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  • Patricia Faust

The Effect of Climate Change on Our Brains




It is obvious and science confirms that we are in the process of climate change. What makes this different from other climate cycles the earth has gone through? An increase of carbon emissions with a dramatically larger population than ages past account for the validity of climate change. Now that we have that figured out – how does climate change impact our brain?


The Past

In a recent study by Mark Maslin, a geography professor at University College London looked at humans in the past and how their brains responded to climate change. Millions of years ago there were slow changes in the Earth’s orbit. This occurrence dramatically impacted east African climate. The climate of east Africa went through extreme oscillations from having huge, deep freshwater lakes surrounded by rich, lush vegetation to extreme arid conditions like we see today in the Great Rift Valley. Maslin commented that “It seems that modern humans were born from climate change as they had to deal with rapidly switching from famine to feast and back again.”


Co-author of the study, Dr. Suzanne Schultz of the University of Manchester said that many new species appeared at this time. Among these species was early Homo erectus with a brain 80% bigger than its predecessors. Today, climate change is considered to be an influence on our behavior. Extremely high temperatures are linked to human violence. Even minor changes in temperature or rainfall showed a 4 percent increase in the likelihood of personal violence and a 14 percent increase in the likelihood of intergroup violence such as riots, ethnic violence, and civil wars.


Mental Health Consequences of Climate Change

A 2016 White House report made projections of how climate change will affect our brains: “Mental health consequences of climate change range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts.” After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans residents thought of suicide or made plans for it doubled in number. Alcohol consumption shot up. Women displaced into temporary housing tried to kill themselves almost 80 percent more often than the national average. Similar effects have been reported after other disasters: in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami-Dade County, the rate of suicide-homicide there doubled.


The literature gets even more specific in the gloomy details of the effects of climate change. Slower-paced climactic shifts can have profound psychological effects.

· Long-term drought in Australia has been linked to suicide spike among male farmers

· In Brazil, residents of a drought-stricken city had higher rates of depression and anxiety than people living in areas with plenty of water

· Climate-driven illnesses or infections:

o West Nile virus and Lyme disease – can lead to depression and impair cognition and neurological function

· Iron deficiencies and other forms of malnutrition are expected to rise as changing weather affects food production


Climate change also makes it harder to treat the mental health problems. Superstorms destroy hospitals and prohibit first responders from doing their jobs. Medication for depression and anxiety and other psychological issues affect the way our bodies regulate temperature. A quarter of the people who died during a heat wave in Wisconsin in 2012 were taking medication to treat a mental illness.

This reads like a doomsday report. Yet there are so many of us who refuse to take climate change seriously. No doubt that politics, energy company lobbying groups, and the pace of scientific research have really delayed action – but one of the most significant barriers is our own mind.


Barriers Our Brain Puts Up

Our brains have been conditioned through time to pay attention to the present time. Even though there is defined action we need to take, our brains are continually convincing us that the status quo is okay. Evidence to the contrary isn’t on our radar – we just can’t see it because our brains are not registering the disaster that is already happening.


Cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort created by holding more than one conflicting belief at once, plays a part in denying that climate change is real. We become apathetic. It is too difficult to believe that our daily lives are contributing to a global disaster that has turned millions of people into climate refugees and killed many others.


The average American is ignorant of the ways their lifestyles contribute to climate change. In this ignorance they are unable to know what they should personally be doing. By adopting energy-efficient appliances, fixing leaky areas of their house, lowering the water heater temperature and washing clothes in cold water are some easy ways to save on carbon emissions. And finally, we need to acquire an awareness in our part of carbon emissions by taking a hard look at the type of car that we drive.


No matter what we believe at this moment about climate change – it is making an impact on our brain function. We need to become serious in our efforts to end this catastrophic climate slide.


References:

Carpenter, Z. (April 5, 2016). This is your brain on climate change. The Nation.

PBS News Hour. (January 4, 2019). How your brain stops you from taking climate change seriously. Retrieved June 16, 2019 from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/how-your-brain-stops-you-from-taking-climate-change-seriously


Relph, M. K. (March 15, 2019). How climate change affects our brain. Retrieved May 8, 2019 from https://brainworldmagazine.com/how-climate-change-affects-our-brains/

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