PHOENIX – As a climate change activist and mental health advocate, Saiarchana Darira studies the effects of global warming not just on the environment but on the well-being of people worldwide.
The recent Arizona State University graduate and self-described “environ(mental) health researcher” works as the youth engagement lead at Turn It Around!, a project enlisting young people across the globe to help educate adults about the dangers of climate change.
Toddlers, teens and young adults from Canada to India have designed flashcards – with artwork on one side and short essays or comments about the effects of climate change on the other – to challenge people to “think, see and act in new ways.”
“Climate injustice is a very complex and widespread issue, and how it affects mental health is overlooked,” Darira said, pointing to Arizona’s often record-breaking, blazing temperatures as one example.
“The lack of being able to go outside due to the heat, the increase in feelings of isolation, ecological grief – they all play a role in mental health.”
During an annual meeting of its delegates in June, the American Medical Association declared climate change a public health crisis and said it would push for more policies to help limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius – the ceiling included in the Paris climate accord.
The organization highlighted the health risks of producing fossil fuel-derived hydrogen and said it will develop plans to help physicians adopt environmentally sustainable programs in their practices.
“Our patients are already facing adverse health effects associated with climate change – from heat-related injuries, vector-borne diseases and air pollution from wildfires to worsening seasonal allergies and storm-related illness and injuries,” AMA board member Ilse Levin said in a statement.
“Taking action now won’t reverse all of the harm done, but it will help prevent further damage to our planet and our patients’ health and well-being.”
From 2030 to 2050, according to the World Health Organization, 250,000 additional deaths are expected each year worldwide because of climate-driven health problems, including malnutrition, malaria and heat.
In Arizona, health conditions related to rising temperatures are a primary concern.
Even before the official start of summer this year, Phoenix hit a high of 114 degrees. As of July 23, Maricopa County – Arizona’s most populous – had seen 38 confirmed heat-associated deaths for the year, more than the 26 recorded over the same time period in 2021.
Over all of last year, the county recorded 339 heat-associated deaths – the highest on record.
Decades of rising temperatures prompted Phoenix to allocate almost $3 million to heat readiness in its 2021-22 budget, to launch an Office of Heat Response & Mitigation last fall, and to develop a heat response plan.
“We’ve certainly seen significant trends in temperature here in Arizona, especially nighttime temperatures, as a consequence of urbanization and global scale climate change,” said David Hondula, director of the city’s Office of Heat Response & Mitigation. “Those increases, particularly in our summer months, can have adverse impacts on public health.”
Efforts in the works to address the problem include increasing tree and canopy shade by 25 percent; continuation of the city’s Cool Pavement Program, a project that applies an asphalt seal coating to combat the urban heat island effect; and a new heat shelter in Phoenix that can provide relief for up to 200 people experiencing homelessness.
“Almost everyone that comes in our doors initially has some level of heat-related illness, whether it be dehydration or extreme sunburn or signs of heatstroke,” said Jennifer Morgan, program director of the new shelter. “The need for a program like this one has existed, but the urgency was created by the heat.”
Heat affects the body in many ways: dehydration, heat stroke, exhaustion and anxiety, while also compromising preexisting heart and lung conditions.
An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, written by leaders of medical journals worldwide, cites a host of other issues: “dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality.”
The authors note that vulnerable populations are those most at-risk: children, older people, individuals of color, the poor and those with underlying health problems.
Black people are 40 percent to 59 percent more likely to live in high-impact areas – those that experience the most brutal effects of climate change first.
Indigenous communities face a unique struggle with climate change. Living in tribal and rural areas along the coast leaves them vulnerable to the heat, and many rely on the environment for food and cultural practices.
In Arizona, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and other tribal communities are facing water shortages, with heat and drought only exacerbating the problem.
“As we look into a warmer future,” Hondula said, “we need to be mindful of our currently constrained water resources.”
The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, which amplifies the voices of doctors in the U.S. while encouraging climate solutions, developed a three-prong approach to the issue: Stop investing in energy produced by fossil fuels, do invest in and support renewable energy, and make the transition fair to everyone.
“Now is the time to ‘go big’ to meet the needs of the moment,” the group said in a 2022 report on climate and health. “We can and must raise our voices to influence the decisions that will affect health now and for generations to come.”
Last year, Darira’s group presented its flashcard initiative at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, with the hope of influencing politicians, policymakers and educators to do more.
“The atmosphere is warming at a very alarming rate, and the world leaders are not taking urgent enough action,” Darira said.