Skip to main content

How Climate Change Is Accelerating Substance Use Globally

By Simon Mwangi

Climate change is here with us and it is clear that unless something is done, and quickly for that matter, we are all staring at a stark, bleak future. Warmer temperatures over time are changing weather patterns and disrupting the usual balance of nature. This poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of life on earth.

But for those of us in substance use prevention, the big question is what the effect of climate change portends to the efforts to slow down or, albeit almost impossible, completely eliminate the drug menace. Truth is that deforestation, pollution of waters and soil, monocultures as well as the high carbon footprint of in-house cultivation are some of the most eminent effects of illicit drug economies.

The emotional toll of global warming and its impact on addiction is such that weather disasters cause panic and displacement of people from their homes and communities. Associated trauma may end up in anxiety disorders and drug abuse. Particularly vulnerable are the extreme ages which are the very young or elderly. Also at higher risk for developing problems are those individuals who have a pre-existing psychiatric problems and those lacking in monetary and supportive resources.

Mental health disorders and drug use are closely interlinked and climate change is driving a combination of direct and indirect stressors. These stressors are in the form of increased floods, humidity, heat, drought, and rainfall among others. They are ultimately associated with self-harm and suicidal behaviors, increased hospital psychiatric admissions, psychological distress and higher mortality rates among people with existing psychiatric disorders.

Of course, not everyone stricken by a natural disaster will have a compulsive reaction. Emotional response is varied and tends to fluctuate over time. Science has proven that here will be initial relief after an occurrence and sometimes symptoms of a disorder don’t appear until someone is triggered by an ‘anniversary’ event.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) harm to physical health is among the most broadly documented consequences of global climate change. It includes injury from extreme weather events; heat stress; extended allergy and asthma seasons; increased exposure to vector-borne diseases; respiratory illnesses from air pollution; and malnutrition, dehydration, and developmental stunting stemming from reduced food and water availability and quality.

A story is told of alcoholism among men in the Indian city of Gorakhpur, located in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh near the border with Nepal. Apparently cheap alcohol is easily available in this part of the world and this has resulted to high dependence cases among the men in the region. Since the area hugely suffers the vagaries of extreme weather conditions sometimes characterized by heavy flooding, the men resort to drinking more hence sinking their families deeper into poverty and ultimately breaking them.

A 2020 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed the effect of acute and chronic weather-related stressors on harmful substance use are now so well recognized that the United States provides public information about the effects of weather-related disasters on mental health, including common psychological responses, anticipated symptoms, risk factors, and where to seek help.
Because substance use challenges interrelate with and worsen physical and mental health, they will escalate the global disease encumbrances associated with climate change through negative underpinning cycles.

There is circumstantial evidence that individuals who are concerned about the ecological impacts of climate change may be more likely to engage in harmful substance use. This is supported by studies that show that certain adverse emotional states, such as sorrow, are linked with long-term addiction among smokers and play a role in substance-use relapse. Other negative emotional states driven by climate change could also increase harmful substance use as a means of coping.

Climate change cannot therefore be looked at in isolation, if the glaring evidence of its contribution to substance abuse is anything to go by. It has to be integrated into the social cohesion prism and addressed as part of a whole system of reinforcing factors significantly undermining efforts to address substance use globally.