Tang Prize Laureate Investigates the Impact of Extreme Weather Events on Mental Health
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Around the end of 2018, many wildfires broke out in both North and South California about the same time. Among them, the Camp Fire was the deadliest and most devastating one in California’s history. This disaster demonstrated how climate change created an environment productive of strong winds, high temperatures, low humidity and droughts, all of which resulted in fiercer wildfires. Dr. James Hansen, 2018 Tang Prize winner in Sustainable Development, told CBS News in October 2020 that global warming led to “more extreme droughts. The fire seasons become longer.” On the other hand, in “places where it’s wet, you get more evaporation of the water. And you get warmer, moist air, which provides greater rainfall. And it is the fuel for storms.”[i]      


To understand how the victims of the Camp Fire were affected psychologically, Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who shared the Tang Prize with Dr. Hansen, used part of his Tang Prize research grant and worked with a team of researchers to investigate “a sample of 725 California residents with different degrees of disaster exposure”[ii] and examine the relation between their exposures to the fire and their mental wellbeing. The results have been published this February in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health. 


Their report concludes “that climate-related extreme events, such as wildfires, can have severe mental health sequeale.” In addition, the risk of suffering from mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), depression and anxiety, was much higher among those who were “directly exposed” or “indirectly exposed” to this fire. Other factors such as “pre-existing stressful life events, resilient personality traits and lifestyle factors can play an important role in the prevalence of psychopathology after such disasters.” For example, “childhood traumas and sleep disturbances exacerbated mental health symptoms.” But their study also found that “self-reported resilience” and positive thinking “had a positive effect on mental health” and can help “lower depression and anxiety symptoms.”  


The report begins with the observation that “natural disasters, such as floods, cyclones, droughts and fires have become more intense during the last four decades when the planet has warmed by more than 0.5 °C.” Moreover, “climate change is a force-multiplier.” A warming climate increased both the acres of land torched by the California wildfires and the impact these fires had on human health and the economy.


Climate change contributes to a higher frequency of extreme weather events as well as greater severity of natural disasters. From the wildfires that rampaged through California, to the power outages caused by freezing temperatures in Texas, and even to the drought that hit Taiwan recently and created crises such as water shortages and wildfires, they all showed that “climate-related extreme events” could cost us dearly in terms of both our physical and psychological health. Therefore, the report suggests that in the face of these disasters, it is ever more important that we “find ways to foster individual resiliency” and maintain resilient lifestyles.


April 22, the Earth Day, is almost upon us. The Tang Prize Foundation invites you to join our laureates in Sustainable Development to tackle the challenges posed by extreme weather. 


[i] “The Climate Science behind This Year's Wildfires and Powerful Storms,” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/western-wilfires-record-temperatures-california-60-minutes-2020-10-04/

[ii] The rest of the quotes in this translation are all taken from “Chronic Mental Health Sequelae of Climate Change Extremes: A Case Study of the Deadliest Californian,” https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/4/1487/htm