The latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released this week, citing “clear and growing” human influence on the climate system. The IPCC synthesis report, which the Climate Council says is the most comprehensive assessment of climate change ever undertaken, warns that if left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that if the world maintains its “business as usual” attitude about climate change, the opportunity to keep temperature rise below the internationally target of 2 degrees Celsius, “will slip away within the next decade. With this latest report, science has spoken yet again and with much more clarity. Time is not on our side…leaders must act,” he said.

See this breakdown on the key findings of the report from the Climate Council, which also produced the “….. awesome” video above.

In response to the report, the Climate and Health Alliance has called on the Australian Government to “get its head out of the sand” and start acting responsibly by developing ambitious, effective emissions reductions policies. It says the Abbott Government’s actions to abolish the carbon price legislation and the Climate Commission and threaten the renewable energy target – Australia’s only remaining policy helping the nation to cut its emissions – are completely at odds with the science and the actions of other nations, like China, Brazil and in Europe.

CAHA President and climate and health researcher Dr Liz Hanna said five separate studies showing Australia’s hottest ever heatwave in the summer of 2014 was “virtually impossible without climate change” meant that failure to reduce emissions “in this most vulnerable of countries” was effectively ensuring more deaths and illnesses.

Dr Hanna said.climate change has an overwhelmingly negative impact on health globally, with the IPCC’s report revealing that children are most critically affected, with a substantial negative impact on child development and stunting from under nutrition among children in developing countries associated with crop failures and weather related disasters. See its media release.

See also this post below about the risks for mental health from climate change by Dr Mark Braidwood, who is a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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Dr Mark Braidwood writes:

Weather worries – climate change and mental wellbeing

As the scientific consensus and certainty around the science of climate change continues to solidify, so too do concerns about how climate change might affect human health.

The effects will likely include increased physical injury due to extreme weather events such as fires and floods. Mental health effects are also anticipated, in the form of acute posttraumatic  stress from extreme weather, loss of livelihood and social disruption.

An additional and potentially under-recognised mental health impact is that of worry and distress caused by the long shadow climate change casts across our future.

The idea of climate change is very confronting for many reasons. It is frightening because it makes our individual and collective existence on this planet more tenuous. It also challenges the way we choose to live our lives and organise our societies. It calls in to question values that make up our culture, such as the right to consume as many resources as we can afford and the expectation that our wealth will continue to grow far into the future.

To some, climate change can even expose deep-seated concerns about the long-term sustainability of complex human civilisation and elicit pessimism and despair regarding the wellbeing of future generations.

Indeed, the most comprehensive survey to date of Australian attitudes to climate change found 20% of respondents felt at times “appreciable distress at the prospect and implications of climate change and its consequences.” Various studies on mental health in Australian rural areas have shown relationships between environmental stressors such as drought and soil salinity with reduced mental health.

Because of this potential, the likely influence of climate change on mental health has been described as a chronic background stressor punctuated by discrete acute stressors, such as extreme weather events. The chronic threat perception may impose as much of a mental health burden as any direct experience of it, since it may be more widespread.

People respond to such threats in different ways – not everyone will become distressed or anxious. People have a finite amount of ‘stuff’ they can worry about in their lives. Many will be more concerned about putting food on the table than a distant threat like climate change.

Yet others may respond with overt distress or grief. Those closest to the problem, the scientists researching climate change, have expressed their views in handwritten notes, which make sobering reading.

We may even view climate change scepticism or denial as a form of coping with the threat.

Different worldviews and values strongly underpin perceptions of the magnitude of the threat of climate change. Denying the problem helps evade any challenges to tightly held values and world views that climate change might present.

This may be why some sceptics are so infuriating to debate. Any new evidence that threatens their position simply activates psychological defence mechanisms to defend their values. It also explains why the conspiracy theories such as a global conspiracy to increase taxes or a widespread corruption of science are so persistent. They are necessary to explain away the apparent scientific consensus in a (semi-) plausible fashion, with one’s values left intact.

Given these complexities, individual differences will strongly influence people’s response to the threat of climate change. Yet the nature of climate change itself as a mental health stressor is complex too.

Firstly, environmental threats usually fall into two categories – natural or man-made. We know that man-made threats evoke more anger, frustration and resentment than natural threats. Climate change is both a man-made and natural environmental threat, so has elements of a sense of powerlessness in the face of nature and someone to blame.

Secondly, environmental stressors tend to be either continuous (such as drought) or discrete (such as a flood). Climate change will have elements of both.

Lastly, the likely magnitude of scale, complexity and consequences of climate change overwhelm any individuals’ capacity to influence the outcome.

Health professionals are used to dealing with complex interdependent health problems, some of which is within the power of the individual to change. For example, we can encourage patients to quit smoking, start exercising or leave abusive relationships. Even these are difficult to achieve for many patients.

Because of its complexity and scale, climate change may resist meaningful attempts to empower patients or give solace. However, there is some evidence that engagement with the problem, for example through community groups, can give a sense of empowerment and help buffer distress.

If predictions are even close to correct, climate change is likely to increasingly impact mental well being, both directly and indirectly. The scientific certainty appears to be enough to cause distress in some already. Others will respond only to first-hand experience of changes in weather. Denial may in fact be protective but sustainable only for so long.

About 1 in 5 Australians are thought to suffer a mental illness in a given year. Some of this is due to existing social stressors and circumstances, which creates vulnerability to further distress. What impact climate change will have on this already significant burden is unknown, but it could be profound.

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