In watching one’s own home environment break down, a longing forms for a home and safety that existed in a different time.

Beyond the experiences being multiplied temporally, there’s also a verticality to Indigenous stress. Talaga further elaborates, commenting that “when you don’t have access to health care such as clinics with doctor or nurses, or communities with high school or safe housing, clean water or working sewage, watching the land change before your eyes due to [the climate crisis] adds another layer of despair.”

Talaga also noted that few research studies have been conducted on Indigenous sites. However, Indigenous peoples have a wealth of knowledge in oral histories passed down for many generations full of climate understanding.

In the past several years there has been a growing interest in the application of Indigenous knowledge to land-use and land-management practices, reviving traditional ecological knowledge and recognizing — for perhaps the first time in a long time — the value that had been displaced.

Just as the Anthropocene — the current geological age of human influence on the Earth — is not new, nor does it only date as far back as the invention of Western machinery and technology. Mindful practices are not new either; in fact, they’ve existed for far longer than we think.

Racism and climate refugees

In North American suburbia, placing polluters near Black neighborhoods is not an unknown practice. This doesn’t occur out of explicit malicious and racist intent, but rather because it is the least expensive option.

On a more worldwide scale, racial tensions can be found in issues such as food insecurity, economic decline, and, more recently, forced migration. In the wake of a drastically changing climate, the term ‘climate refugee’ has been used to describe people who have been displaced or are at risk of temporary or permanent displacement due to environmental change.

This conflict does not end with the environmental movement itself. Competition, ethnic tension, and distrust between migratory and host societies are highly common. This low level of social cohesion has been linked to greater vulnerability, and further disconnects disadvantaged communities from institutions. As the movement of large bodies of people increases in frequency — although the required aid upon arrival becomes greater as well — disputes follow ethnic divisions fiercely.

In the sphere of international law, the question of responsibility is tabled: who will protect these climate refugees? Political ecologists point out that the challenges of the climate crisis deepen questions of distribution and access to resources from water, land, and infrastructure, to more complex ‘items’ such as capital, education, and aid.

Climate refugee narratives often mobilize racist fears that the arrivals of impoverished populations are threats to national security, and thus could prompt pre-emptive reactionary policies, preventing movement before it has even begun. These sweeping assumptions of bodies in motion could further international divides, adding to the existing eco-anxiety of disempowered populations, and are a great failure to address the very fundamental question of social inequity.

The ones bearing the brunt of it: children

In an interview with Reuters, Hickman remarked that the current state of our climate leaves today’s youth with feelings of betrayal and abandonment. She further emphasized that “fear from children needs to be taken seriously by adults.”

Leaving these issues unaddressed could further compound their fears.

Children are a particularly vulnerable age group, not only because the climate crisis weighs disproportionately heavy on their futures, but also because post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following catastrophes, depression, aggression, and social withdrawal are more common for them, and their symptoms tend to be more long-term when compared to adults.

Verma pointed out that many young people have not hesitated to be at the forefront of movements like Fridays for Future, which was pioneered by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and picked up later by equally-impassioned students such as Wiikwemkoong First Nation water protector Autumn Peltier and U of T’s own Allie Rougeot.

“There is no right or wrong age to be a changemaker,” Verma wrote. “Since young people are the future adults, and they will face more severe consequences of climate change, they should become part of the solution.”

Verma explained that in her personal experiences advocating for climate justice, she sees today’s youth as key voices in forcing those in power to implement and innovate accordingly. She also said that there are the mental health challenges that come with such a large undertaking. She believes that in order to adequately care for child activists it is important to examine our broken mental health systems.

“There are incidents of these activists being bullied, harassed and made fun of,” wrote Verma. “In the face of adversity, it takes a lot of courage and resiliency to withstand this onslaught.”

“My concern is that some of these climate activists might face emotional turmoil.”

Where do we go from here?

Eco-anxiety means different things for everyone. It may be necessary to take a step back from the events of the climate crisis and ask ourselves, “who am I in the context of climate crisis?”

“Climate change impacts are felt in every section of society however, the main burden of its consequences falls on marginalized and vulnerable populations,” wrote Verma.

As students and faculty of this institution, we each come from one form of privilege or another. Our identities are not without the protections offered by our race, gender, class, or other identity groups. For most of us, it is important to understand our anxieties and our positions in relation to those who have been disadvantaged for much longer than media and history has allowed us to realize.

For students like ourselves, our futures hang over a precipice. What is our role in this fight? What are the decisions that we’re obligated to make? In the face of mass extinctions, food strikes, and forced migration, family-building has become an unethical dream. The uncertainties linger like smog in the air.

We have to look at both ourselves and each other and ask: what do we owe to our own futures in order to create a livable world for all?