We’ve all read the news. We know about glaciers melting and wildfires spreading and the Amazon shrinking. But, while we understand that these are big, scary problems, they don’t always seem like our problems. Maybe it’s because we live in an area that hasn’t seen the worst of climate change or maybe it’s because we’re fortunate enough to be financially stable. But, the truth is… whatever story we’re using to convince ourselves that climate change won’t affect us, is just that… a story.
Why don’t we take climate change seriously?
The psychology behind climate change denial is complicated and multi-faceted. But, there are a few key reasons that have been identified to help explain why we aren’t more concerned about this existential threat.
Climate change moves slow.
Humans are wired to respond to immediate, personal threats like home intruders or fires. The biggest reason we ignore climate change may be that it’s not happening fast enough. Despite the observable damage climate change is already inflicting, most Americans still see climate change as a distant threat that doesn’t require immediate attention.
We have other worries.
We have a lot on our plates. Work, family, health, friends, and bills are all immediate concerns that occupy our thoughts. There are only so many things we can worry about at once. Because climate change doesn’t feel urgent, we focus on other problems instead. It’s natural for concrete present pain to take precedence over a seemingly abstract future one.
We feel guilty.
The truth is that we enjoy our modern conveniences. Acknowledging that climate change is real and that our actions are contributing to it makes us feel guilty. Because we don’t want to feel guilty or change our way of life, we simply push climate change worries to the side.
We’re growing accustomed to it.
Humans are amazingly adaptable to change. Even though the climate is changing, over time, we find unusual weather to be less and less remarkable.
It’s too enormous to comprehend.
To fully grasp climate change is to accept that we are facing an existential crisis. When faced with a problem that daunting, the human brain has a tendency to go into the primitive defense mechanism of denial.
Ignoring climate change won’t make it go away
As much as we’d like to pretend that climate change isn’t real… the truth is that more and more suffering is caused by climate change-induced extreme weather every year. And it isn’t just happening in far-flung, poverty-stricken places. It’s happening right here, to people like you. And it will only get worse…
What negative effects does climate change have on your health?
Wildfire season is getting longer and more severe. Wildfire smoke is made of gases and microscopic particles from vegetation, metals, and other building materials that have been burnt. Of all the dangerous pollutants released by wildfires, the most hazardous to your health are PM 2.5 and ultrafine particles. PM2.5, along with the even tinier ultrafine particles, are composed of a mixture of solid and liquid particles that are suspended in the air. PM2.5 particles are easily inhaled and are able to penetrate deep into your respiratory system, causing an array of serious health issues.
And, it isn’t just people on the West Coast who need to be concerned about wildfire smoke. Because of their tiny size, PM2.5 can also travel very far, potentially damaging the health of people across states. In fact, California wildfire smoke has been detected 3,000 miles away in New York City.
Exposure to these fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. Longer term exposure can cause heart and lung disease, cognitive issues, and even decrease our lifespan.
Wildfires aren’t the only way that PM2.5 particles are spread. Human activity around the world is causing dangerously low air quality. Currently, 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline limits.
Along with the steadily rising temperature, heat waves are becoming more common and more severe. When the heat rises, work productivity tends to fall, sleep quality decreases, and kids’ academic performance suffers. And heat is not just an annoyance. Heat caused at least 10,000 deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2016 – more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods in most years.
But, the health damage that is caused by rising heat is not always as direct. A warmer climate means a change in vegetation and animal life, both of which can affect our health.
Dr. Jackson, emeritus professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, says, “Our changing climate will have much more of an impact on people’s health over time.”
He cautioned that people of all ages will develop respiratory allergies, and those who already have allergies can expect them to get worse, as plants and trees respond to a warmer climate and release their allergens in more places and for longer periods of time.
A warmer climate will also lead to a rise in infectious diseases carried by ticks, mosquitoes and other vectors. In temperate zones, even a small increase in temperature can lead to epidemics of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, encephalitis, and other tick-borne infections, as well as mosquito-borne West Nile disease, dengue fever, and even malaria.
Besides the immediate dangers that hurricanes and other severe weather present, there are other health hazards that are often overlooked. For instance, extreme flooding and hurricanes can lead to outbreaks of the bacterial blood infection leptospirosis.
Rising sea levels can also increase mold growth, which can aggravate respiratory illnesses and lead to other health problems. Rising sea water also increases the risk of high blood pressure, as well as digestive problems.
How can we protect our health?
Combat climate change: The best way to prevent health issues caused by climate change is to work towards a more sustainable environment. While personal choices matter, the fastest way to combat climate change is to support legislation and elected officials who are pushing for immediate action.
Choose your location wisely: As far as our personal health is concerned, while there is no location that is immune to climate change, there are some places which are faring better than others. If you have the flexibility to choose your location, there are some useful online resources to help you find some of the safest places to live.
- A brief overview of how climate change is expected to affect each U.S. region
- An interactive tool that will enable you to look up how many hot days your city or a city near you could experience during future summers
- An interactive map that shows you what your city’s climate is likely to feel like in 60 years by comparing it to the present-day climate of another city
- Maps that show where wildfires have burned recently and which places are most at risk
- An article on how climate change could affect air quality
- An interactive tool that shows how sea-level rise could affect coastal areas
- A map that shows how precipitation in your region is expected to change in the future
- You can also explore projected changes in precipitation and temperature by ZIP code using this interactive tool.
Lessen your exposure to poor quality air: If you live in an urban area, especially one with high levels of pollutants, check your air quality before going out. The morning is often the best time to be outside because ozone levels are lower. If you can, walk away from traffic and near trees or shoreline, where there are typically less pollutants.
To keep your indoor air clean no matter where you live, ensure that gas stoves are well ventilated, reduce the use of harsh cleaners and scented products, and, for air truly free of pollutants, consider purchasing a high quality air purifier.