For most of us, the last 12 months have been harrowing. While the global COVID-19 pandemic has been deadly for tens of thousands across the globe, the simultaneous impacts of climate change have rocked many to their core. The United States has experienced thousands of devastating wildfires, catastrophic flooding, and the hottest temperatures ever recorded. Australians saw horrific wildfires destroy thousands of acres of bushland and kill an estimated half a billion animals. Many people have lost their lives, homes, neighborhoods, and livelihood. The physical and psychological impacts of the climate crisis are now impossible to ignore.
Climate change, along with other natural and human-made stressors, can impact our health in many different ways. Not everyone is equally at risk. The elderly, those with less economic resources, the chronically ill, those with mobility impairments or mental illness, pregnant and postpartum women, children, and young people are typically at higher risk for health changes related to climate change (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2016).
Without a healthy environment, we, and our communities, cannot be psychologically and physically healthy. Climate change may cause the following (CDC, 2016):
- Increased cardiovascular disease, heat-related injuries, and respiratory diseases (such as asthma)
- Stress, grief, anxiety, depression, confusion, and a sense of loss
- Strains on social relationships
- Premature deaths related to extreme weather events
- Increased food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious disease
- Increased incidence of hunger, malnutrition, and famine related to the reduction or collapse of primary food sources (such as fish)
- Increased incidence of violence, crime, and post-traumatic stress disorder
- Increased substance abuse
- Loss of personal, cultural, and community identity
Despite the growing evidence that climate change is wreaking havoc on our environment and our psyches, many people still resist the evidence and do not make the small changes that may help avoid disaster. Why? Kriss Kevorkian—a specialist in death, dying, and bereavement—states that people will not change until they acknowledge their “environmental grief”—a term she coined after studying the decline in killer whale populations. The term “ecological grief” is a phrase specifically used to describe individuals who experience deep emotions related to loss of the environment and nonhuman life, loss related to the degradation of landscapes and ecosystems, and loss of cultures, livelihoods, and ways of life (Cunsolo & Landman, 2017).
Resilience, Survival, and Hope
Human beings have a great capacity for resilience and the ability to heal and naturally recover from a disaster over time. This is greatly improved with the following (U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2015):
- Availability of social support and friendships
- A sense of being understood and accepted
- Sharing the traumatic experience
- Practical help with solving problems
- Optimism, hope, and a strong religious or spiritual foundation
- A belief that “things will work out”
- Practical resources, including housing, job, financial resources
- Confidence in one’s self and ability to control things in life
- Expecting the positive
How Can We Reduce Climate Change?
Many of us feel overwhelmed by the challenges of climate change. We may ask “What can one person really do to change the climate?” or “It’s too much for any one person to really change so why bother?” Yet, most social change is started at the grassroots level where individuals, one by one, decide they will “do their part” to contribute to a better world.
Small acts can have big results. The most important things anyone can do to slow or reduce climate change are get involved, do small things every day to reduce our impact on the planet, speak up, and vote! (Denchak, 2017).
While we can ask our legislators to support more aggressive policies and laws to fight climate change, our health, our environment, and our future is in our hands. The following are just some of the literally thousands of ways to reduce human-caused climate change:
- Call or write a letter to one of your elected officials at the local, state, or Federal level. Tell them you believe climate change is important and you want them to support effective efforts to reduce it.
- Insulate, insulate, insulate.
- Ask your utility company about buying clean electricity.
- Clean or replace HVAC filters every 3 months so your heater or air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard and waste energy.
- Check the air filter on your furnace every month.
- Contact companies sending junk mail and ask them to remove you from their list.
- Stop wasting food.
- Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
- Eat a more plant-based, climate-friendly, sustainable, humanely based, organic diet.
- Use less water. Install a cistern or water collection device in your home or garden.
- Buy a water filter and eliminate the use of bottled water.
- Plant a tree, a garden, and more native plants.
- Assess your carbon footprint (check the Carbon Footprint Calculator or others). Offset your carbon emissions. Calculate and offset your emissions at https://unfccc.int/climate-action/climate-neutral-now
- Grow at least some of your own foods. Easy ones to start are herbs (such as parsley and basil) and tomatoes.
- Replace your lawn. Less lawn equals less water, less polluting fertilizer, and less need for gas-powered equipment. Xeriscape your yard by creating a landscape that requires little or no irrigation (water) or other maintenance.
- Unplug electronic devices when they are not in use.
- Don’t buy a new home…renovate an old one.
- Read. Get yourself and children educated about climate change from responsible, knowledgeable, scientific sources.
- Support a carbon tax (imposed on carbon-based fuels).
- Use less nonabsorbent land cover (concrete) to allow plants and soil to absorb water more efficiently.
- Support the empowerment and education of girls and women. When women are free to make decisions about their reproductive health, they have fewer children. Fewer people means less consumption and fewer emissions.
- Reduce your dependence on paper.
- Telecommute if possible.
- Push your employer and your city to support 100% clean energy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Climate effects on health. Retrieved July 1, 2018 from https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/default.htm
Cunsolo, A., & Landman, K. (2017). Mourning nature: Hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Denchak, M. (2017). How you can stop global warming. Retrieved July 5, 2018 from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming
U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2015). Effects of disasters: Risk and resilience factors. Retrieved July 3, 2018 from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/types/disasters/effects_of_disasters_risk_and_resilience_factors.asp