New B.C. research measures climate anxiety from social media

“Our hope is to be able to identify both a core group of people who frequently talk about climate change as well as how frequently they are talking about climate change.” — Kiffer Card, lead researcher at SFU

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A group of B.C. researchers have launched a project to monitor climate change-related anxiety in the hopes of providing front-line health care workers and policy-makers with better tools.

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The project — based on studies conducted during last years’ heat dome and atmospheric river events — aims to understand how climate change is impacting Canadians’ mental health.

“There’s lots of things that inform people’s worries and anxieties,” said Kiffer Card, lead researcher at SFU. “Not just weather related events, but also what they’re hearing in the media, what they’re hearing in social media.”

Card and his colleagues had previously used web-based surveys with self-reporting measures to monitor levels of climate related concerns among British Columbians during the 2021 heat wave.

It was one of the first quantitative population studies examining climate related concerns, Card said.

Social media data has been used to study the flu, depression and other mental health issues, said Card.

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“So we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could develop some sort of tool that would basically measure the level of distress being expressed on these platforms?”

The idea is to measure climate-related distress without breaching anyone’s personal privacy, he said.

“The goal of this project is to look and see how well social media measures climate distress.”

Can we use it as a tool to tap into the feelings that people might be having in response to not only climate change, Card asked.

Card’s research will look at social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other platforms, as well using data from Google and other search engines.

Card said his team will use a combination of natural language processing and machine learning to identify tweets and other social media posts that reflect climate change-related stress.

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“Our hope is to be able to identify both a core group of people who frequently talk about climate change as well as how frequently they are talking about climate change,” Card said.

He hoped to be able to identify a core group of people who talk about climate change as well as other groups who don’t engage on the subject as much and to analyze how those people were brought into the conversion.

“That could be a signal,” he said.

Roughly five per cent of survey respondents expressed what Card would consider climate anxiety, he said.

Card hopes the tool will allow his team to create a tool that could alert educators, health care and social workers about a community-wide spike in anxiety.

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