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Who Is Affected by Climate Change?

Climate change disproportionately affects people in the Global South. In the United States, those living in poor physical environments or who have a lesser ability to access medical care and lesser power to effect political solutions for climate impacts on their neighborhoods have a greater burden of climate impacts. Children and young people, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with cognitive or mobility impairments, pregnant and postpartum women, people with mental illness may experience greater impact. In addition, disadvantaged populations, including people of lower socioeconomic status, migrants, refugees and the homeless may be particularly affected. (Hayes).

People with mental health conditions are more likely to be affected by climate-related phenomena for several reasons. Psychiatric medications can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate heat as well as their awareness that their body temperature is rising, which is associated with heat illness and death.1 Antipsychotic medication, anticholinergic medications like benztropine, and benzodiazepines can particularly increase risk of heat illness (Martin-Latry). Many cardiac and other kinds of medications can also impair heat regulation.

  • Mental Health Fact - Medicine

    Mental Health Fact - Medicine

  • Mental Health Fact Children

    Mental Health Fact Children

People living with mental illness are also more likely to be homeless, to live in poverty, or to have co-occurring substance use disorders, which make it harder for them to cope or adapt to changes. In addition, those with severe mental illness are more likely to be dependent upon services, infrastructure, and medication supply chains that are often disrupted after extreme weather or disasters. Some groups of people may be displaced long-term because of hurricanes or crop failure related to flooding or droughts. The communities accepting them may struggle to absorb these displaced persons and care for their psychological needs, whether they are internal or external “climate refugees.”

Children are more vulnerable to heat and climate-related air pollution because of their immature thermoregulatory, pulmonary and immunological systems, rapid brain and body growth, greater exposure to heat and air pollution due to more time outdoors, and lesser ability to clear toxins from their young livers (Adhoot). At the other end of the lifespan, older people can be vulnerable to climate challenges because they are less able to regulate their bodies in response to heat, more likely to be isolated, bedbound, unable to care for themselves, and may be limited by cardiopulmonary and other diseases.

Populations living in low-lying or arid lands are among the most vulnerable to potential forced displacement. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, population migration linked to climate change is already happening. Each year since 2008, an average of more than 20 million people are forced to move because of weather-related events, such as floods, storms, wildfires or extreme temperatures. Many others are leaving their homes because of slower-moving events, such as droughts or coastal erosion (Cattaneo).

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