Psychological impact of climate change

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While the psychological impact of climate change is largely negative, related social engagement can have positive effects on mental wellbeing.

Climate change causes a number of psychological effects on the earth's inhabitants. These include emotional states such as eco-anxiety, eco-grief and eco-anger. While unpleasant, such emotions are often not harmful, and can be rational responses to the degradation of the natural world, motivating adaptive action. Other effects, such as Post-traumatic stress (PTS), can be more dangerous. In the 21st century, academics, medical professionals and various other actors are seeking to understand these impacts, to assist in their relief, make more accurate predictions, and to assist efforts to mitigate and adapt to global warming.

There are three broad channels by which climate change affects people's mental state: directly, indirectly or via awareness. The direct channel includes stress related conditions being caused by exposure to extreme weather events. The indirect pathway can be via disruption to economic and social activities, such as when an area of farmland is less able to produce food. And the third channel can be of mere awareness of the climate change threat, even by individuals who are not otherwise affected by it. There are many exceptions, but generally it is people in developing countries who are more exposed to the direct impact and economic disruption caused by climate changes. Whereas recently identified climate related psychological conditions like eco-anxiety, which can result just from awareness of the threat, tend to affect people across the planet.

The psychological effects of climate change are investigated within the field of climate psychology. Various non-clinical treatments, group work options, internet based support forums, and self-help books are available for people suffering from less severe psychological conditions. Some of the psychological impacts require no form of treatment at all, and can even be positive. The psychological effects of climate also receive attention from governments and others involved in creating public policy, by various campaigning groups and NGOs, and by private sector firms.

Causal pathways[edit]

The USNS Comfort on its way to deliver relief after Hurricane Katrina. Rapid assistance and restoration of security for those affected by extreme weather reduces the risk of long term psychological impact.

There are three broad areas of concern relating to how climate change causes psychological effects: directly, indirectly or via awareness (or "psychosocial").[note 1] In some cased, people may be affected via more than one pathway at once.[1][2][3][4]

Direct impact[edit]

Exposure to extreme weather events, such as wildfires, hurricanes and floods, can cause various emotional disorders. Most commonly this is short term stress, from which people can often soon make a rapid recovery. But sometimes chronic conditions set in, especially among those who have been exposed to multiple events, such as post traumatic stress, somatoform disorder or long term anxiety. A swift response by authorities to restore a sense of order and security can substantially reduce the risk of any long term psychological impact for most people. Though individuals who already suffered from mental ill health, especially psychosis, can need intensive care, which can be challenging to deliver if local mental health services were disrupted by the extreme weather.[3][1][2][5]

The less extreme direct manifestations of climate change can also have direct psychological effects. The single most well studied linkage between weather and human behaviour is that between temperature and aggression, which has been investigated in lab settings, by historical study, and extensive field work. Various reviews conclude that high temperatures cause people to become bad tempered, leading to increased physical violence, especially in areas where there are mixed ethnic groups. There have been exceptions, such as in modern cities where air conditioning is widely available. Also, there has been academic dispute regarding the degree to which the excess violence is caused by climate change, as opposed to natural temperature variability. The psychological effects of unusually low temperatures, which climate change can cause in some parts of the world, is much less well studied. Though available evidence suggests that unlike unusual heat, it does not lead to increased aggression.[3][6][7][8]

Indirect pathway[edit]

In several parts of the world, climate change significantly impacts people's financial income, for example by reducing agricultural output, or by making an area unattractive for tourism. This can cause significant stress, which in turn can lead to depression, suicidal ideation, and other negative psychological conditions. Consequences can be especially severe if financial stress is coupled with significant disruption to social life, such as relocation to camps.[9] For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the suicide rate for the general population rose by about 300%, but for those who were displaced and had to move into trailer parks, it rose by over 1400%. Effective government interventions, similar to those used to relief the stress from a financial crisis, can alleviate the negative conditions caused by such disruption, however this is sometimes not easy, especially in some of the less prosperous countries in the global south.[2][3][10]

Indirect effects on mental health can occur via impacts on physical health. Physical health and mental health have a reciprocal relationship, so any climate change related effect that affects physical health can potentially indirectly affect mental health too.[11] Environmental disruption, such as the loss of bio-diversity, or even just the loss of inanimate environmental features like sea-ice can also cause negative psychological responses, such as Ecological grief or Solastalgia.[10][12]

Awareness[edit]

Simply knowing about the risks posed by climate change, even from those not otherwise affected by it, can cause long lasting psychological conditions, such as anxiety and other forms of distress. This can especially affect children, and has been compared to nuclear anxiety which occurred during the Cold War. Conditions such as eco-anxiety are very rarely severe enough to require clinical treatment. While unpleasant and thus classified as negative, such conditions have been described as valid rational responses to the reality of climate change.[3][13]

Climate change specific conditions[edit]

Eco-anxiety[edit]

Also known as eco-distress or climate-anxiety, eco-anxiety was defined by the American Psychological Association in 2017 as "a chronic fear of environmental doom".[14] Extensive studies had been done on ecological anxiety since about 2007, and various definitions remain in use. According to a 2020 review by Pihkala Panu, the other widely cited definition is Glenn Albrecht's, who in 2012 defined eco-anxiety as "the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse."[note 2][12] The condition is not a medical diagnoses and is regarded as a rational response to the reality of climate change, however severe instances can have a mental health impact if left without alleviation.[15] Eco-anxiety is an unpleasant emotion, though it can be an adaptive one, motivating useful behaviour such as the gathering of relevant information. However, it can also manifest as conflict avoidance, or even be "paralyzing." Some people have reported experiencing so much anxiety and fear about the future with climate change that they choose not to have children.[16] Attention paid to eco-anxiety grew rapidly after 2017, and especially since late 2018 with Greta Thunberg having publicly discussed her eco-anxiety.[12][17]

Prevalance[edit]

2018 surveys conducted in the United States found between 21%[18] and 29%[19] of Americans said they were "very" worried about the climate, double the rate of a similar study in 2015. The condition has become especially common among children and young people – in some universities over 70% of students have self described as suffering from eco-anxiety, though as of early 2021, validated ways to assess the prevalence of climate or eco-anxiety were not well established.[20][21][13]A survey published in September 2021 had queried 10,000 young people across the world, finding that almost 60% were either very or extremely worried about climate change. Two thirds said they felt sad, afraid and anxious, while close to 40% reported they were hesitant to have children. [22] An October 2021 report based on polling in the UK found 78% of people surveyed expressed some degree of eco-anxiety. The report found no significant difference in levels of eco-anxiety based on age or social class. It did however find that women (45%) were substantially more likely to report high levels of eco-anxiety compared to men (36%). [23] [24]

Treatment and response[edit]

Professor Craig Chalquist says the first step for therapists in treating eco-anxiety is realizing that a fearful response to a real condition is not pathological. He says eco-fear is a completely normal response even if the client finds it profoundly disturbing. He argues that therapists need to take clients' fears about the situation seriously and "not assume they’re a dysfunctional mental health problem or that a person suffering from eco-anxiety is somehow ill." However, he acknowledges that fear and anxiety about global warming may exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.[25] Melissa Pickett, an eco-therapist practicing in Santa Fe, claims she treats between forty and eighty eco-anxious patients a month.[26] Symptoms include irritability, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, bouts of weakness, panic attacks, and twitching. In terms of treatment, Chalquist notes that individualistic models of mental health are "not designed to deal with collective trauma on a planetary scale".[25]

In general, psychotherapists say that when individuals take action, either by changing their lifestyle to reduce carbon emissions or by getting involved in social activism, this reduces anxiety levels by bringing a sense of personal empowerment and feelings of connection with others in the community.[27][28] Many psychologists emphasize that in addition to action, there is a need to build emotional resilience to avoid burnout.[29][30][31][32]

Several psychological organizations have been founded around climate psychology.[33][34][35] Scholars have pointed out that there is a need for a systemic approach to provide various resources for people in relation to the mental health impacts of ecological problems and climate change.[14][36] Some organisations provide web based guidance to help carers assist children and young people in dealing with their eco-anxiety, for example the Royal College of Psychiatrists.[15]

Eco-grief[edit]

The loss of sea-ice can have psychological impact on people who value it. "We are people of the sea ice. And if there's no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?" – Inuit elder.[37]

Eco-grief refers to the sense of loss that arises from experiencing or learning about environmental destruction.[37][10]

Anthropological perspective on climate psychology[edit]

Climate change has devastating effects on Indigenous peoples’ psychological wellbeing as it impacts them directly and indirectly. As their lifestyles are often closely linked to the land, climate change directly impacts their physical health and financial stability in quantifiable ways. There is also a concerning correlation between severe mental health issues among Indigenous peoples worldwide and environmental changes.[38] The connection and value Indigenous cultures ascribe to land means that damage to or separation from it, directly impacts mental health. For many, their country is interwoven with psychological aspects such as their identity, community and rituals.[38] This interconnectedness informs a holistic perspective of health which requires balance and spiritual connection to the environment, both of which climate change threatens and Western climate actors do not fully understand.[39]

Inadequate government responses which neglect Indigenous knowledge further worsen negative psychological effects linked to climate change. This produces the risk of cultural homogenization due to global adaptation efforts to climate change and the disruption of cultural traditions due to forced relocation.[38][39] Countries with lower socio-economic status and minority groups in high socio-economic areas are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. This has created environmental refugees due to worsening environmental conditions and catastrophic climate events.[40]

Changes in cultural practice and social behaviour occurred along with the intensifying climate crisis.[40] Indigenous culture is one example of this shift as the human body embodies the surrounding physical environment.[41] Understanding how these cultural shifts in the climate crisis influence mental health is essential in creating and providing appropriate support. Anthropologists provide an essential tool for understanding the implications of the climate crisis on human health. The ‘environmental body’ expands on Scheper-Hughes and Lock theory of the ‘three bodies’ – the phenomenological body, the body politic, and the symbolically lived body social .[42][43] It is now necessary to understand mental health, not just as a product of biomedical imbalance, but as a result of the climate crisis. The hegemonic ideology that prioritises economic expansion drastically affects mental wellbeing and must be brought to light and challenged.[42] The effects will only intensify over time as unpredictable environmental disasters worsen. Due to the extensive impacts of climate change on Indigenous mental health, it is crucial for Indigenous perspectives to be carefully considered and increasingly incorporated in the field of climate psychology.

Other[edit]

Other climate specific psychological impacts are less well studied than eco-anxiety. They include eco-depression, eco-anger, and states of denial or numbness, which can be brought on by too much exposure to alarmist presentation of the climate threat. A study that used confirmatory factor analysis to separate out the effects of eco-anxiety, eco-depression and eco-anger, found that eco-anger is the best for the person's wellbeing, and also good for motivating participation in both collective and individual action to mitigate climate change. [44] A separate 2021 report found that eco-anger was significantly more common among young people. [24] A 2021 review of literature found that emotional responses to crisis can be adaptive when the individual has the capacity and support to process and reflect on this emotion. In these cases, individuals are able to grow from their experiences and support others. In the context of climate change, this capacity for deep reflection is necessary to navigate the emotional challenges that both individuals and societies face.[45][44][10]

Positive impacts[edit]

While most study on the psychological impact of climate change finds negative effects, there are some positive impacts. This can be via both direct and indirect pathways. In some parts of the world, climate change has already, or is predicted, to increase agricultural yields, which can increase local prosperity and so have positive indirect impact. Direct impacts include positive effects from being forced to face adversity in a life that was otherwise too easy. For some individuals, the increased engagement caused by the shared struggle against climate change reduces loneliness. At a community level, learning about the science of climate change, and taking collective action in response to the threat, can increase altruism and social cohesion, strengthen social bonds, and improve resilience. Such positive social impact is generally associated only with communities that had somewhat high social cohesion in the first place, prompting community leaders to act to improve social resiliency before climate-related disruption becomes too severe.[10][2][3][46][47]

History[edit]

Efforts to understand the psychological impacts of climate change have antecedents in work from the 20th century and even earlier, to understand reactions to the changing physical and social environment that arose from changes such as the industrial revolution. Empirical investigation of psychological impacts specifically related to climate change began in the late 20th century, and became more frequent in the first decade of the 21st. From the early 2010s, psychologists were increasingly calling on each other to contribute to the understanding of psychological impacts from climate change. While psychologists had almost zero involvement in the first five IPCC reports, at least five will be contributing to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, which should be fully published by 2022. As of 2020, the discipline of climate psychology had grown to include many subfields. Climate psychologists are working with the United nations, with national and local governments, with corporations, NGOs and individuals.[12][10][48][3]

Mitigation efforts[edit]

Psychologists have increasingly been assisting the worldwide community in facing the "diabolically" [note 3] difficult challenge of organising effective climate change mitigation efforts. Much work has been done on how to best communicate climate related information so that it has positive psychological impact, leading to people engaging in the problem, rather than evoking psychological defences like denial, distance or a numbing sense of doom. As well as advising on the method of communication, psychologists have investigated the difference it make when the right sort of person is doing the communication – for example, when addressing American conservatives, climate related messages have been shown to be received more positively if delivered by former military officers. Various people who are not primarily psychologists have also been advising on psychological matters related to climate change. For example, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, who led the efforts to organise the unprecedentedly successful 2015 Paris Agreement, have since campaigned to spread the view that a "stubborn optimism" mindset should ideally be part of an individual's psychological response to the climate change challenge.[49][50][51][52][13][46]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Various reviews use different nomenclature to designate the three causal pathways. e.g. Doherty & Clayton (2011), designate the 'Awareness' pathway using the term "Indirect impact" , while grouping 'Indirect' effects via financial and social disruption under "Psychosocial" .
  2. ^ As noted in the Panu (2020) review, some scholars use the term 'eco-anxiety' as a synonym for 'climate-anxiety', though others like to treat the terms separately. While much ecological disruption results from climate change, some is caused by direct human activity, such as deforestation.
  3. ^ Facing up to the climate challenge was first prominently described as a "diabolic" problem in the 2008 Garnaut review, and the term has since been used many times.

Citations[edit]

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External links[edit]