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Welcome to 2019—Maybe

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After a year like 2018, I was hopeful that my first column of 2019 would be a ‘reset’—leaving behind the social and political agonies of the past 12 months and providing a refreshing swig of optimism for all that is right in our profession and our world. Alas, my hopes were shut down (as is the government). Though I remain doggedly and perhaps naively optimistic that surely any year can’t be any worse than 2018, the evidence is not stacking up in my favor. I hope we all, however, use that age-old and highly effective therapeutic strategy of reframing: When the paths we had planned on taking are blocked, we don’t stop walking, we find a way around the morass, and if the swamp cannot be completely drained at present, we can at least build a footbridge across it. For psychologists, this may mean refocusing efforts on solving some of our well-established societal ills or identifying new areas of contribution. This month, I focus on the latter—our deteriorating environment and dwindling natural resources, and the associated impact on physical and mental well-being.

In the first days of the New Year, we were informed that a Japanese sushi magnate was rejoicing in his good luck in winning an auction for a bluefin tuna for the astronomical sum of over 3 million US dollars. While this may seem a lot for a single fish, consider that soon there may be no more of these fish at all, which makes the price paid seem at the same time both reasonable and absurd. Three million dollars for an exceedingly rare fish? Perhaps reasonable, at least to Japanese sushi magnates. Absurd, because the worldwide stock of these fish has diminished by over 90% for a reason that is entirely due to human agency and entirely correctible: overfishing.

Also in the first days of the New Year, we learned that the pace of global warming is accelerating dramatically. Melting of the Antarctic ice shelf is reported to have increased over sixfold in the past 50 years. Reports of diminishing polar ice are not new, but reports of the quickening rate of melt are increasingly consistent and alarming. Several years ago, I listened to former Chief of Naval Operations ADM Gary Roughead talk about his worries over the diminishing Arctic ice pack and its potential effects on the environment and national security. Now I don’t know much about Arctic ice, but I do know that when the CNO says we should worry about something, we likely should pay attention. Members of the military are famously paid to worry about things so that the average citizen doesn’t have to, but in this instance the anxiety belongs to all of us.

My obvious point is that the evidence is clear: Climate change is real and the effects of human-caused warming are immediately apparent and worsening. My less obvious point is what these observations have to do in a clinically oriented psychology column. The answer to the latter question is not so apparent, but it exists.

Organized medicine has long paid attention to the potential ramifications of human-caused climate change. Every year for the past decade, the Lancet has published an annual update on health and climate change. This report is publicly available on Lancet’s website and it is worth reading. In a nutshell, Lancet authors note that rising temperatures are exerting deleterious effects on labor capacity, vector-borne illness and climate-sensitive diseases, food security, lethality of weather-related disasters and effects of flooding or drought. This report is not happy reading, as you can imagine, but the authors temper their pessimism by reporting on nascent, if preliminary, responses by government and industry to ameliorate human-caused warming. What I found to be a bit surprising in the Lancet’s report was an almost complete absence of references to the effects of climate change on mental health. These indubitably exist, and not only as corollaries to effects on physical health. Some published findings associate short-term exposure to extreme weather and long-term warming with quantifiable increases in the incidence of mental health disorders. Increase of temperatures by 1 degree centigrade over 5 years was associated with a 2% increase of the prevalence of mental health disorders (Obradovich et al., 2018). Negative effects on infant psychological development have been documented in the aftermath of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, as have externalizing behavior disorders in adolescents in response to rises in ambient temperature. The psychological literature in these areas is not as robust as that in physical science or medicine, but I believe that sufficient evidence exists for us to posit real correlations between climate change and adverse mental health outcomes.

Where the literature is stronger is in reports of the applications of psychological principles to human reaction to climate change, though it is clear that much more needs to be done in this area. Belief polarization can be modified by structuring bipartisan social interaction. Altruism and collaboration can likewise be enhanced, at least in structured investigations. Some social actions have been found to reflect altruism. Others, however, may be more reflective of egoistic values. Mechanisms for addressing the effects of “issue fatigue,” surely to be a major concern when dealing with long-term shifts, have been explored, along with techniques to measure cognitive bias in interpretation of published reports. Small potatoes, you may say, particularly when confronted with a problem of global magnitude and relative immediacy. But as individuals and as a society, indifference and despair remain huge obstacles to effective change and at least at the individual level we have interventions of demonstrable efficacy.

It is tempting to succumb to indifference and negativity, and I suspect that in many practices the preeminent struggle of clinicians is to help patients guard against surrender. But accepted theories of agency and change, as well as common sense, tell us that passive acquiescence is exactly what we should not do. We have at our disposal tools for enhancing self-agency, tools for facilitating communication and tools to reduce cognitive bias and distortion (both individually and collectively). In other words, tools to enable individuals and groups to substitute effective action for despair. Realistically, we must confess that the odds are long, the outcome uncertain and that while psychological tools are facilitative, they are by no means a panacea. With a problem with stakes as high as climate change, it is irresponsible for us to promote interventions of uncertain value. But our profession does have a role. It is up to us to better articulate our contributions and to begin to implement them. We cannot sit this one out.

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