Report links global warming with mental illness; ‘skeptical environmentalist’ scoffs

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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A report from Australia’s Climate Institute which links global warming with mental illness is already drawing eyerolls from a central academic in the global climate-change debate.

In its report, the anti-carbon emissions organization argues that a spike in severe weather events in Australia coincides with increased rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.

“Climate change will have many adverse impacts on Australians’ health — physical risks, infectious diseases, heat-related ill effects, food safety and nutritional risks, mental health problems and premature deaths,” the Climate Institute declared. “The emerging burden of climate-related impacts on community morale and mental health—bereavement, depression, post-event stress disorders, and the tragedy of self-harm — is large, especially in vulnerable rural areas.”

The report adds that those living in “rural areas” of Australia “are already beginning to suffer.”

“Across all sectors of the Australian population, mental health (too often the Cinderella of our public health policy) is vulnerable to the stresses and disruptions caused by a changing climate and its environmental and social impacts,” the report says.

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor and environmental statistician, and a cautious believer in global warming — but also an advocate for sound and rational decisions about how to fix it — told The Daily Caller the study is “problematic.”

Cutting carbon emissions to slow a mental health epidemic down the road, Lomborg says, is an extreme reaction that makes it difficult to take global warming and climate change advocates seriously.

The new report “emphasizes that we’ve seen an increase in catastrophes, and obviously this is from Australia,” Lomborg said in a phone interview. “The link [that the Climate Institute suggests] is that we see more hurricanes, we see more floods, we see more bush fires and that leads to social disruption and hence, we should cut carbon emissions. Well, actually, if you look at the past of hurricanes since 1872 in Australia, severe hurricanes have declined slightly, not increased.

“If we look at bush fires as normalized to damage costs, we’ve also seen declining, not increasing, damage costs,” Lomborg continued. “And, that’s also true for flooding.”

Lomborg, author of the celebrated (and reviled) book The Skeptical Environmentalist, said the Climate Institute’s new report exaggerates certain statistics and findings in order to make its point, while leaving out other information.

“With global warming, yes, you’re going to have more heat waves but you’ll also have fewer cold waves,” he said. “We’re likely to see slightly stronger hurricanes, but probably slightly fewer hurricanes and so on. You just cannot say this is a one-way street where everything is going to get worse.”

Lomborg told TheDC that more heat waves with global warming will likely cause more mental health problems, and the Climate Institute might have something there. But fewer cold waves will result in fewer mental health problems. “You need to say both,” he said. “You can’t just pick and choose in the record.”

Lomborg said he’s wary of reports from the Climate Institute. “It’s a campaign organization,” he said. “It’s obviously an organization that wants to cut carbon emissions so it’s not surprising that they’d be saying this. But if they want to make a serious argument, I can’t imagine that you’d just want to say these are the things that are getting worse.” (RELATED: Despite protests, Obama likely still has green energy vote for 2012)

He said the key advice people should take away from the Climate Institute report is to not act irrationally when trying to address climate change issues. “I think the [report’s] main point is that if we don’t act, all of these bad things are going to happen,” Lomborg said. “But somehow they suggest if we don’t cut carbon emissions, we won’t be able to fix mental health problems? Uh, no. It’s very clear there are many other things that you would maybe first want to address, and that would actually be more effective if you actually care about mental health problems.”

While clarifying that he is not a public health expert, Lomborg suggests several approaches that may curb widespread mental illness problems more than cutting carbon emissions, including devoting more resources to mental health problems, providing greater access to doctors, and conducting more research on mental illness issues.

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