"Our Moral Obligation to Act"
I am a doctor. A psychiatrist. Over the years I have heard many troubling stories about the human condition. I have worked with individuals who were “on the ledge” emotionally. I have worked with people who fantasize about killing people, and some who have. I have listened to people recount being tortured, abused. I have evaluated the psychological states of foreign leaders who threaten world security. I have heard the details about children who have died at the hands of people who were out of their minds with drugs or illness. People have died in my arms, dropped dead at my feet.
Nothing has prepared me for what I am currently hearing: scientists all over the world warning us about the threat of catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
As a member of several organizations that involve professionals working in the field of mental health, I am stunned that this threat to the health of the planet and the public is so underplayed by these organizations and their members. An official from one leading organization expressed regrets that she was unable to attend a recent forum wrestling with the psychological and mental health aspects of climate change and noted, “no one on the staff is interested.” The person she anointed in her place cancelled.
One of the missions of these associations is to relieve human suffering. As practitioners we help people to face reality. We chip away at their denial knowing it can be a cover for behaviors that destroy their lives. When they see the world more clearly, we urge them to take charge – warning of the dangers of being passive.
Scientists every day are telling us that climate change is happening far faster than anyone had predicted and that the magnitude of the problem is unfathomable. “We have an emergency,” warns NASA scientist James Hansen. “People don’t know that. Continued ignorance and denial could make tragic consequences unavoidable.”
Why are the organizations and their members, those most skilled at exposing the danger of denial and destructive behaviors, so silent about this crisis? Are they in denial themselves? Surely the science isn’t disputed. Surely we don’t believe that destroying life on our planet is “not our problem.”
Our canon of ethics says we have a duty to protect the public health and to participate in activities that contribute to it.
Where, then, are the journal articles, the committee reports, the mission statements, action plans, letters to the editor, presentations, etc that attest to the gravity of what we are hearing? Where are the recommendations that show how to break through denial and get people to change – quickly? Are we not the very organizations to seize upon warnings and confront the world before it is too late?
We see through resistance, excuses, faulty reasoning. We “get” urgency, we “get” life-long consequences. We see the anger, anxiety and depression caused by the mistakes and shortcomings of a previous generation. We know about trauma from repeated exposure to horrifying events. We are trained, indeed we are ethically bound, to respond to emergencies.
What are we waiting for?
We are already seeing wildfires, floods, sea level rise, storms, droughts, risks to our national security, and a mass extinction.
Lethal global overheating – strike the innocuous sounding “global warming” – is not something that may happen in the next century or even mid-century – it is happening now.
All of us, urgently and collectively, have a duty to warn our patients, co-workers, families, neighbors, friends. We have a duty to act – within our professional organizations, in our communities, offices and homes. Climate scientists are desperately trying to tell us to reduce our carbon emissions – to stop building new coal plants, to switch to clean renewable energy, to embrace energy efficiency – to “pay any price, bear any burden.”
Mental health professionals vigorously endorse requirements to report cases of child abuse. It is a legal obligation, but it is also a moral one.
Is it any less compelling a moral obligation, in the name of all children now and in the future, to report that we are on track to hand over a planet that may be destroyed for generations to come?
I respectfully request that we, as mental health professionals, make a unified stand in support of actions to reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change.