Stress kills, or the changing climate


Stress is killing us, we’re going through the next phase of the industrial revolution, natural ecosystems are dying, and the UN Secretary General is talking about the need to defuse the climate time bomb if we want humanity to survive. Can we and the ecosystem we live in cope with adapting to rapidly changing conditions?

How long we live depends on many factors, from genetics and place of birth to lifestyle. According to various statistics, about 80% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by excessive stress. Many studies link stress to the leading causes of human death: heart disease, lung disease, cancer, accidents, liver cirrhosis and suicide. For animals, studies conducted so far have shown that one of the primary stressors is a change in environmental conditions. On the other hand, frequent changes in the weather, and even the temperature itself, can put animals at risk.

Stress and climate change

We live in a time of constant media coverage of climate disasters. Some claim many lives. Some of them, to a greater or lesser extent, we experience ourselves. Last week I received photos of the drought from a friendly photographer for the next issue of Water Matters. Along with them came a very emotional message about nature’s struggle with water shortages in Kujawsko-Pomorskie and the consequent lack of waterfowl. It seems that making the public aware of the combination of these two factors, stress and climate change, is the key to taking adequate action.

Threats are not only physical losses, but also the enormous emotional toll and stress caused by them. All stressors affect our sense of security, which is essential for proper development and functioning. According to a report [1] by the American Psychological Association (APA), climate change will affect key elements of human civilization’s security and infrastructure, such as access to water, food production, urban and rural infrastructure, energy, transportation or even the functioning of entire economic sectors. Among the psychological consequences of climate change, the same report cites: anxiety and depression, loss of identity and sense of control, increased risk of aggression and violence, and even higher suicide rates. Thus, the stress caused by climate change exists, is tangible and absolutely burdens individuals and entire societies.

Inequality in the world

The climate crisis is affecting populations globally, but the vulnerability of ecosystems and communities to it varies between and even within regions. Studies show that climate change is exacerbating inequality between countries. Aditi Mukherji, one of the authors of the latest IPCC report, argues that “Nearly half of the world’s population lives in regions severely vulnerable to climate change. The death toll from floods, droughts and storms has been 15 times higher there in the past decade.” Irregular rainfall, droughts and temperature changes are just some of the factors negatively affecting the economies of poor countries. Added to this are extreme weather events and natural disasters that require crisis management and often psychological support.

The struggle for natural resources, including access to water, is increasing social and political tensions between ethnic groups and even countries. However, the most serious effects of climate change are seen in the migration crisis. By 2050. up to 143 million people will be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels, intense droughts, extreme heat and a host of other climate disasters [2].

The report for the UN stresses that climate change will have devastating consequences for people living in poverty, threatens the future of human rights, health care and global poverty reduction, and risks setting back development progress by 50 years. The continuation of current policies will be disastrous for the global economy, and huge numbers of people will be driven into extreme poverty.

Climate change and wildlife

In an issue of Water Matters, we wrote about what we are stressing on the inhabitants of the Baltic Sea, proving that anthropogenic factors can directly affect animal behavior and welfare. And how about changes in climatic conditions? Research on the effects of stress caused by environmental changes is scarce. However, they all note that such changes are stressors for animals.

The evolutionary life cycles of acquiring food, avoiding predators, reproducing or migrating require a certain energy expenditure and proper conditioning of the animal. Disturbances caused by climate change lead to modifications in phenology (the behavior and life cycle of species), as well as declines in abundance, population composition or habitat structure. This in turn leads to the disruption of many ecosystem processes [3].

Weather plays an important role in the well-being of wild animals and even in their survival in certain habitats. Rapid temperature fluctuations can cause the death of entire populations. Variable animals (e.g., fish, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates) are particularly susceptible to its sudden fluctuations. Especially at risk are juveniles that cannot migrate or live in shallow waters that cool faster [4].

But let’s get back to stress itself in animals. What behaviors can it be associated with? It is known from studies, for example, that as a result of stress caused by unpredictable weather changes, i.e. storms, snowstorms or strong winds, some birds leave their breeding grounds too early or delay their returns. Our knowledge in this regard is very limited at the moment. It seems that without detailed research, it will be difficult to distinguish between the behavior of wild animals triggered by rapid changes in environmental conditions (a simple reaction to heat or cold) and the hormonal response taking place in their bodies. What is certain is that the decline in the abundance and geographic range of wildlife is one of the most striking symptoms of human-induced environmental change [5].

Something to wrap up

The claim that man is merely an ephemera in the history of the planet is true. But despite its short existence on Earth, the scale of destruction and change caused by its actions has been so severe to ecosystems that some have been completely eradicated and others permanently damaged. However, the understanding of this obviousness is not universal. Still, consumerism and the need to satisfy one’s own often exaggerated needs prevails over common sense use of resources. The stress we have inflicted on ourselves with this approach to nature is pervasive, and its effects affect us directly.

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Ext inction : An Unnatural History, we read that the sixth extinction of life on our planet is underway. A massive decline in biodiversity is taking place before our eyes – countless species in water and on land are irreversibly ceasing to exist. Are we aware of this? Does it accompany us in our daily decisions? Are we joining global conservation efforts? Is there a need in us to reduce this stress? Apparently, a common reaction to knowledge of climate change is denial and distancing. After all, it doesn’t apply to me. A flood or drought is not a threat until we experience it. But should this reflection stop there?

The land is our home, and home is not just a place, it is first and foremost people. Psychologists say that through interaction and mutual support it is possible to maintain a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging is said to occur when one feels safe and comfortable. That’s why it’s worth considering whether to follow this very path – mutual understanding and agreement on issues crucial to our existence. To save what is still left on this planet.

In the article, I used, among others. From the works:
[5] REA Almond, M. Grooten, T. Petersen, Living Planet Report 2020 – Bending the curve of biodiversity loss

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