Ecology: The Impact Climate Change has on Our Physical and Mental Health

Climate change is no such thing that only exists in the future, it is a real and omnipresent threat that has its causes in the past, present, and future, and affects the past, present, and future. The World Health Organization estimates an additional 250,000 excess deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. Those deaths will be caused by the “well understood impacts of climate change”.

It can be quite overwhelming to understand the complete concept and the effects climate change has, since it has become obvious in so many different parts of life. The most obvious effects are in the change of our environment and economy, but there are so many more. For example, threats to our mental and physical health. You might not think about it right now. Lucky you, fortunately, you’re probably not personally affected. However, it is necessary to think about us all and to think about humanity as a whole.

What is climate change?

Person holding up a sign that reads "There is no planet B"
Credits: Li-an Lim / Unsplash

According to the NASA Global Climate Change Department, “climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates”. Not to get confused, weather means the effects of a climate we can feel, which depends on our location and time. Those include, for example, rain, snow, and sunshine. Climate, on the other hand, defines the average weather of a specific place.

Climate change then, is a change in the normal weather of a place. This doesn’t have to imply a change to the complete opposite. The weather in, let’s say Mexico, where it’s sunny and hot, doesn’t have to flip completely and it’s only cold and cloudy. It can start with small changes like an increase in rain or in extreme temperatures.

According to a paper by Berry et al. from 2010, climate change related hazards can be divided into three categories: acute (flooding, hurricanes), sub-acute (pervasive drought), and chronic (rising sea-level, increasing temperatures). This categorization will be of use later on in this article.

What is mental health?

Word block which read "Mental health matters"
Credits: Marcel Strauß / Unsplash

Fortunately, mental health is a topic that has been being talked about more and more over the past few years, but I guess most people don’t really get the terminology. To most, mental health is about whether you have mental or psychological issues you deal with, like, for example, depressive periods or symptoms, or anxiety. Yes, mental health does include those, but that’s not everything.

Mental health does not only refer to illness, problems, or disorders, but according to several researchers and papers, mental health “also includes states of mental wellness, emotional resilience and psychosocial wellbeing”.

The term psychosocial wellbeing refers to the connection between different social and psychological traits which shape the wellbeing of humans.

Climate change and mental health

Sign which says "The climate is changing and so should we, #actnow"
Credits: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

The most common answer to some sort of disaster is distress reactions. Those include insomnia, scapegoating, irritability, and risky behaviors. Although for some people those might fade away as time goes on, for others, they don’t. They can accumulate, worsen, and end in mental health disorders like anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and suicidal ideation.

The American Public Health Association published a report in cooperation with ecoAmerica which states that up to 45% of children and 54% of adults suffer from depressive symptoms, depressive episodes, or depression after natural disasters. A great risk factor is a lower socioeconomic status. People most likely will live in areas that are more prone to catastrophes and won’t have the resources to protect themselves or their homes. Moreover, they have less access to any form of health care, physical or mental.

Psychological risks

Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, invented the Giddens Paradox on the effects of climate change on humans. He states that “since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until such dangers become visible and acute — in the shape of catastrophes that are irrefutably the result of climate change — before being stirred to serious action will be too late”.

There are obvious time and space distances between the acute problem of climate change (which has been a problem for many, many years now) and the reluctance of some people to take action to change it. Marshall states that the difference is mostly due to Western political discourse. Most see climate change as a future-facing problem.

Yes, the effects of climate change will be worse in the future, but it is only due to years and years of industrialization, fossil fuel burning, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. And yes, we look into a future of even more climate change catastrophes, but we can try and prevent the absolute worst from happening if we take action right now and treat climate change action with the necessary urgency.

Obviously, there are differences between the way people react to the effects and they do differ with the type of exposure (direct or indirect), which is why I’m going to go in depth on those.

Direct exposure

Direct exposure to extreme weather conditions like floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and heatwaves leads to several severe mental health issues and disorders. Heat and humidity lead to an increase in hospital admissions for schizophrenia, mania, and neurotic disorders, which all belong to mood and behavioral disorders. People of higher risk belong to the following groups: people with impaired thermoregulation, people who take prescription medication, people who suffer from substance abuse. The most common reaction is psychological distress, which can then lead to PTSD and depression.

With direct exposure to hurricanes and flooding, psychological problems are even more common than physical. Tragically, PTSD was the most common reaction, but suicides and suicidal ideation are increasing.

Indirect exposure

Indirect exposure means social, economic, or environmental disruption to one’s normal life. Those indirect consequences can be a result of “damages to physical and social infrastructure, physical health effects, food and water shortages, conflict, and displacement from acute, subacute, and chronic climactic changes”.

The Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University estimates 25 million – 1 billion forced migrations by 2050. As an example, we can take a look at Syria. The tension between rural and urban communities is due to extensive ecological degradation, poor water and food supplies and poor policymakers. According to the United Nations, over 5 million Syrians have been displaced from 2013 – 2018. Migration always leads to a lot of psychological distress. The amount is even worse when people must leave their home and their country, and sometimes even family members, behind.

Overarching psychosocial exposure

Overarching psychosocial problems are those that cause long-term emotional distress and challenge your emotional and social wellbeing. Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher, has started research on this topic with his colleagues since the beginning of 2007. The emotional result of global climate change is divided into three psychoterratic syndromes. Psychoterratic is a term which Albrecht himself coined. It refers to all mental conditions which can arise as a result of the human relationship with the natural world.

  • Eco-anxiety: The feeling you get as a result of constantly being surrounded by the threatening problem of climate change.
  • Eco-paralysis: The feeling of not being able to take sufficient action to change the problem for the better.
  • Solastalgia: The distress and isolation which is due to the removal of solace.

Climate change and physical health

A malnourished child in an Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) treatment tent in the Dolo Ado camp
Credits: DFID – UK Department for International Development / Wikipedia

The body of research on the connection between climate change and physical health is increasing from day to day. Clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food supplies, secure shelter. Those determinants of health will no longer be given to many people as climate change continues. As mentioned above, over 250,000 additional deaths per year will be due to the effects of climate change. Whether it may be because of malnutrition, malaria, or heat stress.

Vector-borne, water and food-borne diseases will increase just like chronic diseases of the respiratory and neurological systems such as asthma or hormonal changes. Furthermore, more people will suffer from malignant melanoma due to immense UV exposure and kidney diseases from dehydration.

According to the WHO, climate change increases the likeability of infectious diseases transmitted via insects. Reasons for that are the elongated periods in which insects transmit infections in general and the broadened regions which they can now inhabit.

The immediate and acute dangers of floods obviously include drowning and injury. Others also include exposure to toxic chemicals, homelessness, and respiratory diseases from worse air quality due to mold and living in damp environments.

Air quality

While we’re at it, air quality is an important thing to talk about. Worse air quality can lead to asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), irritation of the throat, inflammation of the lungs, lung cancer, airway congestion, chest pains and heart attacks.

Furthermore, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to higher allergy levels in plants. People may experience greater sensitivity to allergens, asthma or worsening of other respiratory conditions. An increase in carbon dioxide can lead to higher levels of allergens from plants.

Food security

Climate change affects all parts of the food supply system. Production, availability, access, quality – you name it. Weather disasters increase and lead to a reduction of the yields of major crops, while higher levels of CO2 reduce their nutritional value. Higher temperatures and water scarcity lead to agricultural catastrophes every single year and are increasing as time goes on.

Moreover, once food is more limited, prices will inflate, leaving the poorest most vulnerable. Those who contribute the least to our changing climate.

Water supply

Climate change already affects water access for many people around the world and global warming is one of the biggest reasons. Water evaporates in larger amounts, which then leads to more atmospheric water vapor and heavy, intense rainfalls become inevitable. Furthermore, this fact will lead to more floods and those floods will lead to the pollution of our groundwater.

Actions to take

Sign which reads "Planet over profit"
Credits: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Okay again, let’s get the terminology straight first. We can organize actions on climate change into two groups: mitigation and adaptation (others do exist, but there are the most prominent).

Mitigation (in this context) refers to all efforts that are made or will be made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon sinks. Those measures slow the speed and severity of climate change. Some of the most important goals include the reduction of energy demand, an increase in renewable energy, the reduction of emissions from agriculture and forestry and a strengthening of land-based emissions sequestration.

Adaptation (in this context) includes interventions which are made or happen as a reaction to climate change. This means measures of adjusting and moderating the risks and effects of climate change. The extent and specific actions have their limits. Those exist by “governance, economics, infrastructure, technology, information and skills, institutions, and equity”.

Actions for mental health

  • Policy responses should improve the access and funding to mental health care.
  • Epidemiological surveys should help to examine mental health after extreme weather events.
  • Helpers should perform a stepped-care approach to mental health. They should have knowledge of psychological first aid.
  • Climate change adaptation, as well as resilience, have to be planned to suit and fit into the mental health system.
  • Implementation of community-based interventions which address psychosocial wellbeing.
  • Experiencing and preserving nature as a form of grounding. This provides a sense of personal investment.

Impacts of climate change on humans

I hope that my article can serve as a first eye-opener. An introduction to the connection between climate change and our physical and mental health. The most obvious effects we see are obviously environmental impacts. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The consequences form a vicious cycle and condition each other.

For example, global warming and climate change can lead to a warmer earth. This, then, can lead to more droughts which inevitably endanger agriculture, since crops are not as good as they were in the years prior. The following consequence is that less (good) food is available, which means some people might live in hunger. Moreover, farmers cannot use the land as well as they could before. They might not be able to sustain agriculture and could lose their jobs.

All of these consequences of this, more than real example, go hand in hand with physical and mental distress. They then go hand in hand with each other again. It is necessary to keep all these things in mind when thinking about climate change. We have to take the necessary precautions early on, and not at the moment when catastrophe hits. We need to make sure we can save as many people from any kind of emotional or physical distress as possible. The way to go is to start now.

Feature image credits: Ma Ti / Unsplash

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