Help Brief U.S. Senate on Psychological Harms of Climate Change

PsySRPsySR is helping to organize mental health professionals to brief as many U.S. senators as possible this fall about the enormous psychological harm that climate change will bring and the need for a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions to reduce the human suffering ahead.

It’s urgent that we work together as soon as possible, as the Senate is now drafting major climate-change and energy policy legislation. Please join us by organizing a visit to both of your senators—to either their local offices in your state or their Capitol Hill offices in Washington, D.C. PsySR will support you with talking points, references, and help with finding other psychologists, concerned students, and mental health professionals in your state to work with, as a visit by two or more is especially effective.

(If you plan to take part, please send us a message to let us know. You can reach Steve Shapiro at sshapiro@jhmi.edu or Colleen Cordes, PsySR’s executive director, at ccordes@psysr.org. If you live in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, or Montana, your role is critical because senators in those states are playing leading roles in drafting the Senate's climate and energy bill.)

Together, we can deliver a powerful message that Congress has not yet considered: Unless the United States acts to mandate dramatically lower carbon emissions, the psychological, emotional, and behavioral consequences of climate change are likely to be severe for potentially billions of people.

THE PROBLEM

As you know, the House already has passed a climate bill, but it is significantly weak on many points. The Senate’s efforts could make the final legislation much stronger ... if it acts on behalf of people and the planet rather than for special interests. But for what do we need to have our government aim? For the goal of reducing carbon emissions to stabilize atmospheric levels at 350 parts per million, not the 450 parts per million that Congress is considering now. (See ** below for clarification).

Meanwhile, it’s likely that most senators haven’t heard anything about the psychological and behavioral implications of climate change for U.S. citizens and people around the world. As Hurricane Katrina, recent forest fires in the West, and damaging floods in the South have demonstrated, the toll in terms of vastly increased rates of persistent anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and social conflict is likely to be devastating unless the United State quickly embraces a leading role among nations in committing to strong action to reduce carbon emissions. Your help bringing this new information to your own two senators could potentially influence how they think about and vote on the incredibly important legislation soon to be before them.

GETTING READY TO ACT

We recognize that many psychologists and other mental health professionals are not up-to-speed with the climate legislation—which is still very much in flux in any case and may be delayed further because of the health reform debate. But meetings in Senate offices, either in Washington or in the home state, need not be focused on the nuts and bolts of the law. Instead, we would do well to point out the psychological harm that will result if Congress does little or nothing to respond boldly this fall to the rising tide of carbon emissions. In addition, a strong statement from our government could carry significant weight during the United Nations climate treaty negotiations to take place in Copenhagen in December.

In an effort to give you some tools to engage in this task and reduce your reservations about doing so, we have crafted brief documents you can use to learn more about the issues. These include talking points to address your senators (or, more likely, their staff members) and a reference list for further reading both for you and to share with congressional staff.

The talking points document "Climate Change and Mental Health: Dramatic and Damaging Connections" is available HERE and the document "Climate Change and Mental Health: Evidence for Action" is available HERE.

SPECIFIC ACTION STEPS

ONE: Coordinate with several other PsySR members in your state who would be willing to contact your senators’ offices and plan to meet as a small group with your senators or their staff members. Two or more visitors together carry more weight than one, and you can divvy up different elements of the issues so each in the group has a different role in addressing climate change’s harm. Steve Shapiro (sshapiro@jhmi.edu) and Colleen Cordes (ccordes@psysr.org) are working to identify PsySR members in each state who might be willing to be involved in this educational action, so please contact us with your interest so we can connect you with others nearby.

TWO: Contact your home state’s U.S. senators. To do so, go to the following link: www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm. Decide what local offices you want to visit or whether you and your peers can visit Washington. Then call and describe that you have a group of mental health professionals who would like to meet with your senators or relevant staff members who are addressing the climate change legislation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to pleasantly affirm that your group wants to arrange a personal visit with each senator, if possible, or at least with the staff person most involved in the climate legislation issue.

THREE: Before you go for your appointment, take the time to peruse the documents, choose the issue or issues that most interest you, and coordinate with your small group about who will manage the meeting, who will talk in what turn, and what topics you plan to cover.

Do plan to focus on the psychological, emotional, and behavioral aspects of climate change—these are the disturbing consequences that lawmakers have not yet heard about, and your credentials make you the ideal spokesperson to convey this important information to them. There are so many different facets to the psychological and behavioral aspects of climate change that what you say likely isn’t as important as you simply making the effort to communicate the risks we face if Congress fails to pass a law that strongly, quickly limits carbon emissions.

FOUR: After the visit to each senator’s office, send a follow-up email thanking the staff or senator for visiting with you, offering to help research any additional questions they may have, and very briefly repeating the need for a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions to prevent widespread emotional, cognitive, and behavioral harm.

WHY THIS ACTION NOW?

The United Nations recently met to begin a push toward December’s Copenhagen negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And just last month Rajendra Pachauri, the U.N.'s top climate scientist and leader of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated that we can’t reduce life-harming planetary warming unless we get below 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re already at nearly 390 and climbing at least two to three parts a year. Many of the discussions in Congress are seeking to reduce carbon emissions—the primary culprit for climate change from our burning of fossil fuels—so that we could stabilize atmospheric carbon at 450 parts per million by 2050.

Data clearly show the 450 level and worse will lead to potentially catastrophic results for many people and the planet. And while we can talk all we want about getting individuals to reduce their consumption, the research also persuasively shows that individual behavior change is so complex and so slow to come that immediate government regulation is a much more potent tool to stabilize the climate in the short term. Thus, governments must focus on that critical 350, which means we will need to reduce carbon emissions much more quickly and forcefully than virtually anyone has considered so far. (You might see such numbers as a 20% carbon emissions reduction by 2020, 40% by 2030, and 80% by 2050, but again these only aim to stabilize atmospheric carbon at 450 parts per million… not good enough to prevent severe psychological peril much less a reduction in warming.)

WE NEED YOUR HELP

Please know that anything you do on behalf of this action request is invaluable, even if you are unable to articulate many of the issues you’d like to address. Just demonstrating your concern for the psyches of people who will face climate change’s damage will go a long way to letting your senators know that this is a serious issue that requires their mindfulness—if not their votes for specific legislative steps to reduce carbon emissions.

Again, please contact Steve Shapiro at sshapiro@jhmi.edu or Colleen Cordes at ccordes@psysr.org so we can connect you with other PsySR members in your home state and provide further assistance as you take the initial steps to talk with your senators about climate change and mental health. We would like to know what your plans are, we’d like to be as helpful as possible as they unfold, and we’d like to hear your thoughts about the outcomes of your meetings, too.

Thank you for putting in the effort to be engaged and active. That’s what PsySR’s Climate Change, Sustainability, and Psychology Program wants to be all about.

Return to PsySR's Program on Climate Change, Sustainability, and Psychology.