By Krista Stark, Durham, North Carolina, 2017.
Image Description: A white wall with the words “I don’t believe in global warming” spray-painted in red. The words reflect in the flood waters that creep up the side of the wall.
An Imminent Threat
We’re approaching the next epidemic, and no one is immune. Climate change is impacting our planet at an accelerating rate and posing a greater and greater threat. We already know that global warming is causing polar ice caps to melt, water sources to dry up, and ecosystems to completely disappear. However, new research shows that it has huge implications on the stability of our mental health. Only recently have scientists and other scholars been discovering the looming connections between mental illness and global warming. Many factors contribute to climate change, and each of these factors has its own effect on the human mind. The greenhouse gases we pump into the Earth’s atmosphere create a barrier that traps in heat and leads to an overall rise in its temperature. Rising temperatures and the resulting increase in floods, droughts, and home displacement, correlate with increases in anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. In turn, these same air pollutants that create poor air quality are also linked to increased anxiety, depression, and ADHD in children, as well as neural inflammation. That’s not to mention the millions of toxins and pesticides we exude each and every day that have proven to contaminate our brains and have other unknown side effects on our health.
Many Duke students basked in the warm, 82 degree weather this February. I myself lounged in the gardens and admired the cherry blossoms blooming in what is supposed to be the dead of winter. Sure, the warm weather might be a pleasant change, but what are the true implications of this? The Earth is undeniably getting hotter and hotter. Once an anomaly, it is now a trend that each progressing year is officially the hottest on record with 2016 taking the lead, having an overall increase of 1.69 degrees Fahrenheit. What may seem like only a few degrees actually has huge implications on our environment and thus us. The increase in temperature can and has led to an increase in floods, rising sea levels, and changing weather patterns, which puts many people at risk of losing their homes and will cause the forced migration of whole communities. The populous city of Miami has been coined the “new Atlantis” by Henk Ovink, and experiences “sunny day flooding.” As a result, the city has allocated over 400 million dollars to a citywide project to create pumps, raise roads, and build other flood prevention infrastructure, clearly demonstrating that global warming is unfolding in the here and now. Individuals whose homes have been flooded or lost are at a much higher risk for PTSD, depression, and anxiety. In addition, with rising temperatures, farmers are losing their agricultural land and thus source of income. Aggression, substance abuse, and violent suicides among these individuals is a rapidly growing trend. With the increasing number of heat waves on the radar, we will also see an increase in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and dementia, all of which have been linked to such.
The multitudinous pollutants and emissions we produce and pump into the world each and every day are also degrading our brains. For example, the lead that is in our gasoline, paints, children’s toys, soil, and some cosmetics can cause permanent damage, particularly in adolescents, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, learning disabilities, and depression. The pesticides we shower on our crops and that are consumed by pregnant mothers affect the development of their children’s brains and contribute to lost IQ points nationwide and the emergence of ADHD. Particulate matter, which is produced by fossil fuels, coal fired plants, and car emissions, invade our lungs and brains and can cause neural inflammation which in turn can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders.
As more and more connections are made between climate change and our mental stability, we must act quickly to protect our environment. It is a terrifying thought that we are putting our brains, the powerhouse that drives all functions and innovation, on the line by exploiting our planet. Acknowledging and working to combat the harmful human impact on the environment serves as recognition to those suffering from environmentally-induced mental health problems. Saving our planet and its inhabitants requires government regulation, whether it be in the form of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, subsidies for greener energy, or strict regulation of fossil fuel production. However, we now have a White House that is unwilling to address this massive issue and government officials that go so far as to deny its existence. When people are directly impacted by the real effects of climate change but are told by their government that it is not a problem that needs to be addressed, it is exasperating and highly distressing. Former president Barrack Obama called climate change the greatest threat to humanity, and now we have a president who plans to loosen regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and coal fired plants as well as take America, the second largest producer of CO2, out of the Paris Agreement. The government that is supposed to be protecting us is disregarding one of the greatest dangers and in fact augmenting the problems it is causing. Recognizing climate change and the destructive impact it is already having on the health of US citizens is crucial. By doing as little as calling our senators and representatives or taking any other kind of immediate action we can work to resist this frightening threat. In a sense, the environment is a metaphor for the brain. The more toxins and pollution we expose it to and the less sympathy we have for the patient, the more damaged it will get.