EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was prepared for “Climate Prayer Vigil: City Hall, Milwaukee, Jan. 20, 2017. In the run up to Earth Day, April 22, 2017, Dr. Moffic granted ICD10monitor permission to reproduce this article. Moffic is scheduled to speak on this subject on Talk Ten Tuesdays, April 18.
Last Saturday’s headlines in the Milwaukee Journal blared, “State Public Service Commission also cut climate topics from website.” That meant, that in addition to the Department of Natural Resources, these state agencies that are supposed to protect our well-being, are being muzzled in regards to global warming. But we are not, at least yet, so here is what I want you to know. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
For those of you who can’t see what my tee-shirt, it reads “Make American Sane Again”. That means there are some insane things going on here. One of them is failing to adequately deal with climate change, for if we don’t, we will continue to have increasing health and mental health problems across American, but especially in our inner cities like in our own Milwaukee.
Clearly, in medical terms, our earth is developing a fever as our temperatures continue to slowly rise. This has become more apparent in the new millennia, the 21st century, after hundreds of years of pretty ideal temperatures for us humans and all life. The hottest years on record have all occurred in the last 17 years. In retrospect, the risk of the year 2,000 was not that computers would malfunction, but that our climate would become unstable.
For me, personally, it was a decade ago when I had my wake-up call, or epiphany if you will, when my third grandchild was born. I was sent to the grocery store when she came over. At check-out, I was asked “paper or plastic?” Instead of answering quickly as usual, I froze, finally answering “whatever.” On the way home, I knew I had to find the right answer (which is to bring your own bag) and work on a sustainable environmental future for her and all children. I joined the Physicians for Social Responsibility, which in 1985 won the Nobel Peace Prize for nuclear disarmament, but which now feels global warming is as big a threat. I learned from them and became a speaker like this at some of their rallies across America.
As I learned, the health risks are not only from the gradual warming of the climate, which in our winters in Milwaukee some might even welcome, but also from the unstable weather disasters like ice storms, tornadoes, wildfires, and drought. That is why I prefer to use the term climate instability rather than climate change, as change can be good or bad. So we have to be concerned not only by slowly developing disasters, but also acute ones. Moreover, we psychiatrists know that people are much more emotionally devastated by disasters caused by the behavior and thinking of people, which is at least partially true in climate change, as it shatters our trust in one another.
So, simply put, climate change makes us sick. What are some of the specific heat-related illnesses that are increasing?
- Heat cramps, heat fainting, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, and deaths;
- Associated acute air pollution from fossil fuels that can aggravate chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease, increase allergies and asthma, adversely affect brain development, and perhaps contribute to cancer;
- Infectious diseases increase, including the migration further north, like in the case of Zika infections.
And then there is my field, mental health, which seems to be even more severely affected by:
- Heat waves that contribute to more alcohol and substance abuse.
- Just a one-degree increase in temperature increases the risk of violent behavior in warmer climates, especially in our inner cities. In the summer “heat islands” caused by concrete and asphalt can increase temperature by 2-10 degrees compared to suburban and rural areas. In Los Angeles, a summer heat wave killed twice as many African-Americans. International and intra-national conflict over scarce resources can increase, as it did recently in Syria.
- Increased insecurity.
- With weather-related trauma, there is an increase in Posttraumatic Stress Disorders.
- Anxiety about the future increases, especially in children.
- A variation of grief, called solastalgia, develops with an undesired change to one’s environment, from which one can’t escape.
- Increased symptoms for those with Schizophrenia.
- The risk from medication that reduces one’s ability to perspire and sweat.
- Inadequate resources to care for these consequences. Actually, almost 30 years ago, I spoke here about the need of a single payer healthcare system that would cover the basic healthcare needs of all. Though Obamacare has helped some, I’m still waiting for something much better.
What’s worse, in terms of environmental justice, is that all our citizens are unlikely to be affected equally. In fact, those that use the least fossil fuels are often hit the worse: the poor and minorities, children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Though this is a different kind of environmental risk, just think about the lead poisoning in the poor communities of Flint, Michigan, where they still can’t drink tap water. To add insult to these injuries, the poor often get poorer in climate-damaged communities.
What seems to increase these health and mental health risks in our more vulnerable communities?
- Less ability to adjust to the heat, given inadequate air-conditioning.
- More chronic illnesses that are vulnerable to worsening.
- Not enough preventive healthcare.
However, there is realistic hope, even for the most vulnerable, and if that occurs more universally, we will all benefit and be protected. So, what is that example? It is a city not so unlike Milwaukee: Cleveland. Cleveland has had an Office of Sustainability now for about eight years, which has worked with the communities about food insecurity, housing, unemployment, and long-term climate resilience. Some of the accomplishments include corporate funding grants, replacing abandoned lots with gardens, planning trees, healthier food, and cooling centers.
If Cleveland can do this, surely Milwaukee can. So, yes, we need to pray. But, we also need to talk like we are today to combat the silence of our state agencies, and we need to respectfully talk to those with different viewpoints because most of us, other than the 1 percent, will all be affected adversely, directly or indirectly. And, we must act!