By Ashley Charest, MSPH (Health Policy Analyst Associate, Maryland Department of Health)
If you don’t feel the impacts of climate change directly in your daily life, you probably aren’t poor.
Major news outlets regularly publish features on scientific studies by climatologists ringing the alarm on how many degrees global temperatures have increased, the rise in severity and frequency of natural disasters, and the dire future effects on the environment if human behavior does not change. However, most people aren’t climatologists or journalists. Climate change, for some folks, is an abstraction discussed over the dinner table or argued about in social media comment sections, or perhaps a notion thought about when presented with the choice of garbage or recycling bins.
The privilege of economic stability shields middle and upper-income populations from the larger, tangible consequences of climate change and creates a psychological distance between their experience and the significant realities of a warming planet that lower-income populations face daily. Upper and middle-income populations in the U.S. might face slight inconveniences like paying a couple of dollars more for avocados at the grocery store or spending a couple more dollars at the gas pump, while the livelihoods and well-being of lower-income populations are fundamentally impacted and disrupted.
Low-income people don’t have the luxury of ignoring climate change effects on economics and health. Psychologists who work with vulnerable populations shouldn’t either.
Climate change threatens to widen economic disparity by threatening agriculture and tourism industries largely staffed by low-wage workers and endangering food and water supplies disproportionately impacting the poor. The rise in global temperatures caused by climate change is linked to the upsurge in severity and frequency of extreme weather events including drought, prolonged heat waves, and flooding which alter ecosystems, disrupt growing and harvesting cycles, and cause damage to infrastructure (Allen, 2015). Agricultural productivity greatly reduces, resulting in job loss and decreased food supplies (Morello-Frosch, Pastor, Sadd, & Seth, 2009) Additionally, tourism suffers if the landscape is irreparably damaged or the affected community lacks resources to rebuild after an episode such as a hurricane or tsunami (Morello-Frosch, Pastor, Sadd, & Seth, 2009).
Beyond the perils to job security in industries heavily dependent on low-wage labor, the burdens of higher energy costs and negative health outcomes fall more heavily on low-income populations than others. In the United States, low-income households pay about 8.3% of their total annual household income to residential energy bills compared to higher income populations that pay 2.9% annual household income (Franklin, et al., 2017). Moreover, energy bills such as electricity vary month to month, so planning for potentially higher bills is an added stressor to paying a higher proportion of a limited income.
In addition to coping with the rising cost of powering their homes, low-income people are also more likely to live in homes with poor, less efficient infrastructure, contributing to negative health effects only exacerbated by a warmer climate (Rasmussen, 2017). Those living in inner cities face disparate effects of more intense and prolonged heat waves due to the way that buildings trap and retain heat known as the “heat-island effect” (Morello-Frosch, Pastor, Sadd, & Seth, 2009). This heat-island effect exacerbates chronic physical ailments such as respiratory illnesses as it causes higher levels of air pollution, increasing chances of death during heat waves (Morello-Frosch, Pastor, Sadd, & Seth, 2009).
The threat to job security, a greater burden of rising energy costs, insufficient housing conditions, and worsening of physical health outcomes endanger mental health conditions in low-income people. According to the WHO, mental health is “a state of wellbeing that includes the ability to cope with daily stressors and make contributions to one’s family and community.” Mental illnesses resulting from these stressors whether through acute or chronic events, include trauma, shock, PTSD, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and depression (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, & Speiser, 2017).
Additionally, impacts include higher rates of aggression and violence, more mental health emergencies, an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness or fatalism, and intense feelings of loss (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, & Speiser, 2017). As climate change events become more frequent and sustained, it is imperative that psychologists take into consideration the strains the environment can place on mental health, especially for individuals with lower income.
What psychologists can do NOW to help low-income populations facing the devastating realities of climate change:
Acknowledge dominant societal structures and the socioeconomic status of patients to bring context into treatment
Work with organizations that specialize in catering to the needs of underserved populations
Use techniques designed to help patients recover from trauma and build resilience
Utilize cultural competency practices AND humility: if you don’t know what you’re doing and someone else does, ask!
Step out of topic area silos and work with psychologists in other disciplines
Lend practical psychology skills to disaster relief efforts
Become engaged within local communities and in the national conversation: add your voice to create effective, evidence-based policies
Allen, P. J. (2015, January). Climate Change: It’s Our Problem. Pediatric Nursing, 41(1), pp. 42-46.
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica, Washington, D.C.
Franklin, M., Alksnis, M., Younger, C., Patterson, J., Fink, K., Grant, C., . . . Konopacky, J. (2017). National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program (ECJP), Baltimore.
Morello-Frosch, R., Pastor, M., Sadd, J., & Seth, S. B. (2009). The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans & How to Close the Gap. University of Southern California. Los Angeles: PERE Publications.
Rasmussen, E. (2017, June). Climate change threatens mental health, well-being of Americans. The Nation, p. 6. World Health Organization. (2016, April). Mental health: strengthening our response. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs220/en/
Ashley Charest, MSPH, is a health policy analyst associate at the Maryland Department of Health. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) with a Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) degree in Health Policy. Ashley focused her training at JHSPH on mental health policy, health disparities, and human rights in addition to her health policy coursework. She also completed a community outreach project on housing insecurity and mental illness with the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Metropolitan Baltimore and the Connection Community Consultants at JHPSH last fall. Prior to Bloomberg, Ashley worked as a Post Baccalaureate Fellow at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the NIH for two years. She contributed to multiple research projects investigating the role of voltage-gated Kv4.2 ion channels and various proteins in communication between CA1 hippocampal neurons. She also completed the NIH Academy Fellowship program on health disparities with a community outreach project, focusing on mental illness and recidivism in the Latino community with the non-profit Neighbors’ Consejo in Washington, DC.
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