Climate and Sustainability

Climate change and our environmentally unsustainable behavior are imperiling the mental and physical health of millions, and likely billions, of people around the world—including millions in the United States. We are accelerating climate change through our burning of more and more fossil fuels and our destruction of natural resources to consume an ever-more dizzying quantity of products. Earth is warming, and the results already have included more severe heat waves, stronger storms, droughts, flash floods, increasingly polluted air, and sea level rise.

Psychologists are only now beginning to understand that the seemingly small and cataclysmic environmental events that climate change and our unsustainable behavior portend will contribute to soaring rates of anxiety, depression, and traumatization. And if Hurricane Katrina is any indication, research shows the survivors of such events may suffer the consequences for years to come, if not for the rest of their lives, after experiencing the damage to or loss of homes, livelihoods, and community resources—such as schools, grocery stores, shops, hospitals, and farms—that help us to manage our daily lives.

The Basic Science

At its most basic, climate change and environmental decline largely are happening because carbon dioxide is released as we burn fossil fuels—including gasoline, coal, and natural gas—for food production, manufacturing, electricity, heating, transportation, and other needs. Carbon dioxide is a gas that rises into the atmosphere and creates a thickening blanket miles above Earth’s surface. Then, as the Sun’s rays heat the planet, the blanket prevents the rising temperatures at the surface from being radiated back out into space. The planet is gradually warming as a result, although there are variations to the warmth based on other aspects of our natural environment.

As the temperature on Earth warms, it helps water on the surface to evaporate more quickly. The water condenses in the atmosphere, which can lead to more intense storms that dump large amounts of rain, leading to flooding and property destruction. The rapid evaporation also engenders droughts in some places on the planet’s surface. This, in turn, can harm the natural growth cycles of crops, leading to food shortages. Other harmful aspects of the warming include increasingly severe heat waves that can kill the vulnerable, more ozone and other air pollutants near the ground that can make us ill or cause asthma, increased risks for insect-related diseases as the bugs find the warmer temperatures more conducive to their growth, and sea level rise.

Sea level rise comes from the rapid melting of the planet’s enormous glaciers around the world. Water also expands when it’s warmer, so the seas creep higher along the shores. Sea level rise may amount to several or many meters in the coming decades and swamp the homes and communities of millions of people on the planet, especially those living in low-lying areas including even Florida, the Gulf states, and the East and West Coasts of the United States.

Climate change isn’t only warming the planet and causing these myriad problems. It’s also contributing to the acidification of our oceans. That's because the oceans absorb some of the carbon dioxide, and it’s a mild acid. The results of ocean acidification include the decline of our coral reefs, which are sensitive to water conditions, as well as disruptions to the oceans' food chain that supports vast arrays of aquatic life and the creation of vast expanses of the ocean that can simply no longer support life. Those places are called "dead zones."

Meanwhile, our lands are experiencing many additional effects from climate change and environmental harm. Apart from droughts, floods, and storm damage already described, fires have been ravaging parts of the United States, Russia, Australia, and other countries destroying forests, crops, and houses; insects have been killing large swaths of our forests; and people are being forced from their homes and communities—sometimes forever—where all of this damage is taking place.

Before we more deeply explore the interconnections among climate change, the environment, and mental health, please know that “global warming” is a common term in the media and literature. While the planet is warming overall, because of variations in our environment some places will experience more warmth in the era of climate change and some will actually be cooler at times. So, climate change is a more accurate description of the phenomenon. More important, if we don’t make stronger efforts to prevent it, we could be experiencing something called “climate chaos.” That will be dangerous for all of our psyches.

The Specific Psychological Outcomes of Climate Change

Climate change will have specific effects on our planet and on us, and what follows are descriptions of the mental health and behavioral outcomes of those effects.

Heat

  • Higher temperatures are associated with increased interpersonal violence, anxiety, and depression.
  • Substance abuse rates increase with higher temperatures.
  • More people visit emergency rooms when it’s hotter.
  • Heat waves can have enormous effects, as was the case in 1995 in Chicago when about 700 people died and in 2003 across Europe when more than 45,000 people died as a result.

Storms & Cataclysmic Events

  • Severe, persistent, and life-changing anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression, and social disruption are among the hallmarks of intense storms.
  • Stronger storms, such as we experienced in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, are a likely outcome of climate change and can deepen those symptoms as enormous life- and property-damaging flash floods, strong winds, and storm surge unfold.
  • All at once, tens of thousands of people can be displaced from their homes and their routines, disrupting not only individuals but also entire communities for years… or forever.
  • Displacement also can contribute to social conflict as people move into other communities’ areas and limited resources become more taxed.
  • On an individual level, storm-related disruptions contribute to greater family problems, sleep difficulties, and behavioral problems and school failure in children.
  • Infrastructure may be lost, including homes, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, nearby farms, and other essential places essential for society to function.
  • Stronger storms also release their rains quickly, meaning the water runs off the ground without replenishing water supplies. This contributes to droughts.

Drought & Water Resources

  • A lack of adequate rain, snow, and other forms of moisture—or heavy, sudden storms that lead to quick water run off—reduces water supplies essential for life, contributing to persistent, numbing stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Inadequate water supplies also are the basis for innumerable conflicts that endanger millions of people on a daily basis, including those we know as Darfur in Sudan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the occasional battles between India and Pakistan.
  • Less water also means a concentration of toxins in the diminishing water supplies, and this can increase human risks for ingesting poisons, such as heavy metals, that are associated with psychological, behavioral, and development deficits especially in children.
  • Without water, we are less able to keep ourselves and our communities clean, and apart from increased risks for disease we also face having more interpersonal and behavioral problems as a result.
  • Dehydration, a problem for millions of people on the planet, increases risks for mental impairments.
  • The reality of drought has hit most areas of the United States, apart from other places on Earth, recently. The Rocky Mountains and the West, the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and even the central parts of the U.S.—the nation’s breadbasket—all have experienced exceptional and unusual droughts in the past few years.

Food

  • Climate change will harm our food supply, and considerable research shows that malnutrition diminishes human intelligence, contributes to mental illnesses, and creates a host of stresses ranging from anxiety and post-traumatic stress to depression and conflict.
  • Children and the infirm are especially at risk for the risks of inadequate nutrition, and they have been shown to have lower IQs, developmental disabilities, and behavioral and academic difficulties as a result.
  • As the climate heats up some crops actually can do better in the warmer temperatures, but others do less well. It will be tricky for farmers to determine how best to grow their crops in the era of climate change, and the risk for food shortages will grow. The rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also helps some crops grow better but hinders others.
  • Inadequate water resources for crop growth will further stress the food supply and lead to untoward psychological outcomes for humans.
  • Food insecurity also is associated with increased violence toward women, and this stands apart from the anxiety, depression, and stress that arises in communities when there isn’t enough food to sustain people.
  • If people are displaced because they don’t have enough food locally, the likelihood for greater social conflict will grow as people compete for increasingly scarce food resources.
  • Pesticide and herbicide use are likely to be used more for crop production in a warmer world as insects and some weeds reproduce better in higher temperatures, and research shows that these toxins actually create a host of pervasive psychological and physical impairments. Developmental disabilities, behavioral problems, and depression and anxiety are associated with exposure to pesticides and herbicides.

Sea Level Rise

  • Inordinate stress, depression, grief, and post-traumatic stress will result as ocean levels rise and inundate many of our coastal areas, displacing millions of people around the world.
  • About 70 percent of the world’s population live in coastal areas, and some places, such as African, Southeast Asia, Pacific Island nations, and even many of the coastal areas of the United States will experience loss of millions of acres of coastal property—including all of the infrastructure located on it—to the rising seas of climate change.
  • Sea level rise also will destroy enormous swaths of farm land and cause the salination of drinking water resources. The result will be less food and less water for both physical and psychological well-being.

Air Quality

  • As air temperatures warm more ozone, a natural pollutant, is produced. More polluted air actually causes asthma, which is associated with increased risk for anxiety and depression in both children and adults.
  • Air pollution also is associated with more family violence, learning disabilities from the toxicants, and more child behavioral problems.
  • More polluted air increases the risk for heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses, and those bring about more anxiety and depression, too, as well as cause considerable stress for families and communities trying to maintain healthy people and reduce health care costs.
  • Air pollution from motor vehicles, which is a significant contributing factor to climate change, may even increase the risk for schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder in which people may experience hallucinations and delusions. Climate change will worsen air pollution. Therefore, climate change may exacerbate the risk for schizophrenia.

Vector-Borne Diseases

  • As warming temperatures make the environment more conducive to the reproduction and spread of insect- and microbe-carried diseases—such as malaria and dengue fever—more people will be infected and experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress as a result.
  • Children have been shown to experience intense anxiety in relation to vector-borne diseases.
  • Some of these diseases cause persistent mental confusion; harm speech and language development; and can affect long-term learning abilities, memory, and concentration.

Poverty, Skin Color, Women, Children, the Elderly, and the Infirm

  • Climate change and environmental degradation from our unsustainable practices will most harm the poor, people of color, women, children, the elderly, and infirm around the world.
  • Poverty will deepen in many places through decreased access to resources, loss of homes and livelihoods, and displacement.
  • Developing nations will bear the greatest brunt from climate change, as they are located in places that will face the largest repercussions and have the fewest resources to prevent its harm. Africa, parts of Asia, India, and South America are in this category.
  • By dint of poverty and location, people of color will be more harmed, but even in wealthier nations people who live in poverty are disproportionately people of color and will have less wherewithal to deter the damage.
  • Women, who still bear a greater burden of taking care of families in most societies, will be inordinately stressed during the age of climate change.
  • Children, the elderly, and the infirm all are in developmental or physical states whereby climate change and environmental decline will put them at greater risk for damaging psychological responses.