A Yale Scientist’s Unique Perspective on Resilience After Natural Disasters

‘The planet is far bigger, far greater, and far more powerful than any of us, and all of us combined.’

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

This article is part of an ongoing series where experts talk about the link between climate change and mental health.

To tackle a problem as big as climate change, we need to come together, start movements and make change, according to Miraj Desai, an associate research scientist at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health in the Yale School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.

Desai, who’s also affiliated with the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative, focuses his research on the links between mental health and social problems, social justice and social movements. He also explores the problems plaguing people and the planet through a climate justice lens, which means thinking about our warming world as more than just a physical or environmental issue. (More specifically, climate justice is all about the ways climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities, like how the people who are most vulnerable and least responsible for climate change, such as those living on low-lying, often economically disadvantaged islands, will be disproportionately affected by it.)

In the following interview, Desai talks about why resilience is important for withstanding climate change but it’s not a cure-all, what it’s like researching these topics under a science-hostile administration and what being displaced by climate change can do to a person’s well-being.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thrive Global: I’ve found in my research for this series that resilience is an important part of dealing with climate change and recovering from extreme weather events. Can you share your thoughts on that?
Miraj Desai: Resilience is absolutely important. The extent to which we are able to come together as communities will be crucial moving forward. At the same time, I have often cautioned against the tendency to over-individualize this notion of resilience. Discussion of resilience, while of course absolutely necessary, can unfortunately be a strategy that some employ to avoid discussion around the structural causes that are leading to the problem in the first place. That is, it may place excessive burdens on those who were least responsible for the cause of climate change.

“At the same time, I have often cautioned against the tendency to over-individualize this notion of resilience.” 

TG: What do you feel the biggest challenges are in fighting for climate justice?
MD: The sheer magnitude of the problems and the unimaginable tragedies already occurring—displacement, resource depletion, societal instability—particularly to people and communities who had relatively nothing to do with this massive problem, such as the global poor. And worse, many of these tragedies go unrecognized or ignored by so many in the general public or in official positions. Tragedy is probably not an adequate term.

TG: You’ve written about how climate change will unfairly impact populations that are already vulnerable. Could you speak to how this will happen, and whether it’s already happening?
MD: Climate change will not only exacerbate existing disparities but create new ones. I find it is helpful to just ask some basic questions. Who currently has access to resources? Who currently has access to levers of power, often by virtue of their access to resources, that can be called upon during times of distress? Contrast that with who has faced devastation in their communities without even a news story being written about them, let alone sustained help. During a recent public panel on climate I attended, a local pastor from a low income area reminded the audience that his community has faced hazardous environmental conditions and waste for generations, without any attention by the wider public. These types of disparities can only be expected to widen.

“In these coastal communities, sea rise can also mean the difference between having a home and homelessness, between eating and starvation, between life and death.”

Let’s take sea rise for example. For farmers in Bangladesh or similar regions, who already struggle to survive, sea rise and increasing saltwater intrusion can damage whole ways of life and subsistence. In these coastal communities, sea rise can also mean the difference between having a home and homelessness, between eating and starvation, between life and death. Further, for an island country in, let’s say, the Indian or Pacific Ocean, sea rise can literally mean the end of that island nation (this is not a metaphor), with most everyone forced to leave, provided they are given the means and can find refuge elsewhere. The Marshall Islands, Kiribati, the Maldives, the list goes on and on. The numbers expected to be affected by sea rise alone are not a few thousand but millions upon millions. Add to this figure the number of people who will be affected by other climate change-related disasters and upheavals. Some estimates move towards one billion. Have we basically decided as a society, as a world, that this is okay, that this is all right? It doesn’t have to be this way.

TG: Have you researched how displacement will impact the health, both physical and mental, of the people affected?
MD: I have certainly tried to educate myself on these issues as best as possible, and have, in the past, worked clinically with displaced persons in general, such as through the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. Displacement absolutely has an effect on all dimensions of health. Just imagine being forcefully uprooted from everything you know and love, all the landmarks and memories—the places where you lived, loved, and played—in the matter of an instant.

My colleagues, such as Prof. Kaveh Khoshnood at Yale School of Public Health and others, are examining the negative health impacts of forced displacement (e.g., increased substance use and HIV risk) in Lebanon. Displacement is one of [the] major areas that I think we must continue to focus on. I am deeply concerned about the continued impacts of climate displacement in the future, in terms of both personal and societal health.

“Movement and change better capture what I think is needed, and what my research shows can have powerful effects on our community, planetary, and personal well-being.”

TG: Are you able to find anything hopeful in your research?
MD: Hope is perhaps not the word I’d use, for various reasons, though I definitely understand the reason for the question. Movement and change better capture what I think is needed, and what my research shows can have powerful effects on our community, planetary, and personal well-being.

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