Can Psychiatric Approaches Help to Address Global Warming?

H. Steven Moffic, MD


July 02, 2007


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When I told my clergyman son that I may do a commentary on global warming, he asked why psychiatrists should be concerned. He rightly pointed out that the priority of physicians is their patients' health. Then I told him that our AMA ethical principles also cite responsibility to public health.[1] Since global warming endangers health and seems mainly caused by human behavior, our call to duty is clear. However, as has been previously pointed out, physicians have been conspicuously quiet.[2] Psychiatrists maybe more so. Why might that be? Our brains are hardwired to respond to immediate dangers, not to unique threats likely after our deaths. This leads to being blasé. Therefore, instead of using psychiatric insight and techniques to reduce excessive anxiety, shame, and guilt for global warming these emotions will need to be increased in the unconcerned. This kind of 'help' runs counter to our usual goal of not making people feel worse! But remember that at times we indeed try to make our patients more anxious or guilty when we want them to be more compliant. We just need to do this more strategically.

First, we should emphasize what we do know of immediate risk, including research indicating that small increases in climate warming can increase violence.[3] Then we need to galvanize the young, especially medical students, since the major risks may fall in their lifetimes. We can also psychologically bring the future into the present by using mental imaging techniques. Just imagine -- perhaps right now -- gradually more distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming until a given audience begins to feel uncomfortable. Then take a pause to find gratifying relief by thinking of personal ways to help.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Steven Moffic, Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin.



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