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Thu 22 October 2020
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CJ Werleman on the psychological effects of climate change, its deniers and why younger generations are right to be so disturbed by the future planet that awaits them.


Western Europe is sweltering through a record-breaking heat wave this week, with Britain, Germany, Belgium and France expecting life-threatening, mercury-busting temperatures. At the same time, 290 million Americans – representing 90% of the country – are experiencing temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius.

The consequences of an overheating planet are here and they’re coming in hot!

On Thursday, Paris experienced a record high temperature of 42 degrees, “shattering” its previous high of 40.4 degrees Celsius more than 70 years ago. When a similar heat wave hit France in 2003, the French Government estimated that more than 5,000 lives were lost due to heat stroke, dehydration, and cardiac arrest.

The Netherlands and Belgium also set new high temperature records on Wednesday, with both exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.

“Why bring new life onto a dying planet?”

In the United States, authorities are predicting temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius will bring power outages in a number of the country’s major cities, which will likely also bring about a significant loss of life.

Despite the right-wing media-industrial complex’s unqualified refutation of global warming, the fact remains that almost nearly every prediction made by climate scientists more than three decades ago is upon us now: the earth’s temperature is rising, storms are intensifying, the equator is becoming wetter, and everything between 30 to 60 degrees north and south of the equator is becoming drier, as they forecasted it would. Meanwhile, the Arctic’s strongest and oldest ice broke up for the very first time last year, with the World Economic Forum calling this an “economic time bomb”.

With climate scientists warning that we have more or less a mere decade to address the causes of an overheating planet before the consequences become irreversible, the American Psychological Society, in a report analysing the effects of climate change on mental health, has coined the term “eco anxiety” to describe a “chronic fear of
environmental doom”.

“Some emotional response is normal, and even negative emotions are a necessary part of a fulfilling life. In the extreme case, however, they can interfere with our ability to think rationally, plan our behavior, and consider alternative actions,” the report’s authors note. “An extreme weather event can be a source of trauma, and the experience can cause disabling emotions. More subtle and indirect effects of climate change can add stress to people’s lives in varying degrees. Whether experienced indirectly or directly, stressors to our climate translate into impaired mental health that can result in depression and anxiety.”

I read this report when it was first published in 2017 and, as startling as it was then, the warnings became even more acute during a recent conversation I had with my 23-year-old son, in which he told me that his understanding of the social-economic-political impacts of climate change had led him to believe that he will choose adopting a child over bringing one into the world. “Why bring new life onto a dying planet?” he said.

No doubt, his views about the world might and will change as he moves further into adulthood, but my son is not the kind of young man who makes decisions based on the last thing he heard or read in the news. He’s a deeply thoughtful individual who will complete his Master’s degree next month and, thus, he typically applies academic rigour to much of his decision-making and opinion-forming.

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“There seems to be a consensus among climate experts that the world will become fraught with violence, dislocation, and instability, alongside the fact economic opportunities for people my age and younger will become far fewer,” he said. The more we spoke on the topic, the more evident it became just how anxious he and his peers are about a climate-induced dystopian future – a reality emphasised by the fact that students across the world have been leading protests against the international community’s stubborn resistance to resolving the world’s number one existential threat, one that promises to rob them and their future children of security and stability.

I’m 46 years of age, so when I was my son’s age and younger, climate change warnings read only as some kind of far-off abstraction and not as an immediate threat to my life or future. For today’s teens and twenty-somethings, however, the affects of an overheating planet, including the increasing frequency and intensification of catastrophic storms; rising temperatures and sea levels; changes in vector ecology, including the spread of mosquito-borne disease; environmental degradation, and changes in the food and water supply are happening before their youthful eyes.

“When will it [climate change] swallow me, my hypothetical kids, and my even more hypothetical grandkids?” asks Veronique Hyland in Elle magazine. “And what makes the anxiety worse, of course, is the fact that virtually no one around me wants to talk about it. I’m not friends with any climate-change deniers, but when I bring up the latest 10,000-word article warning us that we have a mere decade left before everything starts melting, the reactions range from blank stares to Debbie Downer jokes to ‘For the love of God, this is a child’s birthday party!’”

Unlike Hyland, I do have friends and family members who are, in fact, climate change deniers, which I attribute mostly to their daily consumption of Rupert Murdoch-owned news media and when I contrast their stubborn refusal to support climate change-combating policies with the fears and anxieties of my son and younger people more generally, it makes me incredibly furious – and it should also you.

Main photo: Grass blades grow from the burst soil of the dry Würmsee river in the Hanover region of Germany on 24 July 2019. The renewed drought has again ensured that the groundwater level of the lake is very low and that the water has partly fallen dry. Many fish have died.

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