Our World Is Exploding. How Can You Help?
What we can do right now to help save the planet.
Posted August 26, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- The degradation of our physical environment will lead to human displacement, poverty, malnutrition, disease, and mental health concerns.
- Globally, mental health providers have noted their patients reporting climate anxiety and depression.
- We need to boost our resilience and educate ourselves about ways to adapt to the increasing effects of climate change.
Prior to early 2020, climate change and its alleged effects were frequently in the news and therefore more at the forefront of our collective consciousness than ever before. Then Covid-19 began its global rampage, and our concern about carbon footprints was largely replaced by the immediate concerns of a novel and deadly viral pandemic.
Recently many new emergencies have arisen that might need our attention, such as monkeypox, inflation, autocratic threats to our democracy, the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine, and the gradual erosion of our civil rights. Surely, any of these can distract our critical thinking away from focused concern about climate change, but we can’t allow that to happen anymore; anticipated climate change disasters are HERE and NOW.
The horrific effects of climate change
The climate threat that seemed so distant is now worsening daily as we experience the impact of adding 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution into the planet's atmosphere every year.1
Consider these recent examples of the horrific effects of CO2 overheating our waters and skies: While California has barely had a drop of rain for six months, residents of Dallas just experienced their worst flooding ever, after a downpour of a foot of rain in one night. Such devastating floods have propelled massive mudslides in parts of the Americas, Europe, and India. Wildfires are destroying thousands of acres of prime forests and devastating whole communities in their path. Heat over 100 degrees is becoming commonplace in more regions than ever, and rising temperatures are causing glaciers to melt at alarming rates.
A recent Wall Street Journal (8.22.2022) article reminds us that the degradation of our physical environment has dire economic effects on the economic repercussions as well, including effects on food and fresh water supplies. These life-essential losses lead to human displacement, poverty, malnutrition, disease, and as we’ve discovered, mental health concerns.2
Agricultural producers and fisheries depend on specific climate conditions to provide us with food. Fluctuations in climate cause changes in ozone and greenhouse gasses which negatively affect these life-sustaining producers. Temperature changes can cause habitat ranges and crop planting dates to shift, and droughts and floods due to climate change may hinder farming practices. Climate change, then, presents real threats to U.S. agricultural production, forest resources, and rural economies. These threats have significant implications not just for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners, but for all Americans. Land managers across the country are already feeling the pressures of a changing climate and its effects on weather. As these risks continue and amplify, producers are faced with the challenges of adapting.3
Climate change begets anxiety and depression
In the past few years, mental health providers have noted patients increasingly report feeling climate anxiety and depression. Climate change can expose pre-existing psychological fragilities. As Brian Barnett and Amit Anand report in Scientific American (2020), symptoms can present in diverse ways, from delusion—one patient believed that if he continued to drink and use water, millions of people would die—to obsessive-compulsive disorder. In an Australian study of OCD, nearly a third of the individuals’ compulsions were checking light switches, stoves, etc., to reduce their carbon footprint.
While pro-environmental behaviors like reducing energy consumption prove to be protective against depression, conversely, poor coping skills in addressing climate concerns can cause depressive symptoms. Studies also indicate populations will likely see an increase in climate change-induced mental illness as its effects draw closer.
Who is susceptible to climate anxiety?
Predictably, people more concerned about environmental issues at baseline, as well as those already experiencing the effects of climate change, appear to be more susceptible to climate anxiety—as well as those prone to neuroticism. Climatologists are at risk due to their extensive knowledge about the subject as well as the exasperation of trying to convey the seriousness of the problem to disbelieving or down-playing individuals and government officials. When activists such as Greta Thunberg are dismissed or attacked, climate anxiety among young people is magnified as it instills a sense of powerlessness. As younger people accept the probability that they are likely inheriting a planet in irreversible distress, those with depression and anxiety are at risk of suffering worsening symptoms. And many young people are considering a childless future in order to reduce their carbon footprint.4
By being prepared for climate change and its natural disasters, we might experience less collective distress. For clinicians treating young people, consideration should be given to the possibility that climate change may have already impacted their clients; so seek ways to boost their resilience. Simultaneously, we should be working at breakneck speed to identify ways to strengthen societal structures needed for mental health that climate change threatens to erode. 2
The solution: Adapt
Something interesting happened to our planet during the months our nations “shut down” due to the pandemic: Earth began to heal. According to data, rising global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4% in 2020 as the pandemic suppressed social and economic pursuits worldwide. Interestingly, the United States played the biggest part in the worldwide plunge with a 13% decrease in emissions – due to the significant drop in vehicle transportation that began with lockdowns in March 2020.5
Just as scientists and researchers race to find ways to help flora and fauna adapt to our ever-changing climate, we must learn to adapt as well. Adaptation is nothing new for humans. We’ve had to continually alter ourselves and the way we live as long as we’ve existed. When we accept the fact that climate change is our new reality, we can begin as individuals to take measures to prepare ourselves now for the long haul and the series of changes we’ll experience as the years progress. By doing so, we can help ourselves physically as well as mentally adapt and grow stronger.
What we can do right now
- Save water. By being conscious of how much water we use – and waste. Many counties are undergoing strict water restrictions due to unprecedented drought conditions. Citizens are learning ways to conserve water such as turning off the water tap when brushing teeth and turning it back on to rinse, or taking quick showers instead of baths. It may not seem like much, but in a water crisis, every bit we save helps.
- Grow your own. Whenever possible, growing our own food – which may take the form of a potted herb or vegetable garden or joining a community garden – and sharing the harvest when we can is a healthy way to care for ourselves and help our communities.
- Save on gas. During the pandemic we learned to consolidate the number of trips we take to run errands throughout the week. Bike more as well as scooter around, if possible. Let’s keep this up as much as possible as it saves our fuel costs as well as lowers our carbon footprint.
- Lower utility costs. By unplugging seldom-used electric items in our homes and businesses, we can help mitigate use of gas and electricity. More tips: Replace incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs; use standing or table lamps instead of overhead lights; make sure freezer and refrigerator settings are at the manufacturer’s recommended temperature setting; wash laundry using cold water and dry on medium heat instead of high: It will take a little longer but save energy and money in the long run.
- Educate yourself and your family. Take advantage of the wealth of information on the internet about ways to help ourselves and our planet adapt. When you find a way, share it with others! The Clean Air Task Force (CATF) provides much current information on new technologies along with national and local policy advocacy initiatives.
It’s heartening to know that eventually Earth can heal, and to remember that a century or two is but a blink of an eye in the very long life of a planet. One thing we’re certain of is that adopting pro-environmental behaviors and encouraging them in others will help everyone. We cannot stress strongly enough that the time is right now for all of us to proceed wisely and take much-needed actions to rehabilitate our cherished planet.
1. Stein, T. (2021). Carbon dioxide peaks near 420 parts per million...Washington, DC: NOAA Research News.
2. Majeed, H., Lee, J. (2017). The impact of climate change on youth depression and mental health. London, UK: Lancet.
3. Environmental Protective Agency (2022). Agriculture and Climate. Washington, DC: USEPA.
4. Barnett, B., Anand, A. (2020). Climate Anxiety and Mental Illness. New York, NY: Scientific American.
5. Tollefson, J. (2021). Covid Curbed Carbon Emissions in 2020. London, UK: Nature.
Clayton, S., et al. (2021). Mental Health and our Changing Climate. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
WHO (2022). Why Mental Health is a Priority for Action on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
Kaplan, S., Guskin, E. (2019). Most American teens are frightened by climate change. Washington, DC: Washington Post.
Hawaiian Electric Company (2022). Top Ten Tips to Save Electricity. Honolulu, HI: Hawaiian Electric.