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Climate Change Reverberations — Public Health Fallout
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 19 No. 4 P. 22

The effects of climate change are not limited to the weather; the physical and mental wellbeing of the planet’s population are also at risk.

The most public conversations around climate change today tend to be disaster focused, denier focused, or Hollywood focused. Storms are linked to climate change as they bear down on unprepared towns. Drought is discussed as wildfires rip through communities once thought to be safe. People throw their hands up in disgust as another public official claims there’s not enough evidence to support climate change, and television viewers sit down in front of Netflix to despair at the latest documentary about the shrinking animal kingdom.

These types of focus can have their benefit, as they pull people in and connect them to the concept of climate change. However, drawbacks exist as well. What people miss when they acknowledge climate change primarily through the news cycle are the longer and long-term effects on communities’ wellbeing.

Increasingly, researchers are identifying and studying the public health effects of climate change—the ways in which the altered planet has already and will continue to impact both physical and mental health. What they are finding is that the effects are far-reaching, some developing in the aftermath of disasters and others as the subtler aspects of climate change more slowly unfold.

Disaster-Specific Consequences
Events such as hurricanes and wildfires offer an immediate window into the impact of climate change on communities. As homes and entire towns are forever altered or destroyed, these residents in these areas will be faced with a litany of needs.

“Take the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, which was at least in part related to a longstanding drought,” says Lisa Reyes Mason, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor and PhD program director at the University of Tennessee. “People who lived and worked in Paradise may have lost not only their home and job but also their sense of community and place, their everyday social connections that are an important part of emotional health and wellbeing.

“And surviving an event like the Camp Fire is traumatic,” she continues. “There is grief over family and friends who did not survive, the possibility of PTSD, and ongoing stress about putting one’s life back together.”

When communities are unable to rebuild or recuperate fully from such an event, the longer-term effects become even clearer. In Puerto Rico, for instance, the impacts of Hurricane Maria continue to come to light as time passes. Though hurricanes are not a new result of climate change, scientists have identified the impacts of climate change, including a warmer atmosphere and increasing sea surface temperatures, as key contributing factors in the development of storms such as Maria.

When the storm first hit, the death toll was reported as quite low. However, in the months since, that number has risen to the thousands. George Washington University reported in August 2018 that an estimated 2,975 died as a result of the hurricane.

Additionally, many left Puerto Rico after the hurricane, often in an attempt to find work. “[But] who got left behind?” asks R. Anna Hayward, PhD, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Work. “Often it was people with disabilities and elders. When family members have had to leave the island to work, unfortunately, vulnerable people were left with less caregivers and less resources.”

Community Health
However, a growing number of increasingly severe natural disasters are not the only ways in which climate change is affecting public health and leaving communities vulnerable. People are living with the consequences of climate change every day, and it is weighing heavily on their mental health, as well as their physical wellbeing.

In Australia, drought is threatening farmers’ abilities to make their living, which impacts the economy of drought-stricken regions. Many in those regions are struggling with their mental health, seeking treatment for depression and anxiety. In fact, in September 2018, it was announced that additional funding—a $6.3 million package—would be allocated for mental health services in New South Wales. The funding builds upon an existing program and will be used over the course of two years. After that time, the government plans to assess the severity and extent of the drought, as well as seek feedback on the services.

Similarly, Hayward points to studies in India that show an increase in reported depression and suicidal ideations, as well as suicides, among farmers due to changes to their land. One such study, released in 2017, estimates that more than 59,000 suicides in India over the past three decades could be linked to climate change. The study found that “for temperatures above 20° C, a 1° C increase in a single day’s temperature causes ~70 suicides, on average.”

Outside of farmers and their immediate communities, the shifting climate leaves many with greater stressors. Reyes Mason points to her own state of Tennessee. “In Knoxville, TN, our own research on how lower- and moderate-income households cope with summer heat waves and extreme winter weather found that more than two-thirds of participants had some kind of physical health impact and more than half had a mental health impact. For a majority, finances were impacted as well.”

Increased Violence
One of those impacts might well be an increase in the violence and aggression individuals and their community experience on a regular basis.

“There is a lot of research showing that hot temperatures increase violent crime rates, even after controlling for other variables that are known to be linked to violent crimes,” says Craig A. Anderson, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University and editor of Aggressive Behavior.

“More recently,” he continues, “there is growing evidence that rapid climate change contributes to various types of intergroup violence, such as civil wars and terrorist movements.”

Anderson recently coauthored a study on how global warming affects violence and aggression. His team found that higher temperatures can lead to more of both in three ways. First, individuals often experience higher irritability as a result of heat stresses that can give way to more aggressive behavior.

Second, as children are born into a world affected by climate change, “known risk factors for a developing fetus or child eventually becoming a violence-prone adult will become more prevalent as a result of climate change-induced ecological disasters.” These individuals may have less access to adequate pre- and postnatal nutrition, decreased economic opportunity, and dysfunctional or disrupted families, among other risk factors.

Third, the migration of large groups of individuals as a result of climate change can lead to increased conflict between populations. This type of migration is called eco- or environmental migration.

Environmental Migration
Already today (and historically), environmental migration is not uncommon. However, the relocating populations are not always aware that their moves are so closely linked to the environment.

Meredith C. F. Powers, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor in the department of social work at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and director of the climate justice program for the International Federation of Social Workers, previously worked in refugee resettlement. She says that hearing people’s stories—why they left their homes—is how she began connecting the dots.

“[A refugee] might say ‘I left because of political warfare,’ but what created the need for people to be fighting? Usually it had to do with natural resources,” she says. “I kept tracing the roots back from migration to all of these environmental reasons.”

Similarly, she says, those who migrate to find work often do so because their lands have been depleted and available jobs will not pay enough to support a family.

Regardless of the reason, environmental migration can be and is traumatizing for those involved on many levels. “There’s original trauma when you see the connections, and the land and the environment that you love and you’re a part of being destroyed or being degraded,” Powers says.

She adds that trauma also exists in the very act of resettling, as well as in the anxiety of what comes next—for the person, the community, and the planet. “There is the trauma of the future, the ecogrief and climate anxiety that we experience thinking about our own personal and planetary trajectory,” Powers says.

As climate change continues to impact a larger swath of people, the prevalence of environmental migration will also grow. Per Anderson’s study, this could lead to greater conflicts. The paper points to Syria and an unprecedented drought as an example: “Briefly (and somewhat oversimplified), the drought forced large numbers of Syrians to migrate to Syrian cities in search of jobs and food. The government failed to provide the expected jobs, food, and housing, leading to political and civil unrest, which contributed to other coexisting risk factors for civil war.”

Strains on resources, as well as additional perceived and real consequences of environmental migration can lead to increased tension within communities, which can then lead to more aggression and violence. The results of this will not always be as dire as civil war but will be impactful on the development of the residents in these areas.

However, Anderson does note that, “Scientifically, it is very difficult to conclusively prove that global warming contributed to a specific instance of intergroup violence, just as it is scientifically difficult—but not impossible—to prove that global warming contributed to a specific hurricane or drought. But in both cases, careful analyses have linked rapid global warming to such negative effects,” he says.

As the effects of climate change on health become more apparent, so do the inequalities that impact individuals’ and whole communities’ ability to respond.

“Time and again, we see that some groups of people more so than others suffer most,” Reyes Mason says. “This might be children and older adults whose respiratory systems are more stressed by seasonal allergies and asthmas, or African Americans who have been historically redlined into communities where property values are low and homes may be in higher need of weatherization.”

Reyes Mason says that the gap is most easily seen when looking at how communities rebuild. Hayward agrees, comparing her region’s experience with Puerto Rico’s.

“I live on Long Island,” she says. “We had Hurricane Sandy come through here and many of the communities were devastated; however, they were able to rebuild. In Puerto Rico, even if they were able to receive assistance, it was at levels of the perceived value of the home.” She recalls seeing the rebuilding of a wooden house when she was in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. “Why would you rebuild a wooden house that’s going to blow away in the next hurricane? They had a wooden house before,” she says, “and they were only given enough money to rebuild a wooden house.

“The inequities are compounded for communities that already lack resources. These events are traumatizing and can have lasting mental health effects, but some communities have more resources to fall back on than others,” she concludes.

Educating and Advocating
Identifying the health impacts, as well as how inequalities may be magnified by these consequences, is just one important step in helping individuals and their communities cope with climate change. Those same individuals and communities must see the connection to start working toward a solution—or at least an adaptation.

Powers notes that that link is not always evident. “It varies from person to person and place to place,” she says. “The people who are living more closely connected to the land, they’re a little bit more aware of these connections.

“The other people who are not aware—it’s not that they don’t have these connections. They’re not mindful of them. You can operate pretty much removed from your physical environment. Maybe they think ‘Oh yeah, there are people who deal with climate change, but it’s not me.’”

Community education is vital. Information can help individuals recognize the impacts and professionals address them. However, when providing education, it is important to approach the topic appropriately.

“Each of us needs to be talking more about climate change. One way to do this is to not necessarily use the phrase ‘climate change’ if the term doesn’t resonate with someone,” Reyes Mason says. “How does climate change play out in people’s lives? It’s through hot summers, heavy rains, flooding in the basement, more mosquitoes, allergies affecting grandkids’ breathing, and so many other everyday ways that people might relate better to.”

When individuals are aware of the connection, however, they may be able to proactively address the impacts. “If people understand that the stress associated with excessive heat and flooding problems, and economic problems can make interpersonal interactions more difficult, they might be able to better resist aggressive inclinations and better prepare to focus on nonaggressive problem solving,” Anderson says.

In the end, what matters most is that action is taken—to address climate change, as well as the physical and mental health effects of it.

“This is not just a natural pattern of nature,” Powers says. “We have culpability in it and a role to play in the solutions.”

Reyes Mason agrees. “If no action is taken, the physical health, emotional wellbeing, and financial stability of so many people will not just be at risk but will be much worse,” she warns. “The time to act on climate change is now.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.