POST TIME: 28 October, 2019 10:39:40 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 28 October, 2019 10:40:10 AM
Living with eco-anxiety
The effects will be greatest in those smaller rural and regional towns where catastrophic weather events cause immediate loss of life and destruction of economy
Mohammed Abul Kalam, Ph.D.

Living with eco-anxiety

When we think about the health impacts of climate change, the effects of rising temperatures on physical health are often front of mind. But climate change affects people's mental health, too. We observe the significant impacts climate change is having on physical health, including an increase in climate-related deaths. The World Health Organisation regards climate change as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century”. But the statement also draws the very important issue of mental health out of the shadows.The report highlights that more frequent and more intense extreme weather events will result not simply in increased destruction of our physical infrastructure but will have devastating effects on the social fabric of our society.
The effects will be greatest in those smaller rural and regional towns where catastrophic weather events cause immediate loss of life and destruction of economic viability. It will also have profound psychological effects on individuals and the communities in which they live.
The report also draws attention to the likely long-term effects on children, particularly the prospect of increasing rates of anxiety.This may not only be a consequence of direct exposure to life-threatening situations and dislocation from family and community supports, but it’s also likely to result from living with that long-term threat of severe weather events.

Clearly, there’s a need to provide a cohesive response to these issues to assist with reducing that longer-term sense of threat.The report sets a framework for the need to plan our actions in the future.

At one level, that obviously involves international and national planning to reduce the likelihood of more frequent and severe weather events.Next, we need to be clear about how we can respond effectively to reduce the adverse impacts of severe weather events on mental health and social cohesion.A strong emphasis on backing community rather than professionally-based responses is essential to that task.

Finally, we need to be clear that the impacts on mental health are not just short-term but continue for long periods. In the worst instances, where many people, households, businesses, and community assets have been lost, some communities may never recover.

As Bangladesh is a country that knows the impacts of severe weather events, and the costs and significance ofhealth for our future social and economic prosperity, we need really to heed the advice not only of our development partners but also our climate scientists and our mental health experts.Taking appropriate steps earlier rather than later is clearly in our national interest. If that is before some of our international colleagues, so be it.Climate change can affect people’s mental health in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly.

We know experiencing extreme weather events is a risk factor for mental illness. And many thousands of people around the world are displaced from their homes as a result of climate events, putting them at perhaps even higher risk of mental illness. More generally, people feeling distressed about the state of the planet may find them in a spiral of what’s been termed “eco-anxiety”.

Extreme weather events and psychological distress: Unprecedented weather events across Bangladesh are already demonstrating clear and devastating impacts on the health as well as mental health of Bangladeshis, particularly in rural areas which are being hit the hardest by unseasonal drought, and floods. Elsewhere in the world, research similarly shows being affected by extreme weather events is a major risk factor for mental illness. This was evident, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

Prerequisites for good health: It turns out that the Goldilocks rule - “not too hot, not too cold” - applies to more than porridge. There have been many reports, such as those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate-Change and the Lancet Commission on Climate Change, that detail how aspects of human physical and mental are affected by a changing climate.

There is an optimum climate, related usually to what is most common or familiar. Deviations, especially if substantial and rapid, are risky. There are eight prerequisites for good health, including community, shelter, water, and food - all of which are threatened by climate change.

A reliable supply of food is one of the most important ecosystem services. The global food system is simultaneously more productive than ever before, and also exquisitely vulnerable. We depend more and more on a small number of crops, grown in monocultures on a larger scale and in fewer locations, dependent on long supply chains and frequently requiring irrigation and heavy use of artificial fertilizers.

Climate change threatens the production and distribution of food in many ways. For instance, the rice crop in southern China currently fails due to high-temperature stress once every century or longer, but this will be a once-in-10-year event with 2–3°C global warming, and once every four years if average temperatures rise by 5–6°C.

On a broader scale, internationally, it is projected climate change will displace very large numbers of people. The recent flood of refugees to Europe (sparked, in part, by climate extremes) illustrates the detrimental effects to security, community cohesion, and health that may result.

A recent report acknowledges that it is not just the physical health that is important. Depression, anxiety, grief and other manifestations of loss and conflict may occur when familiar environments are damaged and social connections threatened. This is most evident following disasters such as droughts and floods.Transition risks and opportunities: There is another dimension to health impacts that are not discussed in the report. I refer to the damage that may be caused by the way we respond to climate change. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, calls them “transition risks”. These are not trivial concerns, In managing climate change successfully will require radical change, and the implications may be far-reaching.

Expanded use of biofuels might compete with food crops, for instance. Carbon- pricing regimes may also aggravate food insecurity in the poorest populations. In low-income countries, reducing numbers of livestock to control methane emissions might be detrimental unless there are alternative sources of protein, energy, and nutrients.

However, there are opportunities, too. The co-benefits agenda gets only a brief mention in the RSNZ report, which is a pity, since win-win interventions may provide a politically palatable route to substantial cuts in greenhouse emissions.

More research is needed to better quantify the health impacts of climate change. This is true, of course. But we know enough already about risks to pay close attention to potential solutions. The big question, in my view, is how we take carbon out of the Bangladesh economy, rapidly, and in an equitable fashion, without disrupting the building blocks of health.

Maybe we can do better than avoiding harm. Transport, agriculture, urban form, food systems - in these areas, and others, there are substantial opportunities as well as serious risks.

Climate-related displacement: Long-term environmental changes, including once fertile land turning to desert, erosion of soil and coastlines, and sea-level rise, are predicted to result in large-scale displacement, a major risk factor for mental illness.

Global statistics already estimate that in 2017 the majority of people forced from their homes around the world were displaced as a result of climate-related disasters. At the extremes, the reality of climate-induced social instability is already tangible across numerous countries, and Asia is considered as high risk.And this emerging narrative of how climate change is impacting people’s mental health is not complete. The relationships between climate events and mental health are complex and not always apparent.

So, what can be done?We have to thinkabouta national strategy for health and climate change. And what we can be doing to protect people from climate change-related mental health challenges?Doing everything we can to reduce the progression of climate change is one clear way to address this issue.

But with the knowledge the climate crisis is only escalating, some practical responses will focus on preparing the health system for climate change. This should include increasing awareness of the mental health effects of climate change across the community, private, and government sectors. It will also be important to invest in areas where mental health services are under-resourced, which are often the rural areas where the mental health effects of climate change are likely most severe.

There will be no single solution to address the mental health impacts of climate change; a broad perspective and a range of actions will be necessary. As the climate crisis continues to unravel in Bangladesh and globally, this will require strong leadership and some innovative thinking.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR),  Dhaka, Bangladesh