Although I’ve been aware of climate change for many years, it wasn’t until I was invited to join an American Psychological Association Climate Change Task Force about ten years ago that I formally got involved in working to understand how climate change affects people.

I was the only clinical psychologist in group, and I worked with experts in psychology and the environment to create a report, titled “Psychological & Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multifaceted Phenomenon & Set of Challenges,” that has been cited over 400 times now.

With exotic scientific discoveries like black holes in space, the theory may be hundreds of years old but it is only now humans can measure these effectively. Similarly with climate change, the theory of human caused global warming is over 120 years old—people were talking about it in the late 1800s. It is only in the last two decades that we have the science and weather technology to actually map temperature changes around the world. Our ability to measure climate change has caught up with the original hypothesis.

I often ask people when they first became aware of climate change. For many folks, it wasn’t until the publication of former Vice President Al Gore’s groundbreaking book “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. I wasn’t exposed to the idea of climate change in college in the 1980’s even though I studied international affairs, and when I worked for Greenpeace in the early ’90s, the issue wasn’t a big part of our campaigns. It was only in graduate school in 1997, when I snuck over to take courses in environmental studies, that I understood climactic change as a global “bio-geo-chemical” phenomenon.  It was my work with the APA Task Force that really drove home to me the connection between climate change and human society, human politics and human health.

For example, disaster psychology—how natural and technological disasters affect people’s mental and emotional well-being—is now well known in the mental health field. In the last 30 years, there’s been an explosion in the amount of information we have about attitudes toward chemical spills and nuclear plant accidents (technological disasters) versus floods, earthquakes and tornadoes (natural disasters). Technological disasters often elicit a “blame” response to perceived human error and/or negligence, while natural disasters tend to elicit a “helping” response, with people rushing in to rebuild affected areas. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which sullied the Gulf of Mexico and killed or maimed numerous marine species, is a prime example of a technological failure affecting the environment. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake near Port-au-Prince in Haiti—an “act of God,” or completely natural disaster—caused the deaths of some 160,000 people in 2010.

There are also combination natural & technological disasters (so called “na-tech” disasters). In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and killed 1,836 people. While a hurricane might traditionally be seen as “natural,” the failure of New Orleans’ levee system was clearly a technological (preventable) problem. Thus, there was an altruistic response by thousands of people wanting to help those directly affected by the flooding, but also an accountability response that pushed to bring city, county, and state officials to task for improper maintenance of the area’s surge protection system.

Climate change is correctly seen as a global scale “na-tech” disaster. The forcing of climate processes due to powerful human technologies, and thus increasingly likelihood of severe storms like Katrina, blurs the line between natural and technological.

Clearly, people who live in areas where disasters occur are directly affected in negative ways. But there’s also a social justice component to disaster. Because high risk industries such as refineries or chemical plants tend to be located in poorer areas of cities and towns, people on the lowest socioeconomic rungs of the ladder often pay a disproportionate price in terms of a disaster’s long-term effects.

So, what are the mental health aspects of climate change and its consequences—unprecedented sea level rise, increasing incidents of deadly wildfires and higher numbers of violent and extreme storms? In my research with the APA task force, we uncovered three main classes of reactions: Immediate impacts, long-term (secondary) impacts, and vicarious (ambient) impacts. Examples in the first category include emotional trauma, injury, property damage, job loss, anxiety and depression in the wake of an extreme event. Examples in the second category are forced migration, the closure of businesses and the loss of one’s livelihood (think farm foreclosure). And examples in the third category include stress and concern on the part of sheltered people for those in the “eye of the storm,” so to speak; absorbing the disaster through never-ending reports in the media; and sorrow over the tragedy’s injustice component.

So, you don’t have to live in a disaster zone to be affected in challenging ways. Whole books have been written about peoples’ despair over environmental changes. Yet we must not succumb to hopelessness; we don’t have to become climate hostages. Since climate change is a public health crisis and, in my view, the defining issue of our times, it’s important to take bold steps.

Politicians in Oregon have begun debating the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, designed to curtail harmful greenhouse gasses and carbon emissions, with a goal of reducing them to 80 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2050. Right now, the bill is in limbo, with lawmakers kicking the can down the street, vowing to take up the issue again in 2019. I’m deeply disappointed that Oregon and Washington were not able to take more leadership on this issue during recent legislative sessions.

This is an urgent issue for me. We can no longer say “it’s just the weather.” While there’s no easy solution or perfect policy when it comes to climate change, inaction is unacceptable. I will be (re)contacting my representatives to urge them to act, and I hope you will, too. California and Canadian Provinces have enacted similar cap-and-trade legislation and are already reaping the benefits. Let’s fight for our lives—and those of future generations—by taking steps to constructively alter our behavior as local and global communities.


[image | Grist | Amelia Bates]

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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