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March 04, 2024
Climate Justice

Pollution, heatwaves, extreme weather: how the climate crisis affects mental health and what to do to protect it

Insight by Stella Levantesi

In the first half of February, 140 countries broke the monthly temperature record due to global warming and the climate phenomenon known as El Niño, as reported by The Guardian. “The planet is warming at an accelerating rate. We are seeing rapid temperature increases in the ocean, the climate’s largest reservoir of heat”, said Dr Joel Hirschi, the associate head of marine systems modeling at the UK National Oceanography Centre. A warming planet has consequences that affect us very closely. "For a long time, we talked about climate change mainly in terms of its impact on the environment. Then we realized how impactful it is also on human health", explains Matilda van den Bosch, senior researcher at the Biocities section of the European Forest Institute (EFI), to Voice Over Foundation.

The effects of the climate crisis on human health are discussed and described in thousands of scientific studies. The increase in sea surface temperature, the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, the deterioration of air quality, and the destabilization of natural systems due to increased greenhouse gas emissions have direct and indirect impacts on human health: from exacerbating cardiovascular and respiratory diseases to exposure to infectious diseases and environmental toxins.

Climate Crisis and Mental Health: heatwaves, pollution, and extreme weather events

Among the less communicated risks of the climate crisis are its impacts on mental health. Some researchers agree that these effects are rapidly accelerating and causing a series of direct, indirect, and widespread consequences that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. "Studies show that heatwaves increase certain psychiatric disorders, raise the suicide rate, anger, aggression, reduce social cohesion, and increase emergency room access", explains Matteo Innocenti, psychiatrist and president of the Italian Association for Climate Change Anxiety, to Voice Over Foundation.

"Among the other consequences of the effects of anthropogenic phenomena [such as climate change] on mental health there are impacts of particulate matter or air quality that can reduce cognitive abilities, increase anxiety and depression, and, therefore, substance use and, again, emergency room visits for psychological disorders", adds Innocenti. Air pollution has numerous causes, but many studies emphasize how it is also linked to climate change. According to a study published in September 2023 in the scientific journal The Lancet, air pollution and climate change are "deeply interconnected" because the "chemical species" that lead to a degradation of air quality are often emitted with the greenhouse gasses responsible for altering the climate system. Furthermore, drier and warmer climate conditions can lead to high air pollution levels and, in particular, high ozone levels.

Recent observations on air quality in the Po Valley indicate that in January, the critical pollution threshold, set by European Union directives, was exceeded on a multiple number of days. "Today we know that over 6.5 million people die every year due to air pollution. Being able to attribute human deaths to climate change and air pollution that could have been prevented by appropriate societal and environmental strategies is obviously fundamental because we can hold political leaders accountable and say 'this phenomenon is really killing people because there are no adequate regulations'", emphasized van den Bosch.

The rise in temperatures and phenomena such as sea-level rise and drought can also alter natural landscapes, disrupt food and water resources, change agricultural conditions, modify land use, weaken infrastructure, and, in turn, lead to financial and relational stress, increase the risks of violence and aggression, and displace entire communities, emphasizes a study published in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems. According to the researchers of the study, extreme weather events, which are more frequent, intense, and complex with the climate crisis, can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse and suicidal ideation. In general, a changing climate, scholars agree, can fuel a sense of helplessness and despair that can contribute to what Innocenti calls "ecological emotionality".

Solastalgia, eco-anxiety, and "ecological emotionality"

In extreme cases such as violent floods that destroy homes and completely change the landscape, Innocenti explains, people can experience a sense of "solastalgia". In my book "The Climate Liars", I write that solastalgia arises from the feeling of losing one's home and land. The term comes from the Latin "solatium", "comfort", and it indicates the pain of losing the comfort of the place where you live.

Glenn Albrecht, an Australian environmental studies professor who coined the term in the early 2000s, writes that solastalgia is "homesickness you have when you are still at home". Albrecht analyzed the emotional impact of mining activity on the inhabitants of a region in Australia and found that exploitation and degradation compromised the sense of comfort that the land gave to its communities.

Over time, the term "solastalgia" has become more common to indicate the loss of beloved places and landscapes due to the climate crisis. Climate change, therefore, can act as a "trigger". These conditions, then, "can strongly increase our condition of ecological pain or ecological emotionality that can encompass many emotions", explains Innocenti.

Anxiety, for example, can increase in the face of a climate event or dramatic news, he adds, and can lead to panic disorder, reactions of anger, or "ecological grief", a kind of "ecological mourning", he adds. Generally, the term "eco-anxiety" can be used to describe anxiety related to the ecological crisis, while the term "climate anxiety" indicates a sensation mostly due to anthropogenic climate change. According to the American Psychological Association, eco-anxiety is defined as "a chronic fear of environmental doom".

"It can be profound and pervasive, but essentially it does not represent in itself a disease", emphasizes Innocenti. More than a disorder, it is "a non-pathological emotional state". "Albrecht also defines eco-anxiety as a pervasive feeling of fear that the ecological foundations of our planet are failing", emphasizes Innocenti. "Essentially eco-anxiety is an emotion that refers to the degradation that the environment is undergoing and therefore to the loss of the ecological component that the world is undergoing also due to climate change". Anxiety, then, can turn into "eco-paralysis", a condition in which "we are completely pervaded by awareness of climate change but the paralyzing component of anxiety is so great that it paralyzes us and leads us to not act", highlights Innocenti.

How to combat anxiety: from trees to mobilization

To combat these anxieties and, more generally, negative ecological emotionality, experts recommend engaging in "pro-environmental" behaviors, connecting with other people, and reconnecting with nature. "The first thing to do is to adopt pro-environmental behaviors and do everything you can to help the environment. This increases your sense of efficacy", explains Innocenti. To increase the sense of "collective self-efficacy", on the other hand, says Innocenti, it is important to connect with other people and create a community .

In fact, according to a study, "disastrous" circumstances relating to the ecological crisis can also inspire “altruism, compassion, optimism, and foster a sense of meaning and personal growth (otherwise referred to as post-traumatic growth) as people band together to salvage, rebuild, and console amongst the chaos and loss of a changing climate”. Connection with nature can also help fight anxiety for the climate crisis. "Being in contact with nature helps us because it still shows itself to us as it is and that repositions us on the timeline", explains Innocenti. "We need to take a step back and put the environment at the center and therefore for this reason, I recommend 'Forest bathing', nature immersions, among the trees", he adds.

According to Innocenti, this also favors the ability to understand that we are part of a balance that must be restored and an integral part of the environment. Philosopher Timothy Morton has written that if you start to think of the biosphere, therefore also "the environment" as a head that dreams, you will realize that everything in that biosphere is a symptom and expression of the biosphere itself. There is no outside. This means being ecologically aware, he writes.

Solutions and co-benefits for health and climate

Nature immersion helps our health also at a chemical level. Numerous studies show that being in forests or among trees reduces stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline. Exposure to trees and forests, in fact, has positive effects on human health: it strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases concentration capacity, speeds up recovery from surgeries or illnesses, increases energy levels, and improves sleep. It could be said, therefore, that forests have anxiolytic and antidepressant properties, emphasizes Innocenti.

Even in cities, trees can offer support. "First of all, obviously, trees shade so they decrease the heat and, also through evapotranspiration, trees can reduce the temperature, even up to six or seven degrees, which is quite significant", explains van den Bosch. "Trees also work to mitigate, which basically means they are carbon sinks, so they can have a direct impact on absorbing greenhouse gas emissions which then, in a circular way, also contributes to health benefits by combating the harmful effects of climate change".

Just as the connection between air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions means that solutions to address one will generally cause changes in the other, some studies show that even solutions to the climate crisis can produce so-called "co-benefits" for health. According to the previously mentioned Lancet study, for example, reducing fossil fuel production reduces carbon dioxide emissions, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. 

Trees can also function as a solution that produces co-benefits.

"We know that people who see trees from their window have better mental health. In a study I worked on in Catalonia, Spain, during the lockdown, for example, we saw that there was a strong risk, 2.5 times higher, of severe depression if you were not exposed to trees", explains van den Bosch.

According to the EFI researcher, creating "green infrastructure" in cities is a fundamental component among the solutions available both for the impacts of the climate crisis and for health. "But it is difficult to pinpoint one solution only and it is important to act on multiple levels", she adds. Also because, she says, "it depends on the context, so what works in one place may not work in another". One of the main issues to keep in mind, in fact, when talking about solutions like these, says van den Bosch, is socio-economic inequality in urban areas. "There are areas of cities that tend to be more disadvantaged, where people with lower incomes and education live, and which are at greater risk of diseases and negative impacts due to climate change".

Translated in English by Voice Over Foundation

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