A new report on the human cost of living with inaction on climate change Media Release

Aug 27, 2011 - 1:38pm

The effects of a rapidly changing, more volatile climate are now compounding long-lasting social and mental health problems, particularly in rural and regional communities and on the outskirts of our cities, says a new report released by The Climate Institute today.

The report — A Climate of Suffering: The Real Cost of Living with Inaction on Climate Change — will be launched at the Brain and Mind Institute by Professor Ian Hickie in Sydney today. It draws together the work of mental health experts and community practitioners, as well as survivors’ accounts of disasters, providing insights into the emotional trauma in communities affected by increasingly wild weather.

“Climate change is emerging as a major threat to mental health, with the trauma of extreme weather events manifesting directly, indirectly and through the broader impacts on communities, the economy and the environment,” said Dr Susie Burke, Senior Psychologist with the Australian Psychological Society.

The report says increased depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse emerge strongly in the wake of extreme weather, with up to one in five people likely to suffer emotional injury, stress and despair. In the recent drought, self-harm and suicide rose by up to 8 per cent, according to a study of rural New South Wales.

“Extreme weather has directly cost taxpayers and the economy $9 billion in the last year, and now we are starting to see the additional, deeper cost to human health and the social fabric,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute.

“With Australian regions increasingly exposed to extreme weather, recognising and managing the risks of climate change is essential — it’s an insurance policy to protect our communities,” he said.

2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfire survivor and Kinglake resident, Daryl Taylor, said the day of the fires was just the beginning of suffering in his community.

“Kinglake is a ‘canary in the coalmine’ community: record temperatures, humidity at extreme lows and an unexpected change of wind meant towns like ours had no chance. Since the ‘perfect storm’, trauma, grief and loss have been enduring constants, especially for those who have lost family, neighbours and close friends,” Mr Taylor said.

Dr Allan Dale, a long-time Innisfail resident and chair of Regional Development Australia for Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait, is a survivor of tropical cyclones Larry in 2007 and Yasi in 2011.

“After Larry, I came to experience the effects of widespread and prolonged community-wide trauma for the first time. To then have a second whopper cyclone hit within five years has many of us in this part of the north thinking about what the future could look like if predictions about more intense cyclones prove correct,” Dr Dale said.

Dr Rob Grenfell is a general practitioner based in Natimuk in Victoria’s West Wimmera region which experienced the worst of the drought followed by heavy flooding in early 2011.

“As a GP serving this community for a long time, I’ve seen the direct human cost of climate changes. Many businesses have gone broke and so many people have left the community. Financial stress also brings on psychological distress and, sadly, in some cases, suicide, and episodes of domestic violence, and alcohol and drug problems — with all of the resultant disharmony and pain,” he said.

The decade to 2010 was Australia’s hottest on record, with last summer producing a category five tropical cyclone, torrential downpours and flooding on an unprecedented scale, after a long drought marked by record heatwaves and catastrophic bushfires.
Without preventative action to reverse rising pollution levels, climate scientists predict a sharp rise in the frequency and/or intensity of weather-related disasters.

“Our response will have to be a mix of mitigation, adaptation and transformation, recognising that prevention is far better than treatment,” said Dr Susie Burke.

To download the full report and summary visit the project page.

The report — A Climate of Suffering — was formally launched by mental health expert Professor Ian Hickie and Climate Institute CEO John Connor on Monday August 29, 9.30am at The Brain and Mind Institute, 100 Mallet St, Camperdown.

For further information:
John Connor | CEO, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299
Giulia Baggio | Communications Director, The Climate Institute | 03 9600 4039
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