Monday, July 22, 2013

What Does Global Warming Have To Do With Therapy?

Stephen R. Poteau, Ph.D.

Bipartisan politics aside, global warming is an empirically-based reality. Given psychology is empirically-based, we should not dismiss the empirically-based realities of our natural world since it has consequences for our discipline. Specifically, global warming can have far-reaching implications for aspiring clinical psychologists in that a new population in need of psychological services has surged in numbers.

Climate refugees fall under the umbrella of environmental refugees, who are displaced by natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.), but include refugees who are displaced by the global warming effects of human activities. It has long been noted that the environmental implications of our carbon footprints are largely impervious to our psychology. We are not psychologically predisposed to appreciate the dire, global consequences of our present behaviors given the stimulus and response in operation in global warming are temporally discontiguous. Any behaviorist text will attest to the necessity of proximity of behavior and consequence for learning to take place in the operant conditioning paradigm. This is true of behaviors detrimental to not only the world, but also the self. That is, smokers may smoke because it is reinforced/rewarded relatively immediately (the reward system is activated a mere 10-20 seconds after inhalation), while the punishing aspects of smoking (i.e., cancer) are removed temporally from the act enough that punishment has no pull in terms of behavioral modification. Similarly, our unabated use of precious natural resources is temporally removed from rising sea levels in some parts of the world, droughts in other parts, heat waves, and extreme weather events, which have all contributed to the creation and plight of the climate refugee.

The Environmental Justice Foundation has projected upwards of 150 million climate refugees by 2050,[1] and also noted that they are afforded no legal protection.[2]Climate refugees are not seeking refuge from persecution nor are they necessarily seeking refuge in another country (more often than not, they are internally displaced, which can be as equally devastating as being externally displaced). Furthermore, there may not be a single cataclysmic event forcing a mass exodus, but instead, a slow and steady degradation of the land forcing people to be displaced over time. The term ‘climate refugee’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary that holds zero legal international recognition, and therefore, confers no protections. Several nations, including the United States, have deemed climate change and climate refugees as issues of national security.[3]

 Lest you think that this is a problem germane only to places like Darfur, Maldives, and Bangladesh, think again. There is evidence that we are now facing the nation’s worst drought since the 1930s Dust Bowl that forced nearly 2.5 million people out of the regions of Texas, Oklahoma, and the Great Plains,[4]there is an alarming rate of 25 square miles in Louisiana eroded near the Mississippi delta every single year which, in turn, leads to a higher likelihood of storms like Hurricane Katrina due to the loss of wetlands,[5]and there is Newtok, a small village in Alaska, where exile is all but assured for its natives due to flooding and erosion wiping away hundreds of feet of land in a single year,[6]to illustrate a few local examples. 
These environmental tragedies come as a package of multiple tragedies enveloped within one another: agricultural, economic, political, cultural, and psychological. If one’s culture is threatened to the point of extinction, as is the case in Newtok, Alaska, the psychological consequences are far-reaching and profound (e.g., anxiety, PTSD, etc.) (Salzman, 2001). If the agricultural and/or economic fallout of global warming results in a competition for scarce resources, real-world examples and several psychological studies have demonstrated that intergroup violence and potentially elimination of one group at the hands of another group are likely outcomes (McPherson & Parks, 2011).

 In this globalized world that Al Gore (2013) refers to as ‘Earth Inc.,’ the agricultural, economic, political, cultural, and psychological ramifications of global warming cannot be measured only locally. Instead, an appreciation for the interconnections between all corners of the world is necessary in order to comprehend the gravity of the situation and to formulate a befitting countermeasure. Short of building floating cities (a French architect has seriously proffered this as a remedy to the climate refugee crisis[7]) or fairly imposing carbon-capping systems, we, as psychologists, can at the very least prepare to treat this population that will be the host of symptoms extending well beyond traditional refugee psychology.[8]Just as an appreciation for the world’s interconnectivity is indispensable to grasping the mechanics of global warming, an appreciation of the interconnectivity across empirically-based disciplines is also necessary for psychologists to adequately redress the afflictions suffered by climate refugees. You can’t serve the underserved if you don’t know of their existence.

 Gore, A. (2013). The future: Six drivers of global change. New York:  Random House.

 McPherson, S., & Parks, C. D. (2011). Intergroup and interindividual resource competition escalating into conflict: The elimination option. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, And Practice, 15(4), 285-296. doi:10.1037/a0024938)

 Salzman, M. B. (2001). Cultural trauma and recovery: Perspectives from terror management theory. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 2(2), 172)

[1]Some claim this estimate is based on older data. Estimates based on new data are even higher at 1 billion climate refugees by 2050 (
[2]The 1951 UN Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was crafted after World War II, presents legal safeguards toonly those refugees fleeing their countries of origin in fear of persecution (
[8] See for a discussion on the unique psychological threats posed by climate change

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