In the wake of increasing fires, storms and drought, the most profound wounds may occur in the human psyche, according to experts.
Mental health troubles are an insidious threat from climate change. Though less grisly than injuries and infections, mental illnesses can still be very costly. The World Economic Forum issued a study in 2011 that found mental health issues will lead to $16.1 trillion in lost economic productivity over the next two decades.
Some of those losses stem from a changing climate. A report last week from the American Psychological Association and environmental group ecoAmerica discussed the mental health impacts of a warming world.
"Our motivation is to get people to think about climate change in a way they aren't," said Susan Clayton, a co-author and a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster. "We're not presenting something new so much as something people have not been paying attention to."
Even the Obama administration, in its pitch for greenhouse gas emissions cuts from power plants, touted fewer asthma attacks and heart problems as a result of curbing carbon pollution, but overlooked the mental health benefits of doing so.
The report found that addressing climate change could slow or avert looming problems like stress, anxiety and depression. The analysis draws on how people responded to disruptions like hurricanes and tornados in the past.
"The bread and butter of the research is looking at the community after a disaster has occurred," said Caroline Hodge, associate manager for communications and research at ecoAmerica.
Farmers among those at risk
Following storms like Hurricane Katrina, many survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as the floodwaters drenched neighborhoods and upended homes. Many of the physical impacts like injuries and food insecurity led to mental troubles as well. This in turn slowed the recovery process as anxieties lingered while communities rebuilt (ClimateWire, Nov. 15 2011).
The effects then trickle throughout the economy as the afflicted struggle in their jobs. Substance abuse and domestic violence rates also tend to go up following extreme weather events.
And it's not just acute problems like storms; droughts that persist for months and years have devastating mental impacts on communities, especially for farmers. The report notes that suicide rates among farmers increased in Australia following droughts that ruined livelihoods.
According to an April Newsweek report, farmers are committing suicide at an alarming rate in countries like France, China, Ireland and India. In some instances, heavy rains or droughts catalyzed surges in suicides.
Community identities and relationships will likely fracture as sea-level rise forces people out of their homes and economic disruptions from global warming drive people into new areas. "People are uncomfortable when the things they have taken for granted start to change," Clayton said.
But just as it's difficult to attribute any single weather event to climate change, the report's authors note that they can't trace specific mental problems to a climate trend. The signal is difficult to isolate and slow to form, and there is a dearth of research on this front.
"It's definitely an emerging field," said Meighen Speiser, chief engagement officer at ecoAmerica.
Lack of preparation
By some accounts, the U.S. health sector is unprepared to cope with these problems, some of which are already occurring. The National Wildlife Federation in a 2012 report found that roughly 200 million Americans will face "serious psychological distress from climate related events and incidents" but past floods and fires showed that state and federal agencies providing psychological support were caught off guard and quickly overwhelmed when such disasters struck.
However, there are ways that health officials can mitigate mental harm. The ecoAmerica report recommends strategies like educating the public about risks from climate change alongside adaptation strategies. Balancing risks and solutions is critical to effective messaging around climate change in order to generate an effective public response (ClimateWire, April 10).
The authors also said validating people's experiences surrounding climate disruptions and tailoring a specific response for a given community is important in addressing mental well-being. "One of the best things communities can do is strengthen existing social networks," Hodge said.
Other groups have argued for mitigating climate change as a means to protect mental health. The advocacy group Psychologists for Social Responsibility sent a letter to Congress calling on officials to "legislate cuts in carbon dioxide emissions swiftly and boldly to prevent the greatest psychological harm from climate change."
Hodge added that many Americans are developing an intuitive understanding of how climate affects their minds, but it still needs a formal policy response. "Mental health should be part of the narrative on the impacts of climate," she said.