From Melting Minds to United Hearts: How Global Warming Wreaks Havoc on the Body and Mind, and Solid
Climate events directly impact our physical health and mental well-being.
The direct and indirect effects of climate change significantly impact individuals and our global community.
We can build climate resilience for the benefit of individuals, communities, and global society.
Originally posted in Psychology Today https://editor.wix.com/html/editor/web/renderer/edit/d64bf5d1-a873-4700-a2a7-b35e771d0208?metaSiteId=ee55e193-1481-4ef3-a523-7a7601146190
The idea of summer evokes nostalgic feelings of outdoor fun and family vacations. But the reality of summer has changed, with temperatures rising higher each year, flooding and wildfires threatening communities and agriculture, and pollution and smoke tainting the quality of our air.
The effects of climate change are not trivial. As our planet warms, we are increasingly exposed to heatwaves that have a catastrophic impact on our bodies and our minds. Intense heat increases the likelihood of heat stress, heat stroke, and cardiovascular events—risks that are elevated for those who are most vulnerable, including younger and older populations, people with chronic diseases, those who are overweight, and unhoused and low-income individuals. Higher temperature also correlate to increased incidents of respiratory problems, because heat both increases metabolic demands and concentrates air pollutants, causing a degradation in air quality (EPA, 2022). When temperatures exceed 100 degrees and/or the weather is chronically hot and humid, every body is challenged beyond physiological adaptive capacity, and everyone’s risks increase (Kenny, et al., 2009).
Extreme heat also directly impacts our mental health and well-being. Research links high-temperature exposure to increased irritability, aggressiveness, domestic violence, anxiety, poor sleep quality, depressive symptoms and suicidality, problems with memory, attention and reaction time, and lost productivity (Park, Goodman, Hurwitz & Smith, J., 2020; Heilmann, Khan & Tang, 2021). A recent study (Wahid, Raza, Mahmud & Kohrt, 2023) reveals that even a one degree increase in ambient temperature above the norm contributes to a greater likelihood of experiencing depression and anxiety. Further, as heat makes us irritable, angry and sad, it also negatively impacts our decision-making so we become more likely to react impulsively, with poor judgment.
There are indirect negative effects of global warming as well. As climate change intensifies, so does the frequency and ferociousness of extreme weather events. Environmental disasters such as heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts can result in displacement, job loss, financial distress, injury, illness, and death. Traumatic climate experiences give rise to PTSD, grief, fear, anxiety, guilt, isolation, and despondency. These effects can be amplified by the secondary impacts of species extinction and deterioration of resources and ecosystems, which may result in psychological crises prompted by eco-anxiety, uncertainty about the future, and a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair.
The direct and indirect consequences of global warming are not experienced equally. Resources, wealth, and power are concentrated such that the wealthy elite make inordinate contributions to climate change through carbon-hungry activities, while the poorest, most marginalized people face disproportionate challenges related to extreme climate events and their consequential impact on health, displacement, and resource security (IPCC, 2023).
In the past decade we have witnessed an intensification of extreme weather events, ice loss from glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, water scarcity, food insecurity, and displacement of communities and habitats. Fortunately, there have also been significant advances in climate science and greater understanding of the complex interactions and feedback mechanisms involved. There have been increases in public awareness and activism regarding climate action. We have seen an expansion of renewable energy sources and climate-related policies. While these positive advances have not occurred rapidly enough to offset the severity and speed of climate change and collateral devastation, they do kindle hope.
While climate change impacts physiological, psychological, and societal health, collective social action can provide a buffer for climate change anxiety. Community outreach, education, and participation in activism and advocacy act as mitigating variables, increasing self-efficacy, sense of purpose, community connection and social support (Swartz, et al., 2022). Further, collective action can bring about tangible positive changes including intersectional alliances, novel innovations, reduction of our carbon footprint, and strategic policy changes.
Building resilience is crucial for individuals, communities, and global society. At the societal level, investing in infrastructure development, climate-resilient agriculture, access to clean water, and sustainable industries can help communities adapt to changing environmental conditions and reduce inequity gaps. Moreover, international solidarity, at least for the promotion of global equity and wellness, is essential. Individually, climate resilience refers to a capacity to anticipate, prepare for, and robustly respond to extreme environmental challenges. It is a simple fact that we are a single, interconnected organism. Our resilience, our ability to thrive, and our capacity to adapt and change are completely dependent on building solidarity and learning how to work together for the greater good. Positive climate action demands that we accept our predicament and learn to think critically about global problems, even when reality conflicts with our desire for immediate gratification. In doing so, we will become able to develop holistic perspectives and systemic interventions, reliant on recursive calibrations, that inform our climate actions. We can reshape our individual and societal behaviors for more responsible consumption. We can learn how to balance local and national interests with the collective needs of all people, learning from the past to build an equitable future more in harmony with nature where we prioritize a sustainable, intersectional global ecosystem.
References Environmental Protection Agency, (2023). Research on Health Effects from Air Pollution. https://www.epa.gov/air-research/research-health-effects-air-pollution
K. Heilmann, M. E. Khan & C. K. Tang (2021). The urban crime and heat gradient in high and low poverty areas. Journal of Public Economics. 197, doi: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2021.104408.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2023). Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report: Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/ar6-syr/
Kenny G.P., Yardley J., Brown C., Sigal R.J., Jay O. (2010), Heat stress in older individuals and patients with common chronic diseases. CMAJ, 182, 10, pp. 1053-60. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.081050.
Park, R.J., Goodman, J., Hurwitz, M. & Smith, J. (2020). Heat and Learning. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 12, 2 p. 306-339. doi: 10.1257/pol.20180612
Schwartz, S.E.O., Benoit, L., Clayton, S. Parnes, M.F., Swenson, L. & Lowe, S. R. (2022). Climate change anxiety and mental health: Environmental activism as buffer. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-02735-6
Wahid, S.S., Raza, W.A., Mahmud, I. & Kohrt, B.A. (2023). The Lancet Planetary Health, 7, 2, 137-146. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00315-1