Climate Change Close to Home

How will the climate crisis change the cities on our door steps and influence our mental health?
09 November 2021

Interview with 

Helen Berry, Macquarie University, Ioannis Karmpadakis, Imperial College London, Ana Mijic, Imperial College London




With consistent bad news featuring in the headlines, it’s no wonder that mention of the climate crisis can make some of us rather glum. Harry Lewis set out to speak to experts at Imperial College London, but along the way he stopped in to Putney High School, an opportunity to see how climate change is affecting pupils on a daily basis...

Harry - Great. Shall we go around the room and just, a name?

Students introduce themselves

Harry - When you think of climate change, what's the first thing that Springs into your mind?

Student 1 - Definitely a feeling of anger. Anger or probably betrayal from the politicians at the top who aren't really doing anything.

Harry - Do you think there's a lot that you can do as an individual to change that? Are you optimistic or would you say you're pessimistic when you think of those people?

Student 1 - I think pessimistic. They are doing more, or at least they're saying they're going to do more, but they've definitely tried to put the responsibility on the individual to kind of take away responsibility from themselves.

Student 2 - I think it makes me feel anxious in two ways. So, I'm anxious in an excited way to see how the future plays out, but I'm also anxious in the way that I'm sort of worried about the future as well.

Student 3 - I get worried and a bit annoyed and angry as Penny said earlier, but also a bit hopeful for the future, because like looking at different technologies that are being developed, it gives you a bit of hope.

Student 4 - We aren't helpless to the complete extent that we believe.

Harry - Do you think that is something that the population, or a perspective you think most of the students have?

Student 4 - I think for young people that is what a lot of them feel because the big things which are important are like the governments and policy makers and what they decide they want to do for the country and like globally,

Harry - I think this sense of anxiety and powerlessness is something that a lot of people feel and Helen Berry is the best person to chat to about these feelings. She wrote the book on mental health and climate change, and is a professor of the same topic at Macquarie university.

Helen - I suppose this didn't get to me personally until a couple of years ago. And I don't know whether you saw bits getting on for two years ago. Now we had what we call a 'black summer' and it was the worst bushfires we've ever had. And I was living at the time in a bush fire prone region. And I remember sitting in my study watching the smoke roll in at night and just watching the country burn in these incredible fires. And, for the first time it got to me really personally and I went through a period, I think of what I'd look back on and say, what was anxiety and depression for quite a few months where I just felt that my work was in vain, and it was kind of over now, nothing more to do.

Harry - That's quite hard hitting. And before we go any further, I want to strip it right back to basics. How do we define mental health and wellbeing?

Helen - People think about mental health often as an absence of mental illness, but that's not what mental health is. Life is all ups and downs and having good mental health is about being able to manage the ups and downs reasonably well most of the time. And the big problem with climate change is that it's not a normal up and down. It's something off the scale that we haven't experienced before that's catastrophic and we don't know how to deal with.

Harry - Helen tells me that those whose mental health is most at risk are those who are already disadvantaged. Women, children, non-native speakers of the most common language, indigenous communities. The list goes on.

Helen - You will have lived yourself through heat waves that are the hottest on record. You will have seen on TV how completely out of control wildfires are in California or Australia or across Russia that have ever been seen before. And in other countries where the climate is more fragile, then these extremes are more obvious. In Australia where I live, for example.

Harry - And so if we take the heat waves as an example, what's the impact of that directly on people's mental health?

Helen - Violence against other people increases during a heatwave. So do problems like depression and anxiety. And if you have bipolar disorders, that's an illness sometimes controlled by a drug called lithium and lithium is unstable above 30 degrees. So if you're dependent on lithium and the mercury goes above 30 you're in trouble.

Harry - And it's not just heat waves.

Helen - Climate change creates a whole lot of indirect effects as well. So if you think about a flood, one of the things that our flood does is destroy a whole lot of infrastructure. And if you harm the connectedness amongst people, that's pretty much the biggest threat to mental health of any.

Harry - Is there a term given to that? I've heard of eco-anxiety. I'm not sure if I saw that in your paper.

Helen - It's a term that's banded around along with a whole lot of other sorts of pseudo scientific labels that have been given to this. The eco-anxiety label or climate change worry, I think, is the anxiety or worry people feel about what they can see happening.

Harry - I broached this concept with the young women we heard from earlier. Do we feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety? Do we feel this eco-anxiety? Yes or no?

All students - No.

Harry - After their original comments, I found this answer really surprising. Actually it threw me when producing the show. Now on reflection, I think it's because the cohort I spoke to were very aware of those who were worse off or they considered themselves worse off. Now these girls consider themselves privileged, that's what they said. That awareness of privilege has its own burden. Do you feel at all guilty? Is there this idea of guilt that comes with that sense of privilege? Can I get a yes or no?

All students - Yes.

Harry - That's quite powerful isn't it?

Student 3 - Yeah. Especially when you read the news articles and the media about people and small islands which are just not going to be there in 10, 20, maybe less years. You definitely feel a bit guilty because you're like, 'Oh, well even if I try my best, what can I actually do to help them?'

Harry - When I think of sea level rise, I also think of regions like those islands in the South Pacific, but perhaps these issues are going to be felt, if not already being felt closer to home, like here in the UK's capital city. I recently stumbled across an online tool, and I think maybe you'll find it just as surprising as I did. Benjamin Strauss lead scientist at Climate Central.

Benjamin - I'm guessing that this is what you saw.

Harry - This is what I saw, yeah. And would you describe it to somebody who isn't looking at what we're looking at?

Benjamin - We basically took a Google map platform and overlaid it with scientific projections of sea level rise added to coastal flooding.

Harry - Ben and I are looking at a map of London and across it, some of the popular and well-known places are covered by this red highlighter. By moving the dials on the left of the webpage, you can observe the risks present at a coast near you. And at the moment I'm looking at what our city could look like in the next decade or so. Ben told me where exactly he got his data from.

Benjamin - It's based on IPCC projections for sea level rise and a data set for elevation that Climate Central developed and is the world's leading global elevation data set for coastal areas.

Harry - This tool made by Climate Central, something you can check out as well at home, suggests that places like here at the Houses of Parliament, here at the London Eye, here at London Waterloo train station, even here outside Stamford Bridge, all of these places could find themselves under water in 10, that's right, just 10 to 30 years time. It's not just London, it's the east of the UK all the way down to Cambridge. It's Rotterdam, Amsterdam, the tip of Florida, so many places are set to be below the annual flood level. Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. We do have methods of protecting ourselves against the elements. This is actually my old stomping grounds, to be honest. So I should know where the Skempton building is.

Ioannis - Yeah. So I'm Dr Ioannis Karmpadakis and I'm a lecturer in coastal engineering, in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the Imperial College London.

Harry - So at the moment, what is the situation with sea level rise with our coasts, and what are we expecting over the next 10, 20, 30 years?

Ioannis - Talking about the UK, for example, in 2050, we can have an average sea level rise around the coasts of between 0.2 meters and half a meter. So there's quite a large pond that we're looking at.

Harry - I know you just said that, that seems like quite a lot, but perhaps to me it doesn't seem like a lot. So what does that resemble? Why do you think that's going to be so important?

Ioannis - Let's think about protected areas, right? Sea walls/break walls/groynes, and whenever the water goes above it, all of the water goes through the structure and into the city. What's happening is that most of these structures were not constructed with sea level rise in mind. So they may be aging assets, they're older structures. So in effect that 0.2 meters makes a huge difference, if you think about the volume of water, if it's through other processes.

Harry - It's not just sea level rise that we need to be prepared for. What else is there that we need to have in mind?

Ioannis - Coastal flooding is caused by the total level of the water. The contributing factors to give you that total water elevation are the mean seawater level, so we know that climate change leads to sea level rise and that is increasing, but also you've got the tides so they can fluctuate plus minus four meters. And also when you've got large storms off shore, you've got a pressure difference. That leads to a stream of water, called a storm surge, which is driven by the pressure differential. And on top of that, you've got the waves. As they propagate, they transfer momentum, which ends up as an additional water elevation at the coastal defense. So all of the elements apart from the tides that we've discussed are increasing, due to climate change effects.

Harry - One example of a hard engineering structure that protects against these variables in London is that mighty Thames Barrier. That too though, is aging.

Ana - Thames Barrier has been used more than it was planned to be used. I think that the changes in the tide are bigger than it was expected because of the impacts of climate change and also the human element. There are plans for expanding the Thames Barrier and adding additional capacity around the upstream floodplains. But this is something definitely that we should be very mindful of because this is the infrastructure that when it works we don't notice it because we are fine. If for any reason it fails, the impact could be really significant.

Harry - Ana Mijic there from Imperial college London. Let's assume that we do fix up the Thames barrier. London is still going to suffer the repercussions of climate change.

Ana - Whatever comes in as an input, which is the rainfall, which is getting more intense and the intense events are getting more frequent than that rain has to go somewhere. It ends in the sewer system, in the pipes. If we don't upgrade the pipes, then it stays on the surface and, in extreme scenarios, ends up flooding the households.

Harry - As development continues, cities like London must continually battle with greater surface runoff and an increase in the use of water resources. I got to see one of the solutions first-hand.

Ana - We are standing at the south bank on the embankment that protects London from the river flooding, and we are standing across the construction site that will be one of the entries to the super sewer that London will have in the next couple of years. I think that three things need to happen. The first one is thinking about the engineering solutions and thinking about beyond the traditional approaches, to creatively implement infrastructure which is multifunctional. The second one is very much a socio-economic problem because if you build more, there will be more of an impact, if people use more or less water, there will be an impact. There is a role for everyone from the citizens, from the water companies, from the local premise and ultimately policy to help us get there. That brings me to my third point, because we are also standing across from parliament, my third point is the role of policy and regulation. If people have been following the media, they would have heard discussions in the parliament around the environment bill, which is the new regulation that will come in place in the UK, around environmental protection. So if the government takes it very seriously, if the regulation becomes more strict, then lots of things can be solved.

Harry - Our big cities aren't helpless to the changes that we are set to see, but as sea levels rise as more of our coastlines and cities dip below that annual flood level, pressure increases on our infrastructure, and the risks begin to escalate. Because if we don't ensure that our water management is up to scratch and something goes wrong, then the repercussions are just going to be that much worse.


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