MORGANTOWN — It’s not just storms and wildfires. Climate change also poses a risk to the psychological well-being of people all around the world.
“Thinking about climate change is associated with anxiety, with uncertainty,” said Susan Clayton, professor of psychology and chair of environmental studies at the College of Wooster, in Ohio.
The mental health effects that stem from a warming planet are wide and varied. A warming planet increases the severity and frequency of high heat and extreme weather events, which can pose stress and violence on people. There are social impacts — crime and domestic abuse spike after extreme weather events. Social norms can break down.
“People aren’t as nice to each other when it’s hot,” Clayton told a room of listeners at West Virginia University’s College of Law Saturday morning.
Hers was among several presentations on the public health impacts of climate change — a day-long event put on by the WVU School of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, the West Virginia Center on Climate Change and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Public Health Training Center.
The event was sandwiched between two major events on climate change — a series of climate strikes held by young people Friday, and the United Nations’ 2019 Climate Action Summit, in New York, starting Monday.
Leaders involved in each of the events say climate change is the biggest issue of our time. According to NASA, the planet’s average surface temperature has increased about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. Scientists attribute the warming to man-made emissions and the burning of fossil fuels. According to NASA, the majority of the warming has happened over the past 35 years, five of the warmest since 2010.
“Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year — from January through September, with the exception of June — were the warmest on record for those respective months,” says NASA.
Climate change is linked to extreme weather events, including hurricanes, wildfires and heavy rain.
According to the experts who spoke in Morgantown Saturday, those extreme weather events can affect the health of people who experience the events themselves. There’s an immediate impact on public health — exposure to water from floods exposes us to pathogens, for example. Breathing in polluted air, by itself, can lead to an increase in asthma, autoimmune disorders and respiratory infections. Climate change is linked with infectious and vector-borne diseases. Those health issues can lead to an impact on mental health.
“This is unimaginable, that we don’t have laws to protect us from this public health crisis,” said Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., and former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University’s Department of Psychiatry.
Clayton cited a report that, after Hurricane Katrina, 49 percent of people had anxiety or a mood disorder. One of six people had post-traumatic stress disorder.
The uncertainty of climate change — how bad it can be, and when — has a direct affect on hopelessness and stress. Climate change can erode the fabric of our identities — the jobs we do, where we live and the control we have over our own lives.
There’s a word for this: solastalgia — the existential distress caused by environmental change, and homesickness for a place that feels changed and unfamiliar.
West Virginians who value the beauty of the Mountain State may be especially prone to this, experts noted.
“We are all full of anxiety about climate change,” said Van Susteren.
Of course, the most vulnerable people will be affected by this. The poorest countries, and the poorest communities within those countries, will suffer the most impacts, Clayton said.
“You can be vulnerable because you’re in a geographically vulnerable area, more susceptible to sea level rise and more susceptible to drought or flooding. You can be economically vulnerable because money can help protect you from the impacts of climate change,” she said.
People can be socially vulnerable — they’ll have less access to information or resources required to cope with climate change events.
And, specifically, people might be physically vulnerable, with people with mental illness and the elderly especially at risk, Clayton said.
“Young children, we need to care most about, because as their bodies are still developing they are physiologically vulnerable to stresses, some of these will have a permanent effect on them,” Clayton said. “Experiencing stress at an early age can permanently affect their ability to respond to stress in the future.”
It’s important to pay attention to the health impact of climate change, Clayton said, because the issue personalizes the severity of climate change. It transcends the political binary.
“Emotional connection is at the heart of what moves people to take action,” said Van Susteren.