The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change

This article is based upon an important new report on The Psychological effects of global warming in the United States. The report will be put in the context of previous work in Australia including that by Doctors for the Environment Australia.

The article is not for the quick news grab, rather it is for those who want to learn about the present state of knowledge on the issue, for those DEA members giving talks and in particular for medical students studying the topic. The key references and not comprehensive and we invite DEA members to submit other key references to be added at the end of the document.

I suppose we really did have to wait for climate change catastrophe to bring home to communities the real meaning of climate change. The year 2011 was a weather horror story in the US, the events were so widespread, varied, dramatic and costly that the wider community has now realised there is a problem, it affects them, and is a big worry. The steady decline in interest and acceptance of climate change over recent years has been reversed.

Within this context the US report has the subheading “Climate change lessons from the severe summer of 2011” and says

“The extreme and sometimes violent weather of the summer of 2011 can offer valuable insights into how a warming climate will affect the people in the United States and other parts of the world. The news headlines included: a worsening Texas drought, record heat in the eastern states, a rise in heat-related deaths in many U.S. cities; violent floods in the East and Midwest; an expanded range and season for some of the worst tornados on record and more”.

The recognition of mental health impacts has been with is for some time.
Four years ago DEA produced a report in conjunction with the Climate Institute “Climate Change Health Check
This report was focussed on the ways in which medical practice, particularly in rural communities would have to deal with dislocation and stress.

Later in 2008, Grant Blashki, DEA Committee member, and colleagues in Melbourne produced an important paper on “Hope, despair and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and wellbeing” with the conclusions

i) the direct impacts of climate change such as extreme weather events will have significant mental health implications;
ii) climate change is already impacting on the social, economic and environmental determinants of mental health with the most severe consequences being felt by disadvantaged communities and populations;
iii) understanding the full extent of the long term social and environmental challenges posed by climate change has the potential to create emotional distress and anxiety; and
iv) understanding the psycho-social implications of climate change is also an important starting point for informed action to prevent dangerous climate change at individual, community and societal levels.

Also in 2008 DEA commenced commenting on mental health issues in articles to the press on the health impacts of climate change.  And this remains our policy

In 2011 the climate Institute produced an important report in conjunction with Ian Hickie A CLIMATE OF SUFFERING: The Real Costs of Living with Inaction on Climate Change

The suffering had come home to Australia with cyclone Yasi and the east coast floods

“As recent disasters like Cyclone Yasi and the Eastern Australian floods have shown, many people prove remarkably resilient in the face of a disaster. But people’s responses to disaster are complex. With the right support, many communities can pull together and pull through, and Australians rightly celebrate this apparent strength. However, for many, the dislocation and suffering caused by extreme events can linger for years, long into the ‘recovery’.

Just how much Australians’ mental health burden grows in the future depends significantly on how quickly and substantially we act on climate change now. Seeing action on climate change as an investment in preventative health care is an important first step. After all, prevention is always better—not to mention cheaper—than treatment”.

This report is a must read for medical students for it details the conditions under which they will practice in future years in Australia

The intent of the “Climate Change Health Check” report was “to raise awareness of the mental health consequences of extreme weather events and climate change. By reviewing the evidence and expert opinion, it is hoped that governments, businesses and communities will be prompted to act early, to avoid further unnecessary suffering and cost.”

Unfortunately in Australia we are still at the stage of hope in the face of increasingly vigorous political and press attack on existing meagre measures to alleviate climate change

However to return to the US report, this is a report with impressive medical backing and has come at a time of increasing community concern

It concludes that in the coming years, a majority of Americans will experience direct adverse effects from the impacts of global warming. Natural disasters. And extreme weather events will strike many places that are densely populated: 50 percent of Americans live in coastal regions exposed to storms and sea level rise, 70 percent of Americans live in cities prone to heat
waves; major inland cities lie along rivers that will swell to record heights, and the fastest growing part of the nation is the increasingly arid West.

“An estimated 200 million Americans will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate related events and incidents: The severity of symptoms will vary, but in many instance the distress will be great”.

A note from the Editor
Please Read the full report and use this information when you see your elected representatives

Please send your key references so we can build our learning on this topic

(1) Major impacts of climate change expected on mental health (from the UK)
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-12/kcl-mio120309.php

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