WIRED: Another complicating factor is the worsening of climate change. Looking ahead, both in the near future and in the distant future, things will get worse before they get better.
SC: I think it’s important. We conducted this massive survey among young people around the world, so people between 16 and 25 years old. And I speak about it because they are the ones who face that future to a large extent. And they have, to a surprising degree, reported feeling that things are going to get worse – they won’t have the opportunities their parents had, that the things they enjoy are threatened. They don’t know if they should have children. And even a high percentage approves the statement “Mankind is doomed”.
WIRED: Something you and I have spoken before is that notion of ecological heartbreak over the devastating California wildfires. What is that?
SC: It’s really interesting to talk about grief because anxiety is sort of self-sustaining: I worry about myself, I worry about what will happen to me. But the grief is more directed at the other – it’s about loss. So you show this awareness of the value of something that has already been lost or that you are planning to lose.
And for a lot of people, these are places that were very important to them. It may even be the idea of a place. To imagine California becoming a place hostile to human habitation is probably too powerful, but you get what I’m saying. It’s a waste of that idea of what it means to be in California.
WIRED: I was hoping to talk about the role of post-traumatic stress disorder here, especially in natural disasters, and especially in children, who may not be equipped with the psychological tools to deal with this stuff.
SC: We are particularly worried about children, because it is proven that they are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress. And I am speculating here, because I am no specialist in children, but I suspect that is in part because safety is so important to children. They have to learn what remains the same, what is stable in the world. And so we have this kind of very disruptive and disorienting experience that really interferes with this ability to form a good sense of security.
There is some evidence that children who have experienced trauma when they are young can have a lifelong impact on their ability to deal with strong emotions as they grow older into adulthood. So, because children develop in so many ways – psychologically, physiologically, neurologically – these early impacts can have dramatically lasting effects.
WIRED: As with so much about climate change, the less fortunate will suffer the most. The rich can get by, they can move to one of their other houses. Poor people and people of color will fight climate change much harder.
SC: I think that’s exactly it. There is plenty of good evidence for that. And I think it’s important to stress that because sometimes people act like environmental issues are pretty elitist, that you have to be rich to worry about environmental issues. But certainly, especially when it comes to climate change, it’s a matter of social justice. This will increase inequality, and the poor and poor nations are already hit hardest. And it will only get worse. And in fact there is The data which shows that at least in the United States – I haven’t seen international data like this – but in the United States people of color are more concerned about climate change.
WIRED: It is important to specifically highlight the heat island effect. So in cities you get warmer temperatures and the heat dissipates less quickly at night. This is one of the very clear inequalities pointed out by the researchers, namely that the poorest neighborhoods tend to get hotter than surrounding rural areas. As more people move to metropolises around the world, how could this extreme heat be particularly problematic?