The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States

The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States

Excerpts from the Executive Summary of a 2011 report prepared by Dr. Lise Van Susteren, MD, with Dr. Kevin Coyle, JD

Global warming in the coming years will foster public trauma, depression, violence, alienation, substance abuse, suicide, psychotic episodes, post-traumatic stress disorders and many other mental health-related conditions.

THE EXTREME AND SOMETIMES VIOLENT weather of the summer of 2011 can offer valuable insights into how a warming climate will affect the people in the United States and other parts of the world. The news headlines included: a worsening Texas drought, record heat in the eastern states, a rise in heat-related deaths in many U.S. cities; violent floods in the East and Midwest; an expanded range and season for some of the worst tornados on record and more.

These same headlines included the seemingly unrelated famine and refugee tragedy in Somalia, a rise in mental health difficulties among service men and women returning from war, and anomalous weather conditions and disease outbreaks in many parts of the world.

Climate scientists have begun to empirically link 2011’s extreme weather events and natural disasters to climate change and report that these are representative of what science predicts the world will look like with more warming. The physical and economic harm caused by such events is evident, but what will be the toll on the public’s mental health?

To those who would deny, dismiss or just fail to envision the psychological impacts global warming, we urge you to take a deeper look. We may not currently be thinking about how heavy the toll on our psyche will be, but, before long, we will know only too well. A warming climate will cause many people, tens of millions, to hurt profoundly.

Global warming from increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is leading to a spiral of worsening conditions that will include extreme and sometime violent weather. What we are already seeing is alarming indeed: in 2011 alone we faced devastating droughts, raging wildfires, record breaking snowstorms and rainfalls, stunning floods in the East and Midwest, higher temperatures and more frequent 100 degree days in more cities than we have ever known – with a commensurate rise in heat related deaths, an expanded range and season for some of the worst tornadoes on record, and the most costly hurricane in our history.

The U.S. mental health care system is only minimally prepared to address the effects of global climate change- related disasters and incidents.

In November of 2011, the U.N. sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed this in a report entitled: Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. The report finds that changes in weather, due to climate warming, will be felt everywhere in the world. The physical and economic destruction surely boggles the mind but what is not being addressed are the human psychological consequences of all this devastation.

To begin with, the incidences of mental and social disorders will rise steeply. These will include depressive and anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, suicides, and widespread outbreaks of violence. Children, the poor, the elderly, and those with existing mental health disorders are especially vulnerable and will be hardest hit. At roughly 150 million people, these groups represent about one half of the American public.

The American mental health community, counselors, trauma specialists and first responders are not even close to being prepared to handle scale and intensity of impacts that will arise from the harsher conditions and disasters that global warming will unleash. It is not that we haven’t experienced natural disasters before, but the scientific data show that what lies ahead will be bigger, more frequent, and more extreme than we have ever known.

There are even broader implications, many of them beyond our shores. As climate related disasters and burdens spread across the world, the U.S. military will increasingly be called upon to help keep order. Service members will be faced with stressful, even horrifying conditions. They will see people – the young, the old, the innocent suffer terribly. Back home their families will experience the ripple effects, suffering vicariously and experiencing their own disruptions in finances, relationships and child-rearing. There will be the disorders from the immediate trauma, and in some cases chronic psychological disorders will follow.

Another major problem for the military is a high rate of active service member suicide. Even though the numbers have recently declined after reaching a high of nearly double the rate of the civilian population, the problem persists. While suicide is the result of many complex factors, the linkage to global warming with respect to military personnel must be acknowledged. Burning fossil fuels for energy means depending on foreign areas where those supplies are most abundant. To the U.S. military this can mean sending young people into battle to protect our energy sources or to calm related unrest. Our service members will recognize that their own lives and limbs were sacrificed even though alternate renewable sources of energy could be more available. Our national need to put these young people in harm’s way would also decline if we were simply more energy efficient. How will we answer these service members’ questions about why we didn’t work harder at fixing this problem?

It is not a matter of whether these problems will occur, but rather how frequently and with what intensity.

Moreover, the United States is increasingly disliked, worldwide, as a global warming villain. Though representing less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. emits about 25 percent of the world’s green house gases. As the link between climate disasters in other countries and the production of green house gases in the U.S. becomes clearer, Americans will be blamed for inflicting harm on other countries. Critics may point to emissions from China (now surpassing the U.S.) and India as reasons why the U.S. can “share the blame,” but our per capita emissions are second to none.

Alarmingly, our perceived indifference is already the subject of rallying cries against us. It is used by leaders of terrorist groups, for example, as a tool to recruit new members. The President of one African country hit hard by drought linked to climate change addressed countries emitting high levels of green house gases: “We have a message here to tell these countries, that you are causing aggression to us by causing global warming.” The President of Bolivia, faced with unprecedented flooding from heavy rains, threatened to sue the U.S. in international court.

The U.S. Department of Defense predicts that events linked to climate change, such as crop failures, water shortages, disease outbreaks, and more will soon be the leading cause of world turmoil. Unstable states, faced with these stressors, are at risk of slipping into chaos, and failing. This paves the way for takeovers by groups hostile to the U.S. and is a growing reality widely feared by our military.

Some 50 million elderly people, and America’s 35 million low-income people will suffer a disproportionate amount of physical and psychological stress.

The economic costs of climate change will be high by any measure. But its specific effect on U.S. mental health, societal well being and productivity will increase current U.S. expend- itures on mental health services adding to our current $300 billion annual burden. Incredibly this probable cost is overlooked in today’s national public health debate and environmental discussions. The U.S. mental health care system is not prepared to address the full effects of global warming-related disasters and incidents. A comprehensive assessment of what will be required begs to be undertaken. Training health care providers and first responders to address the large-scale mental distress arising from the emergencies that are coming is imperative. Timely interventions may keep some early injuries from developing into chronic, long-term conditions.


An estimated 200 million Americans will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate related events and incidents:

The severity of symptoms will vary, but in many instance the distress will be great.

In the coming years, a majority of Americans will experience direct adverse effects from the impacts of global warming. Natural disasters and extreme weather events will strike many places that are densely populated: 50 percent of Americans live in coastal regions exposed to storms and sea level rise, 70 percent of Americans live in cities prone to heat waves; major inland cities lie along rivers that will swell to record heights, and the fastest growing part of the nation is the increasingly arid West.

Climate change will become a top-of-mind worry in the future:

Some Americans already are or will soon experience anxiety about global warming and its effects on us, our loved ones, our ecosystems, and our lifestyles. This anxiety will increase as reports of the gravity of our condition become more clear and stark. …

Major segments of U.S. society are more psychologically vulnerable now:

• Children: America’s 70 million children will not only suffer long term effects from climate change but will also experience acute reactions to natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Some children are already anxious about global warming and begin to obsess (understandably) about the future, unmoved by the small reassurances adults may attempt to put forth. In the first known “climate change delusion” a depressed 17 year old boy was hospitalized for refusing to drink water out of fear it would cause many more deaths in drought ridden Australia. The doctor who treated him has seen other children suffering from climate related anxiety disorders.

The mental health care system of the U.S. is not prepared to handle the wide-spread psychological stresses of climate change:

While the U.S. mental health care professions are coming to recognize and address the larger scale perils associated with climate change, no comprehensive strategies are in place to cope with the full psychological and public mental health implications. Given the magnitude of the impacts and the rate at which the world is changing, a campaign focused on what this segment of the U.S. mental health service community can do to help is certainly needed….

There is also low first responder preparedness:

Due to the number of emergency situations in which global climate change and mental health issues will be connected, first responders will need additional education and training to handle the immediate psychological trauma and symptoms of climate disaster victims. Such training will support rescue operations, triage decisions, application of medications, patient safety and more….

Some climate change-related conditions and their psychological effects merit specific preparation:

• Summer heat waves: the physical distress arising from prolonged heat waves is well known. What is not widely known is the psychological distress that is caused by higher temperatures, and, in particular, the relationship between rising temperature and aggression. Research from Iowa State shows that, as the temperature rises, so does the incidence of violence. (DeLisi, 2010)

• Coastal and river flooding: the direct adverse effects of flooding are obvious, but these weather and climate related events are especially likely to lead to psychic injury from the stress of displace-ment, loss of possessions (including pets), and uncertainty about interim and future housing and employment.

• High impact and more intense storms: the far-reaching consequences of destructive weather saw its prototype in Hurricane Katrina. The Hurricane scattered residents of New Orleans all across the U.S. It shattered a culture, broke up families, spiked outbursts of outrage and blame at a government that was slow to respond, and lead to a jump in violence in at least one city that took them in (Houston). Six years later New Orleans has yet to fully recover, and many of the victims have experienced post-incident stress and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)….

• Severe drought and reduced snow pack:

the unrelenting day by day despair of watching and waiting for water that doesn’t come will have a singularly damaging impact on the psyche of the people who have depended on Mother Nature’s rainfall for their livelihood….

• Increased large-scale wildfires: raging wildfires are incredibly dangerous and have a particularly savage effect on our psyches by devastating landscapes, wiping out homes and possessions, incinerating wildlife and clogging the air with pollutants that sicken people locally and can travel hundreds of miles to sicken people at a distance. Persistent psychological stress is common, with anxiety reactions recurring….

• New Disease threats: higher temperatures favor the formation of ozone which triggers asthma attacks. Anyone who has asthma and parents of children with asthma are familiar with the fears this illness engenders. People die from untreated asthma. Many other fears linked to disease are harder to “nail down.” As malaria and dengue fever and other infectious diseases march northward due to warmer temperatures, inchoate fears of threat and vulnerability drift into people’s consciousness. This will be compounded by a growing number of sensational media reports tied to disease outbreaks and public health warnings….

We are witnessing an unraveling of climate stability, and therefore human stability, and are seeing physical changes that are unprecedented in all of history.

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