It's Crazy Not To Be Concerned
With Climate Change

Interview for Psychiatric Times: APA Annual Meeting, 5/22/17
Steve Moffic, MD

Let’s talk about so-called climate change in a metaphoric way, or maybe even a parallel process way. To get us in that frame of mind, our mental model of looking at the world professionally, I intentionally use the slang and maybe stigmatizing word, crazy. This societal challenge is really in the wheelhouse of what we know and do, and should do. Let me try to tell you why. For more, come to a Symposium put on by the Climate Psychiatry Alliance at the upcoming APA IPS meeting in October in New Orleans, the city that has never come close to recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Sometimes, global warming, which is how the climate is changed, is metaphorized as earth’s fever. If so, that fever is going to last longer than any known people fever. Let me suggest that it may be more like a chronic mental disorder or illness, with acute exacerbations, sort of like PTSD. If that makes sense, let’s re-name climate change to climate instability. Besides, change can be good or bad, and any given change can be good for some people and bad for others, but instability generally implies an ongoing problem that needs to be attended and treated. And, to be sure, at least for some time, some locals, people, and businesses will benefit from global warming.

Moreover, it is becoming clearer that not only will the harm from climate change evolve over many ears, as chronic illness often does, but that it is already causing more acute weather instability, resulting in more, and more severe storms, drought, and destructive wildfires. If we apply both acute and long-term disasters to our superb work in disaster psychiatry, we cover the aftermath of the acute disasters fine, but don’t seem at all concerned with the slowly developing ones.

 Climate instability may also be like mental instability in how it emerges and is responded to. We all know how common it is for people to ignore their evolving mental illness during the time it is more readily treatable. Denial comes into play. So it has been for so much of our population in regards to global warming.

Then, what happens from this state of passivity and denial? We get some psychological symptoms and sometimes full-blown syndromes. Here are some of them from global warming, including some new variations.

  1. Increased violence. Research indicates that even a one-degree increase in temperature increases the risk of violent behavior in warmer climates, especially in our inner cities. In the summer, “heat islands” caused by concrete and asphalt can increase temperatures by 2-10 degrees compared to suburban and rural areas. Is this not one of the major factors in our increased inner city violence and murders? The Department of Defense views global warming as a “threat multiplier” for violence and war, as severe drought has been seen in Rwanda and now Syria.
  2. Increased anxiety. Here we are not talking about everyday anxiety or even the usual clinical anxiety disorders. This is an existential anxiety, an existential dread that directly ties into Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this pyramid, and necessary to proceed higher, is the food, clothing, and shelter central to our survival. What happens with a hurricane or storm, especially one like Superstorm Sandy off the New York coast? Next up are safety needs, also adversely affected by climate instability. No wonder our armed forces leaders conclude that severe drought was a major cause of war in Rwanda and Syria in recent times. Some psychotherapists are reporting that they have begun to see patients with existential angst stemming directly from environmental degradation. These nature-sensitive people may be like the human canaries in our ecological coal mine. 
  3. A grief variation. In Australia, which seems to be on the leading edge of being hit by global warming, a condition called Solastalgia has been recognized. It is a kind of grief that develops from undesired change to one’s environment, from which one can’t escape, a kind of homesickness while one is still home. Perhaps that applies to some in our inner cities, too.
  4. An increase in well-known disorders. Refugees from devastated areas are subject to PTSD and have been come to be called climate refugees. Symptoms of schizophrenia seem to increase in areas affected. An increase in the prevalence of autism may be occurring from harmful particles in the air besides carbon or methane.
  5. The other side of the coin, a lack of being in our climate and nature. For children, especially, and adults, what is called Nature Deficiency Disorder, has been described. Staying indoors with technology not only correlates with being less calm, but makes one less prone to be concerned about the environment. Actually, we could rename this as Climate Deficiency Disorder. Perhaps this is a harbinger of the future when we will be indoors most all the time, with no climate to avoid the ravages of nature.

Finally, this social issue fits one of our ethical priorities, which is to address societal problems which are harmful to health or mental health. Sure, we have so many everyday challenges to attend to in our everyday individual patient care, but we surely can be of help for this global one.