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The hidden cost of climate change

By David Berry • November 13, 2019Open Your Mind

“In a disaster, the size of the psychological footprint greatly exceeds the size of the medical footprint." - Dr. James Shultz

Lamb chops, Kraft dinner, tea biscuits, rum and orange juice. Not a pairing any sommelier would recommend, but it’s been Sharon Heading’s dinner every May 3rd for the last four years.

The first time she ate it, her and her husband were sitting outside their RV at a campsite in Anzac, Alberta, watching stragglers roll in. Normally about a half-hour drive from their home in Fort McMurray, it had taken them nearly three to get there, inching along in traffic that filled up both sides of the two-lane highway that is the only way in or out of the remote northern community. Until May 3, 2016, Fort McMurray was known mostly as the hub of world oil sands production; that day, it became the site of the costliest and most destructive wildfire — the costliest and most destructive disaster, period — Canada has ever seen.

"As storms rage and fires burn, long-lasting psychological effects are becoming more pervasive even among those lucky enough to survive."

The Headings were two of some 88,000 people evacuated that day, and they’d eventually be joined by a handful more, refugees at the nearest safe haven they could reach. As she ate her lamb with two unnaturally orange sides — a hodgepodge of what she grabbed from the fridge in the 20 minutes she had to evacuate, and non-perishables she kept in the trailer for a coming camping trip — she couldn’t help but notice how everyone else was parked: facing the road.

“The campsite was safe, the fire wasn’t coming our way, but I think that was clearly the point — for us, and I think for every single person in Fort McMurray that night — we knew that anything could happen at any time,” Heading explains, her voice tinged with unwanted wisdom. “It's been like that ever since here. You park a certain way. You don't ever let your gas tank get below half. You’re just ready.”

These are the invisible marks that environmental disasters leave behind — and they go well beyond the kind of simmering anxieties that can be managed with a parking spot and a prep kit. As climate change fuels bigger and more destructive events — stronger, longer-lasting hurricanes, wildfires stoked by drought and extreme weather, floods that drown entire cities — experts are warning that the human toll of these events is not captured by body counts alone. As storms rage and fires burn, long-lasting psychological effects are becoming more pervasive even among those lucky enough to survive.

"Even if people who live through the disasters themselves are able to deal with an undeniably traumatic experience, living in the aftermath brings its own set of challenges."

“In a disaster, the size of the psychological footprint greatly exceeds the size of the medical footprint,” says Dr. James Shultz, the director of the Center for Disaster and Extreme Event Preparedness at the University of Miami, and one of the authors of a recent paper examining the psychological effects of more powerful hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast. That research found that as many as two-thirds of people who survive a Category 5 hurricane — like Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017, or Dorian, which battered the Bahamas this August — show clinical signs of anxiety, depression and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even six months after the storm has hit.

“Grand Bahama had winds of more than 100 miles an hour for more than 37 hours,” Shultz points out. “That’s like a jet engine outside your door for a day-and-a-half. These are terrifying, literally life-threatening situations — people exposed to that almost universally have some kind of psychological distress.”

As with the physical destruction of these kind of disasters, though, it might be not the immediate impacts that are the most pernicious. Even if people who live through the disasters themselves are able to deal with an undeniably traumatic experience, living in the aftermath brings its own set of challenges.

"It’s almost as if these ecological disasters leave behind a kind of psychological radiation whose fallout affects everyone that comes into the area."

“I remember talking to someone six months after the fire who asked me, ‘So, everything’s back on track in Fort Mac now, eh?” Heading recalls. “And it’s like … do you want me to show you the picture of our neighbourhood where you can’t even tell where the street corners used to be? It’s four years now and we’re still not back on track.”

Besides the obvious loss of homes and infrastructure — it took 18 months to restore power to the whole of Peurto Rico after Maria — stresses pile upon stresses in disaster zones. Economic depressions almost inevitably follow, as people are unable to get back to work. People’s health deteriorates, and some may even die otherwise preventable deaths due to lack of access to medical facilities, which can compound feelings of guilt and fear among survivors.

These after-effects are so troublesome that one study of Fort McMurray schoolchildren found that not only did the rates of PTSD seem to be increasing as time went on, but that elevated rates of PTSD, anxiety and depression could be found not just in children who lived in the city but didn’t experience the fire, but even in those who had moved to the city in the months and years after the last ember smouldered out. It’s almost as if these ecological disasters leave behind a kind of psychological radiation whose fallout affects everyone that comes into the area.

"Besides the obvious loss of homes and infrastructure, stresses pile upon stresses in disaster zones."

For Sharon Heading, those effects are present well beyond her anniversary dinners. It took her almost a year to even return to the city — something she was only able to do after counselling helped her confront her reluctance to return to her home. It was only this summer she was able to camp in her RV again, having extracted its memory from its escape. Meanwhile, she’s not sure if her husband will ever quite be the same.

“He’s hypervigilant now,” she explains. “I only discovered it a few weeks ago, but he still has a go bag in his truck. He's never, ever given it up. I happened to see it under the seat, and when I asked him about it, he just said, 'You don't need to worry about that.'

“I pressed him on it,” she continues, her voice misty, “but he just said, 'I don't want to talk about it. Just put it back.' So I did.”

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Reading list - nonfiction and fiction books about climate change:

Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

New York Magazine journalist Wallace-Wells details both the most plausible and extreme scenarios, and tries to figure out how — and if — we could cope with them.

View Book

Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter's Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray by Damian Asher with Omar Mouallem

A front-line look at the wildfire that nearly destroyed Fort McMurray, and what it takes to fight off one of nature’s most terrifying disasters.

View Book

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Drawing on Ward’s childhood in Mississippi and her own experience in post-hurricane New Orleans, this National Book Award-winning novel traces a family through the coming and aftermath of Katrina.

View Book

Clade by James Bradley

A “cli-fi” novel that feels more plausible by the day, Bradley’s novel traces several generations of one family living through an escalating climate catastrophe, bringing a painfully human scale to undeniably global tragedy.

View Book

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there.

View Book

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream.

View Book

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