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One-third of young Canadians say they feel helpless in the face of climate change

Rates of fear and anxiety were highest among Canadian women and young adults. But in a positive sign, over 75% of respondents said they were willing to adjust their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint.
Abby flooding sandbag
Jeff Daigneault fills sandbags for neighbours in Abbotsford, B.C., during one of the devastating floods in living memory, Nov. 16, 2021.

Nearly a third of young adults in Canada say global warming is too far along for them to do anything about it, according to a new survey. 

The poll, conducted by Angus Reid Forum on behalf of the organic waste recycling firm Tero Innovation, found one in five Canadian adults felt they couldn’t make a difference in the face of climate change. 

The sense of helplessness was found to be even worse among women and younger people: 60 per cent of women and 68 per cent of those 18 to 34 said that when they think about the future of the planet, it makes them feel angry, anxious and helpless. 

That share dropped to 47 per cent for men and 44 per cent for those 55+. 

But the poll also found some signs of hope. Of the 1,506 Canadians surveyed, four in 10 said COVID-19 and the rise of weather-related disasters have changed their commitment to the environment. 

MOST SAY COMPANIES NEED TO STEP UP TO SOLVE CLIMATE CHANGE

Most of those surveyed put the responsibility of finding solutions to the climate crisis at the feet of companies, with 86 per cent saying businesses have a duty to create a more sustainable world. 

Another third said global warming is a problem governments need to solve, though for young people 18 to 34, that rose to 46 per cent.

At the same time, 86 per cent of respondents said they and other consumers have the “knowledge, power, and tools to reduce their household waste,” while 76 per cent said they were willing to adjust their lifestyles to reduce emissions from greenhouse gases. 

CLIMATE ANXIETY ON THE RISE

The poll was not the first study to document a rise in climate anxiety across Canada and the world. 

Last September, a global survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries found nearly half of those between 16 and 25 reported psychological distress over climate change.

In some of the most telling signs, 58 per cent of respondents said governments were betraying future generations; 75 per cent said “the future was frightening.”

Another study released in January 2022 found the heat dome that scorched British Columbia in late June led to a 13 per cent average rise in anxiety over the effects of climate change. 

Climate distress has pushed some in B.C. to attempt suicide, according to a Glacier Media report last month. And researchers worry that for every degree of temperature rise, those rates will only go up.

TO FIGHT CLIMATE DISTRESS, FIND PURPOSE AND COMMUNITY

The best way to treat climate distress is still not clear, and experts in the field are in the process of launching a series of nationwide mental health surveillance studies to gauge the impact of climate change. 

What makes climate change different from other factors that impact mental health is that there’s nothing irrational about fearing what scientists agree are going to be catastrophic losses. 

And in the search for solutions, it’s also natural to feel weak in the face of the transformational changes required of industry and government to reduce global emissions. 

Until the science is in, Simon Fraser epidemiologist Kiffer Card says there are some safe bets to fight back climate distress. Find community, find meaningful conversation and find purpose in life, says Card, who is part of the team surveilling climate change's impact on mental health in Canada.

Collectively, he says, “those things will have an impact regardless.”

Or as marine biologist and climate solutions expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson recommends, don't try to fix all the world's climate problems. 

Discover what's needed, what you do well and what brings you joy. Find out what ticks those three boxes and direct that toward positive change.