GUEST BLOG: Stressed Out

Nov 28, 2018

Climate Change Threatens Mental Health, Diminishes Regulatory Oversight When it’s Needed Most

By Dorothy Rawleigh
Certified Health Education Specialist

Psychological and physiological stress caused by climate change increases the prevalence of mental health problems among entire populations and reduces the efficacy of government workers who are tasked with responding to health hazards that are amplified by hotter temperatures. These findings come from two recent studies published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Climate change impacts mental health

A recent article describes the findings of a large-scale study that examined population-level mental health impacts of short-term exposure to extreme weather, multiyear warming and tropical cyclone exposure. The researchers found that each exposure was associated with worsened mental health.

Climate change can threaten mental health when social, economic and physical systems are disrupted. Half of the adults in the United States will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Rising temperatures and an increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters result in societal disruption and conflict, forced migration, disruption of livelihoods and ecological degradation. All of these outcomes amplify risks to physical and psychological health, economic activity and infrastructures.

Results from the study show that increases in monthly temperatures and added precipitation days each increase the monthly probability of experiencing mental health issues. The authors note that if monthly temperatures shift from between 77 degrees and 86 degrees Fahrenheit to averages greater than 86 degrees almost two million additional individuals would report mental health issues in that month.

The negative effect of temperatures greater than 86 degrees Fahrenheit on the probability of mental health disorders is largest for women and low-income respondents. Low-income women in the subsample were twice as likely to experience mental health disorders than high-income men in the sample.

The data showed that days with temperatures that exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit are likely to become more common in the future particularly in the southern U.S, and that multiyear warming during the spring and summer months has the largest effects on the prevalence of mental health issues compared with the warming that occurs during the fall and winter months.

Climate stressors on daily governance

The impact of stressors from climate on the psychological and physiological health of whole populations includes street-level government workers. In another recent paper, researchers discuss how climate change exacerbates governmental oversight of public health hazards due to these same stressors.

Police officers and food safety inspectors are charged with enforcing important government rules that protect public health and safety. The study found that the regulatory activity of these workers declines due to the same weather conditions that amplify the public health risks they are tasked with overseeing.

Researchers gathered county-level data for police stops, fatal vehicular crashes, food safety inspections and violations and compared it to county level meteorological conditions during the same time period and at the same locations. The data covers the majority of the U.S. population and includes fatal vehicular crash data for every county in the country.

While hot temperatures reduce the number of regulatory police stops, those same conditions increase the risk of fatal vehicular crashes. It was also found that food-safety inspections decrease during warmer temperatures despite the fact that food-safety violations increase with warmer temperatures. During times when inspections and police stops should increase due to amplified risk, the research suggests that lowered worker productivity is responsible for the decrease in oversight. A reduction in worker productivity leads to reduced government oversight that worsens health outcomes, public safety and increases environmental degradation.

Researchers used downscaled climate models to project the possible day-to-day governance impacts of climate change by 2050 and 2099. Their findings suggest that future warming may improve regulatory capacity during colder seasons and decrease it during the hotter seasons when the public health risks from climate change are greater.

As with the previous study, this research finds that the southern U.S. will experience a greater burden from these impacts compared with the rest of the country. During hotter seasons the south can expect to see a greater decrease in police stops and a greater increase in fatal vehicular crash risk and food safety violations.

If governments and societies are unable to adapt and mitigate climate change, the widening gap between public health needs and government regulation may be exacerbated. Poorer countries with warmer climates, more extreme precipitation events and fewer regulatory resources may experience more severe effects of climatic conditions on government worker productivity.

Responding to growing regulatory demands will be challenging as climate change simultaneously slows economic growth and strains existing infrastructure and budgets while governments respond to the environmental stressors of floods, tropical cyclones, severe heat waves and sea-level rise. Obradovich et al. suggest that this chain of stressors has the potential to produce extreme political consequences including protest, civil conflict and state failure.

Adapting to climate change will require policymakers and government officials to assess how vulnerable both the public and public-sector workers are to temperature-related stressors. Health professionals can use the findings from this robust research to advocate for urgent, large-scale and comprehensive action for mitigating climate change and for building climate resilient regulatory response systems.