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In First-of-Its-Kind Survey, Greenlanders Report Fear and Anxiety Over Effects of Climate Crisis

"It is hard for me to imagine the country's future."

The first-ever national survey of the effects of the climate crisis on mental health and a nation's population found that Greenland residents are experiencing high levels of anxiety due to the climate emergency. (Photo: Destination Arctic Circle/Flickr/cc)

Although Greenland's proximity to the Arctic Circle means scientists pay close attention to changes in sea ice and temperatures in the island country, few have remarked on the effects of the climate crisis on the 56,000 people who live there—until now.

Completed by the University of Copenhagen, the University of Greenland, and the Kraks Fond Institute for Urban Economic Research, the Greenlandic Perspectives Survey (pdf) was released on Sunday and reveals the high levels of anxiety and stress people in Greenland are experiencing on the frontlines of the climate emergency.

"There is no question Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, 'ecological grief,' and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change."
—Courtney Howard,  Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

"When it comes to Greenland we actually understand the ice more than we understand the people," Kelton Minor, lead author of the survey, told The Guardian. "Historically, many survey samples of the Greenlandic population were taken from the radius of local airports, which doesn't give us a picture of a vast and complex country...For a nation in the grip of record ice melt, this felt like something that needed to be done."

About two percent of the country's population was surveyed—the equivalent of speaking to a million people in the U.K. about their perspectives on an issue—and more than three-quarters of respondents said they have been personally affected by the warming of the globe.

Researchers noted that people living in Greenland, where warming is about two to three times higher than it is elsewhere, are coping with major, noticeable changes in their surroundings.

"The Arctic is a bellwether for the unequal impact of global warming on social and economic systems," Minor told The Guardian. "As countries struggle to limit future risks and overall warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius [an increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit], many Arctic and Greenlandic residents are already living in regional climates that have changed by more than this, in less than a lifetime."

One doctor who was not involved in the study said the research shows the effects of "ecological grief."

"There is no question Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, 'ecological grief,' and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change," Courtney Howard, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told The Guardian.

In a video accompanying the study, one woman talked about the rapid melting of sea ice, which is used regularly by Greenlanders to travel with sled dogs and which is needed to sustain the fish population that feeds much of the country, over the course of their lives.

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The woman, Jensine, told the researchers about her grandson, who asked her, "Grandma, do you know that the ice here will disappear in the future? Can't you see that some of it has already disappeared?"

"It is very easy to see changes when you pay attention," Jensine said. "It is hard for me to imagine the country's future."

About 80 percent of respondents told the researchers that they feel the melting sea ice is increasingly dangerous for the population, leading to both isolation and harrowing travels to neighboring communities. More than two-thirds said they were concerned about the effects of the climate crisis on sled dogs—the primary mode of transportation for many in winter months when the sea ice is treated as an "open highway," according to Minor—and about half said they were concerned about the effects on people and future generations.  

Comments gathered in the municipality of Avannaata included, "Even if we plan ahead, we can't travel" and "It's affecting all communities."

"I am worried because climate change will make the animals decrease in abundance or disappear, and we won't be able to get Greenlandic supplies," one respondent in the western region of Qeqqata said.

"It's raining and snowing more often and the sea isn't calm anymore," added a resident of Avannaata, "and all of those things will have a negative impact on our lives and livelihood."

About 38 percent said they feel fearful of the changes resulting from the warming globe.

Howard said these new anxieties must be addressed directly by the medical field, especially as powerful countries like the U.S. continue pursuing the extraction of fossil fuels for energy instead of shifting rapidly to a renewable energy system, as 75 percent of Greenlanders say governments should.

"We are challenging the medical profession to acknowledge the world we are inheriting," Howard told The Guardian. "Schools and universities aren't considering how climate change will affect people, from a medical or a psychological perspective, so we are not training a new generation of medical professionals to help people in a fast-changing planet and this is intolerable."

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