“I’m sorry I’ve been so out of touch.” Months after Hurricane Harvey, my friend reached out to me to let me know that she has been suffering from depression and nightmares. She and her elderly relative were evacuated out of their flooded home in Houston during the storm, marking their door with a Sharpie the date and time that they had been rescued.
Texas recently passed the year anniversary of Harvey, and this is just one of the thousands and thousands of stories of people traumatized by living through the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history. That’s not to mention the trauma of those affected by the hurricanes, wildfires, and many other extreme weather disasters that have taken place over the past several years.
The psychological harm of surviving a natural disaster has been documented for decades. But with climate change, those natural disasters are no longer purely natural – they are getting more intense, frequent, and/or destructive depending on the event. Protecting Texans’ mental health and avoiding the costly effects of trauma is yet another reason Texas should invest in clean energy solutions, a low-hanging fruit for avoiding the worst of climate change.
Climate change’s threat to mental health
In addition to major storms, Texas has been suffering with heat and drought, just three years after fatal flooding ended the second worst multi-year drought in Texas history. This summer marked Austin’s third hottest on record with 48 triple-digit days. The grass was so dry and cracked that it could cut you.
The psychological impacts of heat and drought include anxiety, depression and, with heat in particular, increased levels of acute psychosis – frankly, the hotter it gets and the longer it stays that way, the more irritable and aggressive people tend to get. A recent study found that climate change may lead to increased suicide rates as temperatures spike.
And there is the psychological aftermath of weather and climate disasters, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), whose symptoms include nightmares and depression. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 1 in 6 people met the criteria for PTSD and rates of suicide and suicidal tendencies doubled. PTSD and other mental health effects of Harvey will likely be felt for years to come.
Trauma from weather and climate disasters, intensified by climate change, does not discriminate. There are no exceptions to who may feel the harmful effects of extreme events. However, vulnerable communities – like older people, communities of color, and people with lower incomes – are the ones that bear the brunt of climate change, and the people in those communities are the ones who are least likely to be able to change their circumstances.
A lot of people also have the added stressor of being financially underwater after a storm. Further, many such communities do not have the mental health medical infrastructure that may be present in more affluent populations. Vulnerable communities are typically less able to evacuate in extreme weather, and are more exposed to poor air quality and harmful extreme heat – during these events and throughout the year.
A recent study found that currently about 30 percent of the global population is exposed to temperatures exceeding the “deadly threshold” for at least 20 days each year – and that number would increase to a terrifying 74 percent if emissions continue to grow. The reality is, vulnerable populations will likely make up the majority of deaths in those scenarios.
Clean energy opportunity
As we head into the next Legislative Session, there are many lessons from Harvey for the leadership of the state to bear in mind. For example, empowering state agencies to plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation prioritizes Texans’ health and wellbeing.
Moreover, embracing low-emitting and low-water energy resources such as solar and wind is a clear low-hanging fruit to combatting climate change. Also, increasing state energy efficiency programs, and enabling the deployment of cleaner, more efficient transportation such as public transit and electric vehicles (which also means funding infrastructure and programs that encourage these shifts) simply makes economic sense, especially when factoring in the cost savings of long-term health benefits.
Fortunately, Texas is already moving to a clean energy economy. For example, last year, wind generated about 15 percent of the electricity in Texas, in comparison to the national average of 6.3 percent.
Neighbors and strangers banded together during and after Harvey to help and support each other. Our state leadership should do the same, and recognize how clean energy can play a role in safeguarding Texans’ mental health.
Photo source: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.
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