Climate change a ‘collective trauma of potentially epic proportions’ for South Africa

Climate change is a “collective trauma of potentially epic proportions”, according to a new report on the psychological and mental health consequences of global warming in South Africa.

The report, by community psychologist Garret Barnwell, was commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights for the African Climate Alliance, groundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement in Action in support of the #CancelCoal campaign, which challenges the government’s proposed procurement of new coal-fired power generation.

It says people experience climate change through a range of traumatic and stressful events or exposures that lead to psychopathologies such as anxiety, depression, suicide, interpersonal violence, decreased work productivity and increased admissions to hospital. These can be experienced directly through, for example, natural disasters, or vicariously by watching others suffer.

“These events may be experienced as anticipated harms (anticipated threats, loss, and damages related to the future of climate change) and may be accumulative (when a person may experience several traumatic or stressful events across their lifespan),” says the report, which was released on Tuesday.

South Africa is extremely vulnerable to climate change and research shows that it is evident through, for example, an increasing disease burden, intensifying water insecurity, worsening sun and heat exposure, growing financial insecurity and widening inequality, inflamed interpersonal violence, rising food insecurity and exacerbated natural disasters. 

“South Africa will experience increased droughts, wildfires, coastal and interior flooding, vicious storms and rising sea levels that will have significant negative implications for the country, some of which we have already begun to experience,” the report says.

The water crisis in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, the wildfires along the Garden Route, flooding in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga and the droughts in the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga demonstrate some of the harmful effects on people living in South Africa.

The report says the greenhouse gas-emitting power stations that contribute to climate change add to poor air quality and residents nearby find themselves living with higher exposure to pollutants. 

Young people, children, women, fenceline households living close to power plants and rural residents are disproportionately at risk. “The most vulnerable are people living in low-resourced or historically disadvantaged communities and those who are among the majority of people living in poverty,” the report says.

In many cases, climate change will be a root cause of psychological adversity and socioeconomic problems. 

“Climate-related events such as natural disasters or socioeconomic losses, can cause considerable psychological distress and overwhelm people’s coping strategies and community safeguards,” the report says.

Studies have shown how climate disruptions threaten intergenerational identity processes when arable land and sacred natural sites are lost to ecological degradation. 

The report says it is difficult for most South Africans to adapt to climate shocks such as weather disasters, water insecurity and economic losses. “The same social conditions that make individuals and communities more vulnerable to climate change are the same that put people at higher risk of mental illness and psychological adversities.”

Barnwell writes about how he fears the psychological effects that climate change will have, especially on young people and future generations, “who, through no fault of their own” find themselves inheriting their degraded environmental and material conditions. 

“Beyond the direct and accumulating traumatic and stressful impacts of natural disasters and degradation, climate change forever alters conceptions of what their life could hold,” he says.

“We cannot escape the fact that climate change impacts pose an existential threat to individuals, families, and communities that are psychologically — and otherwise — harmful.”

Institutional betrayal manifests from the psychological harm of the state not urgently addressing the drivers of climate change, its delay in the move to renewable energy and the healthcare system’s shortfall that will prevent an adequate response to the psychological harms of climate change.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Mbali Baduza, whose work at Section 27 focuses on climate justice and the effects of the climate crisis on health systems, pointed out that South Africa’s health climate adaptation plan had expired in 2019. 

“Currently there is little information available on the implementation of the adaptation plan of 2014-2019 and plans for the next five years. In addition, only R1.9-million had been budgeted for implementation of the adaptation plan for that period. Our healthcare systems are already fragile. A budget of less than R2-million to cater for climate change impacts will do little to strengthen the capacity of the health system to adapt,” she said.

A second plan is in preparation and Baduza said it was critical that it be released for public comment. “As it stands there is no plan to address the impacts of climate change on health and mental health specifically.” 

Gabriel Klaasen, of the African Climate Alliance, said the psychological effects of climate change were deep rooted, describing them as a form of “mental health injustice”.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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