“I am 45 years old, and I often wonder how my generation will survive the impending climate crisis. What will happen to our world if the summer Arctic waters are indeed ice-free only a few years from now? What will my life look like if I live to experience a 3.5 Celsius global temperature increase? Above all, I wonder how coming generations will survive.” These troubling words were written by, journalist and author Dahr Jamail. They express one individual’s nervous experience with the emotional burden of thinking about the future in the time of global warming. Another expression is the fact that while a majority of Americans say they believe that global warming is happening, many claim not to know why it is occurring, and an equal number report that they are not worried about it.
To better understand how Americans are responding emotionally to media exposure to climate change topics, Janet Yang and Lee Kahlor (2012) conducted an online survey of undergraduates. They found that people who feel anxious about climate change are more likely to seek information about it, but those who are not worried tend to routinely avoid or ignore climate change evidence. Knowledge avoidance, in other words, is the behavioral and emotional tactic that provides shielding from the experience of discomforting aspects of a changing world.
The problem for avoiders, however, is the undeniable presence of the relentless transformations now occurring on Earth. Dahr Jamail, for example, reports his experiences as a mountain climber with glacial changes on Mount Rainier in Washington State in 2010 compared to an earlier ascent in 1994: “The route had changed dramatically enough to stun me. I paused at one point to glance down the steep cliffs at a glacier bathed in soft moonlight 100 meters below. It took my breath away when I realized that I was looking at what was left of the enormous glacier I’d climbed in 1994… I stopped in my tracks, breathing the rarefied air of such altitudes, my mind working hard to grasp the climate-change-induced drama that had unfolded since I was last at that spot.” The pace of climate change continues to race ahead of scientific predictions, leading a still small but growing group of climate scientists to wonder how close we are to disaster. John Nissen, for example, of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, worries about the total loss of summer sea ice and passing a point of no return leading to a sudden catastrophic methane release from the seabed and surrounding tundra. The moment, he cautions, “when the positive feedback becomes unstoppable, could be very soon.”
The emotional burdens of climate change seriously multiply in the sudden shift from the contemplation of dire future events to the lived experience of current ones, as noted in the words of a Hurricane Sandy survivor: “I don’t want the new normal… I just want the old normal back: my tiny house with the too-small bathroom. And I want my kids not to cry”. Events like these amplify the vulnerability of human communities as they lower people’s sense of everyday security, disproportionately so in poor communities, and especially so in the poorest households in all communities. With advancing climate change, growing numbers of people will be forced from their home territories by droughts and food and water insecurity, inundated by rising oceans and flooding, battered by ever more frequent extreme weather events, affected by diseases spread by the movement of infectious vector- and waterborne pathogens, introduced to other diseases caused by fungal spores blown from drying soil into the air and into human lungs, and pushed into greater tension with neighboring populations for limited resources. Flowing from the stress of perceived precarity and the traumas of irreversible catastrophic loss are serious and long-term emotional health burdens, as seen among the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Based on a five-year follow-up with low-income mothers, for example, Christina Paxson and colleagues (2011) report that recovery of mental health has been slow. Between 3.5 and 4.5 years after the hurricane, almost 30% of their sample had levels of psychological distress high enough to indicate probable mental illness. Symptoms of PTSD also remained high.
The emotional costs of climate change, however, remain understudied (and planned for). As Helen Berry and colleagues (2010) stress, “little consideration has been given to how climate change may affect mental health, perhaps due to its ‘neglected’ … status as the poor relation of health… Although it is important not to pathologise normal psychological reactions to adversity and disaster …, we do need to consider the mental health implications of climate change.”. To date, however, few studies of this issue are in countries with the worst scores on measures like the Multidimensional Poverty Indicator and the fewest resources to respond effectively in the midst of climate turmoil (Crabtree 2012).
With increasing frequency this question is being raised: are there limits to human emotional adaptability in the context of environmental unpredictability and dramatic change? One aspect of this complex query has been voiced by Adger and co-workers (2009) based on recognition that the experiential worlds of communities and individuals is bound up with symbolic meanings culturally embedded in local places and that global warming disruptions profoundly affect capacity to adapt. Add Turner et al. (2008:4), “When externally imposed forces … negatively impact or prohibit a particular way of life and the cultural values and practices that go with it, the people affected may no longer be able to engage in activities that are fundamental to their culture. As a result, they feel profound loss and alienation”. Among the losses enumerated by these researchers are identity, life-style, a sense of self-determination and influence, experience of order in the world, health, and feelings of self-esteem and social worth.
All of these are within the purview of anthropology as its practitioners move deeper into work on human responses to and the emotional burdens of climate change.
Merrill Singer is a cultural and medical anthropologist with a dual appointment as Professor of Anthropology and as Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention at the University of Connecticut. His current research focuses on both drug use and HIV risk and environmental health issues, including a growing focus on the impact of global warming on international health.
With advancing climate change, growing numbers of people will be forced from their home territories by droughts and food and water insecurity, inundated by rising oceans and flooding, battered by ever more frequent extreme weather events, affected by diseases spread by the movement of infectious vector- and waterborne pathogens, introduced to other diseases caused by fungal spores blown from drying soil into the air and into human lungs, and pushed into greater tension with neighboring populations for limited resources.