We all know climate change is a problem. It is generally portrayed as an exclusively bio-physical issue that will impact things like our weather and oceans, agriculture and water availability. But climate change also has an impact on mental health. 95bFM’s Ella Christiansen spoke with David Menkes about the link between climate change and psychology.

David Menkes is an Associate Professor in Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland.

What are the current and future risks we face to mental health as a result of climate change?

t is a big topic and so we can really only touch on a few of the categories without going into a whole lot of detail. But certainly, the direct physical impacts of climate change, including, most conspicuously, sea-level rise where we have got some striking examples in our Pacific neighbours of actual loss of land. But probably more significant on a global scale is going to be the frequency of extreme weather events and there seems no doubt at all that the frequency and severity of extreme weather has increased in various parts of the planet. We haven’t had a whole lot of that here in New Zealand but in other parts of the world, major impacts in terms of drought and flooding and extreme weather of various sorts. So it has been quite disruptive and a lot of people have been killed and many more have been displaced by the extreme weather, and I guess this is really just a taster of what might be on the horizon if we continue on the path we are.

Along those lines I am wondering what is the role of mental health conversations as these massive changes are happening because I think for most people it is going to be extremely disruptive and unexpected and it seems that is going to have an emotional and psychological impact.

Absolutely. The WHO has stepped up to address this challenge and what they say is that climate change will be the defining issue for health systems in the 21st century. I mean that is it, it is at the top of the list, and they go on to say that health professionals have the knowledge, cultural authority, and responsibility to protect health from climate change. It is a big task and we cannot shirk that responsibility. In many cases we are not going to be able to prevent it, we are going to have to be talking about damage control and mitigation because it is already happening, there are already people dying, there are already streams of refugees that are set to increase over the coming decade. So we have really got to gear up and I think health systems generally, but including mental health, we need to get ready for this because even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today we still have that huge signal that is going to continue to disrupt climate for the next decades. Even if we slow down and turn that ship around we are going to have to be dealing with this and the problem is of course if we don’t slow that ship down and turn it around it is going to get worse and possibly cataclysmic if we reach that tipping point of 1.5 or 2 degrees warming.

There is not a lot of indication that the change is necessarily happening right now?

Indeed not. And I guess people will be aware of some of the reasons for that tipping point, it now seems pretty clear that once we cross that threshold if we don’t do something pretty drastic pretty quick, we will get there. And once that happens, one of the main triggers is the melting of a lot of ice in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions: when the ice covering that tundra melts a whole lot of trapped methane comes out. So we get what is called the runaway effect, or a positive feedback loop where you get past that threshold and a bit more warming leads to a process that generates more and more warming, and so on it goes. And so that is really what we need to prevent. It is absolutely critical that we somehow slow the ship down before we get to that tipping point. The estimates are we could do it, it is still possible to do it, but time is literally of the essence here.

Hearing all this information is very overwhelming and I sort of wonder if people aren’t as engaged or active around climate change because of that reason.

Absolutely. That is certainly true. It is so huge and almost unfathomable about what could happen that it is easier just to not think about it. Of course, that is not a very adaptive thing in the long run and our children and grandchildren will not thank us for it, so we really need to grapple with the reality. And I think the way to do that is to realise that there is a difference that ordinary people can make and one of the main things we can do is keep it on the agenda, keep talking about it, talk to your neighbours, talk to your friends and wherever possible bring it into the here and now. Do you really need to drive to the shop? What is wrong with a bike, what is wrong with walking? If there is an alternative, go for it. There are all these little decisions that we make about how we manage our day to day lives and it is important not so much for the absolute contribution it makes to reducing fossil fuel consumption but also the sort of collective vibe of what we do and how we communicate and how we live. That should be out there, it should be talked about, it should be celebrated and I think it is something that needs to be much more visible and part of day to day life and conversation.

It seems like there is kind of this strange social silence around climate change. I bring it up often and it feels like conversations don’t go very far because people are kind of like ‘Oh that sucks, yeah it is terrible’, and that is kind of it.

Part of that surely comes from the sense of ‘Oh well, we can’t do anything about it and the world is screwed and, you know, what the hell, you might as well just enjoy what we have while it is here’. Ultimately, you have got to understand that there are a lot of people who think that way and that we have got to manage that disconnection from reality. I think they outnumber the deniers actually, the apathetic middle who probably would accept the scientific evidence and who probably agree if they bothered to think about it or talk about it that this is probably happening and we probably all are in a way contributing. but it is too big a problem and ‘I just can’t think about that right now because I have got my own life to live’. People conveniently shut it out when it seems unmanageable or too big or too scary. And I think we need to break that down and just bring it home to people that that is a very common experience, that’s a human way of dealing with things. But another human way of dealing with things is by keeping it out there, keeping it in the public discourse and making sure that how you live is consistent with those values and that understanding.

I also wonder what you have to say about guilt in relation to this issue because just from my personal experience trying to make all of these individual behaviour changes can sometimes make me feel constantly guilty and kind of neurotic about my behaviour, because once you start becoming aware of these issues, it is in everything that you do and it can be kind of difficult to try to do the right thing all the time when often there is not a good choice.

That is absolutely right, and I think this comes back to another aspect of human nature really that in terms of motivating any kind of behaviour, but in this case motivating responsible socially useful behaviour like living well and doing what you can to look after the planet. There is an optimal level of concern or motivation and if you have too little or too much you tend to either not bother or get paralysed with anxiety or guilt. So really we want to help people reach that happy middle ground where they’re concerned but not paralysed. You want people to understand that we are all in this, and different people have different thresholds for behaving well and responsibly. I think what we need to do is allow for a lot of individual difference in that respect and encourage people to find if you like their sweet spot where they are engaged and motivated but not subject to too much in the way of guilt or paralysis. So everybody is different, everybody has got their own formula but I think recognising the fact that we do have that optimal level of concern and motivation to really do any kind of productive behaviour. Getting that happy middle ground, having enough concern ideally in concert with other people, I mean we are in this together and that’s why I think keeping it on the agenda to be speaking with your friends and family about this stuff is perfectly legit and it should be much more the norm that things that are that important receive the appropriate amount of airplay.

This interview was originally aired on The Wire. To hear the audio and download this interview click here.

See Also:

How will climate change impact Aotearoa? ▶

Q+A: Do we need to radically change our lives to stop climate change?