Climate change brings thoughts of rivers drying up, crops wilting in the fields, and roaring forest fires wrecking devastation to people’s homes, towns, and even resort areas. Entire populations can be uprooted from their lands, only to become nomads or strangers in strange lands.
The wrath of climate change is melting glaciers, changing the course of mighty rivers, and threatening traditional ways of life worldwide. Even wildlife is affected. Along with this comes famine, a loss of occupations, and a terrible sense of helplessness where self-sufficiency existed previously.
Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250K additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress alone. The direct damage costs to health are estimated to be between US$ 2–4 billion per year by 2030.
Governments and environmental groups are desperately trying to find speedy solutions to the damage already seen and the certainty of decades devoid of so much that it is more than worrisome. Futures that seemed assured to be similar to the past for families as they planned for themselves and their children are now shrouded in uncertainty. As the adults seek legislation, where does this leave the children?
Underestimating Childhood Effects?
Children are especially vulnerable to certain weather-related events such as wildfires and the smoke and particulates spewed into the air. Systematic reviews of the literature mostly summarize adult morbidity in the setting of wildfire smoke. Those pertaining to children demonstrate an increase in respiratory infections and asthma presentations in the setting of wildfire smoke. Less is known about the health effects for children with other chronic health conditions. But aside from the detrimental physical changes in children’s health, there are the psychological ones that will affect these children’s mental health and future.
Climate change has been seen by the World Health Organization as the greatest global health challenge of the 21st century and this will be particularly true for young people in terms of both their physical and mental health. It is the mental health aspect of this challenge that has received inadequate attention. We are only now beginning to realize our lack of preparation in terms of diagnosis and treatment for climate change-related mental difficulties.
The mental health conditions that are seen as particularly vulnerable to climate change and its effects on humans include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, reduced subjective well-being as well as increased suicide rates, and hospitalizations for mental health disorders.
Children, no matter where they look, whether on TV or the Internet, or any social media platform, are faced with inescapable and negative information on climate change. They believe they have little control over it, and any power they have is limited, all of which leads to an increasing degree of anxiety, now referred to as climate anxiety, also known as climate distress.
The Mental Effects on Children
In a survey of 10,000 children and young people ages 16 to 25 on climate change in 10 countries, 59% of the respondents were rated as very or extremely worried, and 84% at least moderately worried about climate change. Over half of the respondents indicated they were sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.
Forty-five percent of the respondents indicated their feelings about climate change had a negative impact on their daily life and functioning, and others were frightened. Eighty-three percent said they thought that adults fail to take climate change seriously enough. Government actions, also related to climate change, were not viewed in a favorable light, and the subjects’ feelings displayed a sense of betrayal rather than reassurance.
Climate change, which we might normally consider to have an impact on physical health, too, has a seriously eroding effect on children’s ability to learn. It has been reported that every 1°F increase in annual ambient temperatures in classrooms has been causally linked to a 1% reduction in overall learning in school children. How much of a learning impediment will this increasing temperature account for in the next several decades unless the problem is properly addressed?
Research has also indicated that natural storms, wildfires, and earthquakes appear more frequently than previously and affect children, their families and the entire community in which they live. This displacement puts children at higher risk for developing PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse.
Climate change, therefore, can be seen as instrumental in creating problems in emotional regulation, cognition, learning, behavior, language development, and academic performance. The sum total of all of these disorders and diminutions of normal development weigh heavily on our young people and our children.
The situation is even graver in the developing world. Children who live in poverty will have the most dramatic, negative effects on their existence. Climate change, therefore, will continue to maintain the existence of a related underclass that may have few opportunities to advance in a technologically developed world.
Legislation may address certain future aspects of climate change, but healthcare professionals and researchers are concerned with the present-day circumstances and what type of mental health or community help is most effective for everyone, especially children.
More inter-disciplinary research is needed in this area to better understand how risk and protective factors affect young people’s likelihood of experiencing mental health and, importantly, wellbeing impacts from both direct and indirect exposures to climate change. Of particular urgency is the need for research that investigates how to promote the protective factors of young people in the face of the ongoing, cumulative and long-term impact of climate change.
The lives we’ve learned to live over the past 50 years may have meant we were borrowing from our children’s futures, and that is unacceptable. If we give them one legacy, it should be health and the possibility of a better day tomorrow.