Here, she provides insight into the impact of climate on health.
Bonnie Schneider: Our environment affects key drivers of health. Changes in temperature, air and water quality, food security and availability, and even our emotional well-being are tied to our natural environment. Changes to these variables can impact both healthy people and those with pre-existing conditions.
Take the temperature, for example. Have you ever tried sleeping in a warm room without air conditioning? Rising temperatures can disrupt sleep and decrease mental clarity and memory, research shows.
A study of healthy young college students showed that those who slept without AC power during a heat wave performed worse on cognitive tests the next day than those in rooms with artificial cooling.
Climate change has been linked to certain types of extreme weather events, including intensified floods, wildfires, severe thunderstorms, and hurricanes that last longer and produce more precipitation. In 2021, 20 weather and climate disasters in the United States resulted in losses exceeding $1 billion each.
Overall, natural disasters now occur more frequently, affecting more people.
These can cause burns and inhalation of smoke from wildfires, injury from falling debris, and other types of damage. Mental health is also affected, whether through the fallout of trauma, loss of community or displacement. Research shows that these psychological consequences can last for years, even decades.
It is also important to mention that natural disasters can affect mental health even in those who have not been directly affected. Disruption in one’s own community can, of course, cause distress. But just seeing images of weather destruction on TV can trigger anxiety. This is the case even if the specific weather event is not actually related to climate change.
CNN: What is “eco-anxiety” and how prevalent is it?
Schneider: Eco-anxiety refers to the anxiety and fear people have about climate change and the future of the planet.
Among people aged 16 to 25, 84% expressed at least moderate concern about climate change in a 2021 global survey of 10,000 people. More than 56% thought “humanity is doomed” and 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affect their daily life and functioning.
Experts from the Climate Psychiatry Alliance and the Climate Psychology Alliance confirm the real struggles that individuals, especially young people, have with this type of anxiety. It can cause serious disruptions in daily life, intrude on people’s thoughts, and interfere with healthy sleep.
CNN: Do certain medical conditions make people more vulnerable to environmental changes?
Schneider: Yes. Most medical experts say that extreme weather conditions of all kinds can stress the body. With climate change, we have warmer days for a longer period of time. This can cause problems for people with certain autoimmune diseases that erupt under particular environmental conditions. Lupus, for example, can be triggered by sunlight due to exposure to UV rays, according to medical experts I interviewed.
Some evidence suggests relationships between pain and relative humidity, pressure, and wind speed. For those with arthritis, more frequent powerful storms can mean more pain potential. Yet other data contradict these findings, such as the study that found no relationship between rainfall and outpatient visits for joint or back pain. Still, these researchers admit that the weather-pain correlation may exist and they urge further study.
CNN: What does climate change have to do with infectious diseases?
Schneider: The loss of biodiversity has become a huge problem. Even small, subtle changes and disturbances to wildlife’s natural habitats affect humans. We are all part of the ecosystem.
In a September 2020 article by Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. David Morens, the two infectious disease specialists warn that pandemics are happening more frequently. They call the Covid-19 pandemic “another reminder that human activities represent aggressive, damaging and imbalanced interactions with wildlife and will increasingly cause new health emergencies.”
Environmental changes modify many types of vector-borne diseases. Lyme, for example. As temperatures rise, ticks become more of a problem in northern latitudes, which means we could start seeing Lyme disease in places where people don’t expect it. This could cause some difficulty, given how difficult Lyme can be to diagnose.
Mosquitoes bring additional concerns. The more floods increase their prevalence and the risk that they transmit diseases.
Then there are the waterborne flesh-eating bacteria.
Rising water temperatures are thought to have brought deadly bacteria to previously unaffected waters. Vibrio species, for example, can invade the body through any small opening in the skin, rapidly causing severe illness and even death.
A 2018 study found that the annual case count of all Vibrio infections increased by 41% between 1996 and 2005. Swimming in coastal waters off Florida, Maryland and Delaware Bay has resulted in many cases.
CNN: What impact is global warming having on allergies?
Schneider: The allergy season has lengthened. More frost-free days mean more potentially irritating pollens. There is also some debate among scientists as to whether the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has made the pollen more intense.
Molds are another allergen affected by weather conditions, exacerbated by more frequent storms, intense flooding and humid days.
Many asthma attacks are also triggered by allergies. Asthma can be triggered by thunderstorms and smoke from forest fires. Everything is connected.
CNN: No wonder people suffer from climate anxiety. What helps them cope?
Schneider: The psychologists and psychiatrists I spoke with emphasized that we can’t laugh at eco-anxiety. It’s rooted in valid concerns, and people are really troubled.
Experts recommend finding a community of like-minded people by joining groups like “Climate Cafés” run by the Climate Psychology Alliance, where you can talk about difficult feelings in a safe space run by trained facilitators. Youth-specific organizations provide other opportunities to connect.
For individual counselling, the Climate Psychiatry Alliance has a directory listing
“climate aware” therapists.
Taking steps, big and small, helps too. Experts advise getting involved in climate justice activism or participating in something local like a beach cleanup.
Mindfulness meditation and gratitude are other tools for tackling eco-anxiety. On my website, I give instructions for short and simple mindfulness practices. And I created a gratitude journal called “A Week in Winter” with writing prompts and exercises alongside weather facts.
When it comes to anxiety, nature has therapeutic effects for adults and children. Gardening or doing something constructive outside – even in cold weather – can turn feelings of helplessness into agency. In “Taking the Heat”, I present specific age-based strategies for children and tips for adults.
Spending time in nature is even healing, which is quite interesting, for those who have suffered trauma at the hands of the elements. Researchers have found that humans have an intrinsic desire to connect with the outdoors after a natural disaster. This is part of the adaptation process.
For each of us, just 20 or 30 minutes of walking or sitting in a place that connects us to nature can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
This reduction is good for the mind and the body.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, book contributor, writing coach, and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America “.