A moody climate

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Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse are some of the mental health impacts of climate change, according to a new report.

A new report by the Climate Institute – A Climate of Suffering – mental health and community wellbeing in the wake of extreme weather – highlights the human toll of extreme weather events such as severe drought or cyclones, which are likely to increase with climate change.

The report outlines the mental health consequences of these severe weather events:

  • a significant part of the community – as many as one in five – will suffer the effects of extreme stress, emotional injury and despair.
  • the emotional and psychological toll of disasters can linger for months, even years affecting whole families and communities.
  • higher rates of drug and alcohol misuse, violence and family dissolution are likely to follow more extreme weather events.
  • drought and heat waves lead to higher rates of self-harm and suicide.

The report says that the impact of droughts on employment and cost of living also exacerbates this mental health toll.

In 2004, one in four rural workers in Australia lost their job as a result of drought – about 100,000 agricultural workers, contractors and those employed in allied businesses. The dry conditions cost Australia $5.4 billion while the cost of the average grocery bill went up by 12 per cent.

Climate change will almost certainly increase the demand for social support and mental health services and at the same time make them harder to sustain in affected areas.

Children in particular are vulnerable to pre-disaster anxiety and post-trauma illness.

The report says Australia’s mental health burden will grow significantly unless there is immediate substantial action on climate change.

Seeing action on climate change as an investment in preventative health care is an important first step it says.

Four degrees and we are dead  

Unless there is drastic action during the next decade to reduce carbon emissions the global aim to restrict global warming to a 2º increase will fail and is more likely to reach 4º, a recent conference on climate change was told.

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chair of the German Government Advisory Council on Global Change, told the Four Degrees Conference in Melbourne that failure to deal with carbon emissions would be catastrophic.

‘It is the critical decade we are living in now. If you think of your body temperature, with a 2º increase you have a fever, with a 4º increase, you are dead. We are looking at the body temperature of our planet,’ he said.

Professor Schellnhuber said the global target agreed to by more than 190 nations was a compromise that provided a base level of action that was sadly lacking.

‘2º is not a hard scientific target. It is a compromise, a firewall. Without this firewall we might see the disappearance of a higher level of civilisation on this planet,’ he said.

‘There is a complete discrepancy between the 2º target and the global strategy needed to reach it.’

Professor Schellnhuber said that European countries like Germany provided evidence that strong action on carbon emissions was not incompatible with maintaining a strong economy.

‘Germany is about to undergo an energy systems revolution. The country is doing well with economic growth – it has about 4 per cent GDP growth. This is an encouraging message – trying to protect the environment doesn’t necessarily mean we will be de-industrialised and poverty stricken,’ he said.

Australian life under unrestrained global warming

‘Australia has been known for more than a 100 years as a land of droughts and flooding rains, but what climate change means is Australia becomes a land of more droughts and worse flooding rains.’ – Prof David Karoly, Professor of Meteorology, University of Melbourne.

In the past decade Australians have been given a preview of life under unrestrained global warming. The first decade of the 21st Century was the hottest and driest on record in Australia and globally. Drought and heat fuelled the fire risk in the south-eastern parts of the country and the off-the-scale heat wave conditions produced bushfires so ferocious that ‘very extreme’ and ‘catastrophic’ categories have been added to the official fire weather index.

In late 2010, a strong La Nina event brought torrential downpours and heavy flooding up and down the eastern half of the continent.

The combination of a wet winter and bursts of warm spring weather saw extraordinary locust plagues threaten crops in large parts of the southeast.

Events like these give us a picture of life in a world of greater extremes. Sea surface temperatures off the north-east of Australia reached record highs and tropical cyclone Yasi pounded north Queensland penetrating as far inland as Alice Springs and narrowly missing large population centres.

The extensive damage to many smaller communities, local industries and the national economy registered $9 billion in the 2011 Federal Budget papers.

Recent conditions are entirely consistent with the best scientific predictions: as the weather warms so the weather becomes wilder with big consequences for people’s health and wellbeing.

From A climate of suffering. Climate Institute.