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B.C. researchers developing tool to measure climate distress in real time

Social media data will be key to Simon Fraser University team’s multi-year work
People take part in a climate change protest in Montreal, Nov. 21, 2020. A new project by a team of Simon Fraser University researchers aims to build a tool by monitoring social media that can determine Canadians’ climate distress in real time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

If a new project by a group of B.C. researchers succeeds, Canadians will soon know in real time how major climate events impact their fellow citizens’ levels of distress.

The Simon Fraser University and Athabasca University team came up with the idea for a live measurement tool after successfully calculating an increase in B.C. residents’ climate-related anxiety before and after the June 2021 heat dome.

In that case, the researchers depended on 850 survey respondents to measure the change.

Surveys are excellent sources of data, but it can be difficult to convince a large and representative number of people to take them, SFU professor and researcher Kiffer Card said.

READ ALSO: Study finds B.C. heat dome caused an uptick in climate anxiety

Harnessing social media

So, the team decided to turn to a far more abundant and easily accessible data source – social media. On an average day, Card said there are anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 tweets about climate change.

They hope by using machine learning and natural language processing they can measure how Canadians are responding to climate change-related news or events at any given time. Language used within posts, as well as indicators such as likes and retweets on Twitter and upvotes and downvotes on Reddit, will all help to inform the tool.

In order to rely on social media data though, the team needs to first prove that sentiments expressed there are comparable to what people are feeling in real life.

For a year beginning this summer, the researchers will simultaneously run a series of surveys and track sentiment on social media. How close the latter data falls in line with the former will determine if social media is in fact an accurate source.

The researchers won’t be able to gather demographic information from the posts as the originators will remain anonymous, but they will likely still see the geographic region the posts came from. This will prove useful when catastrophic events like B.C.’s heat dome, wildfires or floods occur.

READ ALSO: Study suggests climate change made B.C. floods at least twice as likely

Pushing policy makers for change

Card said the primary goal of the climate distress tool is to make those in power wake up to the fact that climate change is impacting people now.

“I think there’s a common misconception amongst policymakers, decision makers, even people in public health, that climate change is something that we don’t have to worry about for maybe 20, 30, 40 years from now – that that’s when the impacts are going to be serious and severe,” he said.

The fact is, people are already making huge life decisions based on the fact that the climate is changing. Young people are questioning what careers have a long-term future, families are deciding whether they want to settle down in areas increasingly wracked by natural disasters, and people are wondering whether they should be having children, Card said.

The uncertainty of what is to come and what they can do to change it, is causing many Canadians distress.

Following the June 2021 heat dome, Card and his team found the number of respondents who said their region would “very likely” be devastated by climate change rose from 17.5 to 29.8 per cent. Similarly, the number of people who felt that the industry they worked in would be affected by climate change increased from 35 to 40.3 per cent.

Card hopes expanding these numbers to always be available in real time will help incentivize policy makers to take real action.

“If they can understand the human impacts on their constituents, our hope is that they’ll be a bit more motivated to prioritize it,” Card said.

The team will be releasing reports throughout the next year as it gathers data.

READ ALSO: ‘People talk about deep sadness:’ Scientists study climate change grief


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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