The implications of climate change on our health

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The recent fires and record breaking heat wave have had a devastating impact on much of the west coast of America. California, Oregan and Washington State have all endured days of orange tinged skies, thick with smoky air. Millions of people frantically scanned the daily air quality on their weather apps - eagerly waiting for the numbers and temperatures to drop just to take a walk. The impacts from extreme weather caused by climate change go far beyond the destruction of our landscape. Being around nature and around a healthy natural environment is good for us — the reverse is also the case. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Susan Clayton, professor of Psychology and chair of Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Clayton is currently focusing much of research on the implications of climate change on our psychological well being.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: When linking climate change and mental health what were some of the things that caught your attention?

Susan Clayton: Early on what we knew pretty well that extreme weather events have a detrimental effect on mental health and not surprisingly it doesn't have to be associated with climate change. If you go through a hurricane or a wildfire there are clear increases in rates of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder and sometimes increased rates of suicide. 

But a couple of things have become more apparent since then. One is that some of the more subtle effects of climate change are also likely to have an impact on mental health.  Heat is probably the primary one and for decades we have lots of evidence about harmful impacts of heat, and it doesn't have to be associated with climate change. But climate change is leading to increases in temperature and more frequent heat waves and the evidence associated with both, increases mental health problems and is also detrimental to everyday mood and social behavior.

We don't exactly know why the relationship exists and it is probably on multiple levels but one thing we know is that we find heat to be stressful. So whenever you're dealing with a stressor, it takes some mental resources to deal with that, which means you have fewer mental resources left for other things. One of those other things can be trying to understand other people. So we feel essentially less empathetic and less, on average less positively inclined towards other people. Aggression rates tend to go up and the ability to be helpful tends to go down under hot circumstances. 

There's also good evidence that heat makes it more difficult to sleep. And anyone who has had a sleepless night knows that it can put you in a bad mood. When you’re in a bad mood, you're not functioning very well and you get cranky. So it sounds almost silly but when you look at it in a laboratory, it can lead to these more substantial negative impacts.

Is it true that suicide rates also go up when there's extreme heat?

Susan Clayton: Suicide is sometimes an example of aggression directed at yourself, rather than at someone else and yes suicide rates tend to go up as do psychiatric hospitalizations. There's physiological vulnerability to heat as well, that's why there are cases of people dying during heat waves or certainly suffering physical impacts. And it's possible that over the long term, there could be physiological impacts on the nervous system, we don't yet really have evidence for that yet.

Are children more susceptible to the impacts of climate change?

Susan Clayton: Yes, children are more vulnerable, partly because their bodies are still developing their nervous systems. It depends at what age they are, but things that are developing can be impaired and impacted in a more permanent way. One of the things that children have not fully developed is their ability to regulate their own temperatures. Adults have complicated physiological systems that help them to maintain a more or less constant body temperature. Children are not as good at this and as parents know, who have to call their children to come inside when it's 30 degrees outside. They know that their children are not as aware of high temperatures and don’t respond to those temperature differences in the same way. 

What about the importance of humans being in nature. What happens when their natural environment changes?  

Susan Clayton: It's hard to know exactly but we are thinking about the impacts that we might be faced with because of climate change in a sense of what we might have less access to. The glaciers would be an example of that but even just healthy, green environments. A lot of us have lost or will lose places that we grew up near or they will be less healthy, so we won't have access to those. As the climate keeps changing, and I don’t want to say we're destined for doom, but it may be harder for us to have access to healthy green nature. And this is important as there is an avalanche of data from the last 10 or 20 years supporting the benefits of those green environments for everything from physical and mental health, to social behavior and mood.



  • Susan Clayton - professor of psychology at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio


Andrea Brody