A 2014 report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica says that climate change will have increased psychological effects on the world’s population as it gets more severe. Our sticker shock at the recent drastic increase in the price of celery is perhaps an indication of things to come. For example, a friend had made veggies and dip for a family party. She had leftover celery and carrot sticks and defiantly announced that her family was going to eat celery and Cheese Whiz for breakfast because there was no way they were wasting seven-dollar celery! Last week, I found celery for $3.99, so something has shifted but I'm still holding a celery grudge....
In addition to the immediate trauma of natural disasters such as floods, storms, and forest fires, more people will suffer long-term stress and anxiety. Women, children, and the elderly, usually the people with the least social power, will experience the highest levels of stress.
As temperature extremes put a higher burden on the energy grid, air-conditioning and heating systems will be less reliable, which in turn will increase the misery of feeling over or under-heated—HVAC is clearly a lucrative career choice. Violence and crime are often associated with unexpected heat waves as tempers fray and there is competition for resources.
And, if communities are broken up or forced to relocate in the face of natural disasters, then social cohesion will suffer, another cause of stress in human beings. We are seeing this now, as society in Syria breaks down, for example, causing tremendous psychological distress for communities.
It is not just American scientists who are studying this problem. Researchers writing in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine looked at the physical and psychological effects of increased temperatures and droughts on people in the sub-continent. They expect the population’s health will deteriorate for a number of reasons including: the “spread of vector-borne diseases” (those spread by mosquitoes and other insects, such as malaria, dengue, and zika,); injuries and death due to natural disasters; thermal injuries such as heat stroke; the spread of water-borne disease; and malnutrition. And then there are the mental effects of a rise in temperature, documented in tropical countries like Thailand: aggressive behaviour and suicides increase as the temperature goes up. Drought and its associated economic hardship can lead to farmer suicides, and the need for breadwinners to relocate from rural to urban areas causes mental stress because they are away from their families, communities, and social support networks.The Indian team recommended that developing countries work now to ensure adequate access to mental health care outside of the cities and economic measures like debt relief to support farmers who may run into trouble.
This pattern of farmer suicides was seen in North America during the Dust Bowl as farmers lost the ability to support their families from their land. Whole communities migrated from the heartland to the coast, and the social dislocation this involved had devastating psychological effects.
Depression is the second leading cause of disability around the world, says the Global Burden of Disease study, and it’s only going to get worse. But, it can be more complex than just “bad weather equals bad mental health.” A drought, for example, can be experienced by farmers as a catastrophe: in broadly gender-determined terms, men feel that their ability to control nature and provide for their families is destroyed, and women are challenged in their ability to emotionally support their partners and children. In urban areas, however, prolonged sunny weather can lift people’s moods.
Those who are most directly affected by climate change already are seeing the most drastic effects on the mental health of their communities. A study of the Inuit in northern Canada has found that as the permafrost melts the associated changes to daily life have negative effects on people’s psychological well-being. For example, the warming environment and unstable ice means that people can’t travel by snowmobile and therefore, they can’t go out as easily to hunt. The forced confinement to their homes in the winter causes huge distress, particularly because the melting ground is causing the houses themselves to shift and list, making them unstable. People physically and emotionally feel the separation from the natural world.
As we make our planet sick, so we are making ourselves sick too. Sometimes, writing this blog, I feel sad and hopeless about the future, but then I remember that taking action and believing that you can effect change is always going to make you feel more optimistic. Al Gore, whose film An Inconvenient Truth had a huge effect on my activism, now says we have cause for hope. In a recent TED talk, he said that even though “every night on the news is like a nature walk through the Book of Revelation,” things can change for the better. He reminded us of six reasons to trust that the world is on the right track.
1) The quality of renewable energy has improved and the cost has come down. 2) Predictions about the amount of wind energy that would be available by 2010 underestimated capacity by 14.5. 3) Predictions about the amount of solar power we could install were hugely out: we have installed around 68 times as much as analysts thought we would by now, and this energy source is increasing exponentially. 4) The cost of renewable energy falls by about 10 per cent every year. 5) Germany, an industrial and economic powerhouse, got 81 per cent of its energy from renewable sources in December 2015. 6) And finally, Al Gore is encouraged by the resolutions of the recent climate change summit in Paris. He is optimistic that human nature means that we will ultimately make the right choices to save our world.