Urgent climate action needed to avert health crisis

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June 14th, 2019

A new report from some of Europe’s leading scientists has shown that climate action is urgently required to protect human health in Europe.

The European Academics Science Advisory Council (EASAC) found that thousands of premature deaths in Europe could be averted with a zero-carbon economy.

They also confirmed that eating a more sustainable diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes and reducing red meat intake will lower greenhouse gas emissions and non-communicable disease in Europe.

The EASAC report indicates that climate events such as flooding, heat waves and forced migration can also have major effects on people’s mental health.

Acute mental health effects include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse and depression. Chronic effects include higher rates of aggression, violence and hopelessness.

Growing Concern about climate breakdown

Data released this month has shown that people in the UK are more concerned about the environment now than ever before.

The data from analytics company YouGov shows that public concern for the climate peaked after the Extinction Rebellion Protests in London last April.

Chris Curtis of YouGov said that, although Brexit generally dominates the headlines, their data shows that the environment is “particularly a concern for young people”.

The data shows that 45 per cent of young people surveyed aged between 18 and 24 were concerned about the environment and potential for what has been coined by psychologists as ‘eco-anxiety’.

Although there is no official definition for it,Psychology Today refers to this as a “fairly recent psychological disorder” affecting an increasing number of individuals “who worry about the environmental crisis.”

The basis of this anxiety is a growing awareness of climate change and the global problems that result from the damage to our ecosystems.

People of all ages are expressing high levels of stress relating to climate change and symptoms include panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite and insomnia.

Irish situation

Assistant Professor of Sociology at DCU Audrey Bryan said that climate grief or trauma appears in climate literature regularly.

“It’s possible of course that the climate crisis could be impacting on some young people’s mental health” but “there’s not sufficient evidence” in an Irish context currently, she said.

As of yet, no major studies into the psychological effects of climate change on young people have been completed in an Irish context.

According to Clinical Psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy it is “crucial” how we communicate climate issues to children. “Kids are picking up on the media narrative and that comes through in the therapy room” he said.

Dr Murphy maintained that children who are prone to worrying or have generalised anxiety will also worry about the “ecological messaging” they experience around them.

Irish Doctors for the Environment spokesperson Sandra Green said that behaviour change can often feel “paralysing” if taken as a “big-picture or all at once” process.

Research provides evidence that some people have feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.

Dr Green said it is better to focus on climate actions that we can take such as physical commuting – biking or walking can reduce stress, improve cognitive function and academic performance.

Other positive mental health practices include immersing yourself in green spaces such as a forest or taking a walk in natural surroundings. This has been scientifically proven to alleviate symptoms of depression and reduce stress, according to the WHO.

By Marianne Foody

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