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.

The psychological impacts of climate change concerns effects climate change can have on individuals' mental and emotional well-being. They may also relate to more generalised effects on groups and their behaviours, such as the urge to migrate from affected areas of the globe to areas perceived as less affected. These impacts can manifest in various ways and affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Some of the key psychological impacts of climate change include: emotional states such as eco-anxiety, ecological grief, eco-anger or solastalgia.[1] While troublesome, such emotions may not appear immediately harmful and can lead to a rational response to the degradation of the natural world motivating adaptive action.[2] However, there can be other effects on health, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for instance, as a result of witnessing or seeing reports of massive wildfires, which may be more dangerous.

Efforts to understand the psychological impacts of climate change have antecedents in work from the 20th century and even earlier, making evidence-based links to the changing physical and social environment resulting from accelerated human activity dating from the so called, industrial revolution. Empirical investigation of psychological impacts specifically related to climate change began in the late 20th century,[3] and have intensified 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. Academic, medical professionals, and various actors are actively seeking to understand these impacts, provide relief, make accurate predictions, and assist in efforts to mitigate and adapt to global warming including attempts to pause activity leading to further warming.[4][5][6]

There are several channels through which climate change can impact a person's mental health, including direct impacts, indirect effects, and awareness of the issue. It has been observed that certain populations, such as communities of color, children, and adolescents, are particularly vulnerable to these mental health impacts. 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.[2]

The psychological effects of climate change may be investigated within the field of climate psychology, or picked up in the course of treatment of mental health disorders. Non-clinical approaches, campaigning options, internet based support forums, and self-help books may be adopted by those not overwhelmed by climate anxiety. Some psychological impacts may not receive any form of treatment at all, and could be productive: for example, when concern about climate change is channeled into information gathering and seeking to influence related policy with others.[2] The psychological effects of climate may receive attention from governments and others involved in creating public policy, by means of campaigning and lobbying by groups and NGOs.

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.[7][8][9][10]

Pathways[edit]

Seeing reports and images from massive wildfires, which were made more frequent due to climate change, can leave psychological impacts on people (charred landscape after crown fire in the North Cascades National Park, United States).

Three causal pathways by which climate change causes psychological effects have been suggested: direct, indirect or via psychosocial awareness.[note 1] In some cases, people may be affected via more than one pathway at once.[11][12][10][13]

There are three broad channels by which climate change affects people's mental state: directly, indirectly or unconsciously. The direct channel includes stress-related conditions being caused by exposure to extreme weather events, such as cyclones and wildfires, causing conditions such as PTS and anxiety disorder. However, psychological impacts can also occur through less intense forms of climate change such as through temperatures rising leading to increased aggression. The indirect pathway occurs via disruption to economic and social activities, such as when an area of farmland becomes infertile due to desertification or a decrease in tourism due to damage to the landscape, or interruptions to transport. This can lead to increased stress, depression and other psychological conditions such as anxiety. And the third channel can be through unconscious awareness of the climate change threat, even by individuals who are not otherwise affected by it. This can be, for instance, feeling intimidated by the threats of food and water insecurity, posed by climate change which can lead to conflict. In general, populations living at sea-level and in the Southern Hemisphere tend to be more exposed to economic disruption caused by climate change. Whereas recently identified climate-related psychological conditions like "eco-anxiety", resulting from emergent awareness of the threat, can affect people across the planet.[14]

Direct impact[edit]

Almost six in ten respondents reported that a severe effect of climate change has already occurred where they live, with 38% expecting to be displaced from their homes in the next 25 years because of climate change.[15]

Exposure to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods or high temperatures associated with drought and wildfires, can cause a range of emotional disorders. Most commonly this is short term stress, from which people can often 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. However individuals already suffering from mental ill health and who do not receive required attention when services are disrupted by weather conditions, may face further decline.[10][11][12][16]

The single best studied connection between weather and human behaviour is that between temperature and aggression, which has been investigated in laboratory settings, by historical study, and extensive fieldwork. Various reviews conclude that high temperatures cause people to become bad tempered, leading to increased physical violence, including domestic violence, especially in areas of mixed ethnic groups. 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 also cause in some parts of the world, is much less well documented. Though available evidence suggests that unlike unusually high temperatures, they are less likely to lead to increased aggression.[10][17][18][19]

Indirect pathway[edit]

The USNS Comfort arriving with relief after Hurricane Katrina. Rapid assistance for those affected by extreme weather can mitigate long term psychological impact.

In all parts of the world, climate change significantly impacts people's financial stability, 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 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.[20] 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 inter-governmental interventions especially in some of the less prosperous countries in the global south, can alleviate an immediate crisis.[12][10][8]

Effects on mental health can occur via impacts on physical health since they are bonded, so any climate change related effects on physical health can potentially directly affect mental health.[21] Environmental disruption, such as the loss of bio-diversity, or even the loss of environmental features like sea-ice, cultural landscapes, or historic heritage can also cause negative psychological responses, such as ecological grief or solastalgia.[8][7][22][23]

Unconscious awareness[edit]

Information about the risks posed by climate change, even to those not yet directly affected by it, can cause long lasting psychological conditions, such as anxiety or 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.[10][24]

Mental health[edit]

Specific conditions[edit]

The loss of sea-ice can have psychological impact on people who value it, resulting in Eco-grief. "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.[25]

As climate change becomes increasingly evident and threatening[26] to both the biosphere and human livelihoods, the feelings aroused in response are a focus for exploration. Emotions such as feelings of loss and anxiety, grief and guilt, appear as common responses to perceived threats posed by climate change.[27][28] Such various emotions have been collectively referred to in the literature as climate distress.[29] Climate change is associated with increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and the impacts of discrete events such as natural disasters on mental health has been demonstrated through decades of research showing increased levels of PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even domestic violence following the experience of storms.[30]

Emotional reactions are being studied in relation to climate change.[31] Feelings of loss can originate in anticipation of impending catastrophe, as well as after actual destruction.[32] The corresponding 'anticipatory mourning' has been explored.[33] The feelings of grief and distress in response to ecological destruction[34] have elsewhere been termed 'solastalgia'[35] and the response to pollution of the local environment has been termed 'environmental melancholia'.[36]

However feelings in response to climate change and its broader ramifications can be unconscious or not fully recognized. This can result in feelings of despair and unease, particularly in young people.[37] It can surface in those attending therapy.[38] This makes it difficult to give name to what one is feeling, so it is generally termed as eco-anxiety- particularly when this negative effect takes on more intense forms such as sleeping disorders and ruminative thinking. Rather than see eco-anxiety as a pathology requiring treatment Bednarek[39] has suggested that it be construed as an adaptive, healthy response.

It is often difficult to conceptualize emotions in response to the unseen or intangible aspects of climate change. Theoretical approaches have suggested this is due to climate change being part of a greater construct than human cognition can fully comprehend, known as a 'hyperobject'.[40] One of the techniques used by climate psychologists to engage with such 'unthought knowns' and their unconscious, unexplored, emotional implications is 'social dreaming'.[41][42]

Awareness of climate change and its destructive impact, happening in both the present and future, is often very overwhelming.[37] Literature investigating how individuals and society respond to crisis and disaster found that when there was space to process and reflect on emotional experiences, these increased emotions were adaptive. Furthermore, this then led to growth and resilience.[43] Doppelt suggested 'transformational resilience' as a property of social systems, in which adversities are catalysts for new meaning and direction in life, leading to changes that increase both individual and community wellbeing above previous levels.[44]

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.[45] 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.[45] 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.[46]

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.[45][46] 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.[47]

Changes in cultural practice and social behavior occurred along with the intensifying climate crisis.[47] Indigenous culture is one example of this shift as the human body embodies the surrounding physical environment.[48] 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.[49][50] 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 prioritizes economic expansion drastically affects mental wellbeing and must be brought to light and challenged.[49] 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.[51] A separate 2021 report found that eco-anger was significantly more common among young people.[52] 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.[43][51][8]

Impacts on specific groups[edit]

Degrees of concern about the effects of climate change vary with political affiliation.[53]

People express differing intensities of concern and grief about climate change depending on their worldview, with those holding egoistic (defined as people who mostly care about oneself and their health and wellbeing), social-altruistic (defined as people who express concern for others in their community like future generations, friends, family and general public) and biospheric (defined as people who are concerned about environmental aspects like plants and animals) views differing markedly.[54] People who belong to the biospheric group expressed the most concern about ecological stress/grief i.e., a form of grief related to worries about the state of the world's environment,[55] and engage in ecological coping, – ecological coping includes connection to community, expression of sorrow and grief, shifting focus to controllable aspects of climate change and being close to nature [55] – people who belonged to the social-altruistic group engaged in ecological coping but did not express ecological stress.

Indigenous communities[edit]

Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. "The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed," said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.[56] This has short- and long-term effects on physical and mental health. It is important to recognize how environmentalism and racism are intertwined—how the repercussions of slavery and colonialism and continuous police brutality still play a key role in climate change in communities of color. The response to eco-anxiety is focused on the dominant groups in society and neglects the marginalized communities. According to Mental Health America, 17% of Black people and 23% of Native Americans live with a mental illness.[57]

Research has shown that communities of color are less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to seek out treatment, and more likely to receive low or poor quality of care. This is due to an overwhelming amount of racial, structural, and cultural barriers these communities face. Eco-anxiety is affecting the majority of young adults because they have grown up with climate change and see the impacts it has on them locally. There are very few resources for communities of color to help them cope with eco-anxiety. Researchers recommend talking with a local therapist, reconnecting with nature, and focusing on positive news of climate change. Many minority and low-income communities do not have the same access to green spaces or playgrounds compared to suburban communities. Studies have shown the positive impact that physical activity can have on mental health, but once again they do not have access to this resource.[58]

People of Color[edit]

Climate change disproportionately impacts people of color, exacerbating existing social and economic disparities.[59] Environmental racism, where communities of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, intensifies as climate change intensifies. These communities often reside in areas with poor air quality, proximity to industrial facilities, or vulnerable coastal regions, making them more susceptible to the adverse effects of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and heatwaves.[60]

Moreover, climate change can also disrupt livelihoods, as many people of color heavily rely on agriculture, fisheries, or forestry for income, and these sectors are often vulnerable to changing weather patterns. The loss of these livelihoods can lead to increased financial stress and insecurity.[61] Additionally access to resources and opportunities for adaption and mitigation measures can be limited for marginalized communities, hindering their ability to cope with the impacts of climate change effectively. Lack of representation in decision-making processes and limited access to education on climate change exacerbate these challenges.

The psychological toll on people of color is significant, as they experience not only the direct impacts of climate change but also the stress and anxiety arising from systemic inequalities. Coping with environmental hazards while facing socioeconomic disadvantages can lead to mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. Recognizing and addressing these disparities is crucial in the fight against climate change. Solutions must be inclusive,

Children[edit]

Children and young adults are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.[62] Many of the climate change impacts which affect children's physical health also lead to psychological and mental health consequences.[62] Children who live in geographic locations that are most susceptible to the impacts of climate change, and/or with weaker infrastructure and fewer supports and services suffer the worst impacts.[62]

Even though children and young adults are the most vulnerable group regarding impacts of climate change, they have received far less research focus as compared to adults. The World Health Organization states that more than 88% of the existing burden of disease attributable to climate change occurs in children younger than 5 years. The impacts of climate change on children include them being at a high risk of mental health consequences like PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse.[62] These conditions can lead to problems with emotion regulation, cognition, learning, behavior, language development, and academic performance.[62]

A 2018 study argued that it was crucial to gather information about how children are psychologically affected by climate change because of three major reasons:[62]

  • Children will bear a larger burden of the negative consequences of climate change over their lifetimes, and hence, society needs to know how to reduce these impacts and protect them;
  • They are the next leaders of society and how they are responding psychologically now has importance for their current and future decision-making;
  • They will need the capacity to adapt to a climate-changed world, including a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy psychologically and physically and they will require particular knowledge, attitudes, and attributes to facilitate this adaptation.

Adaptive impacts[edit]

While most studies on the psychological impact of climate change finds negative effects, other or adaptive impacts are also possible. Direct experience of the negative effects of climate change may lead to positive personal change. For some individuals, experiencing environmental events such as flooding have resulted in greater psychological salience and concern for climate change, which in turn predicts intentions, behaviors, and support for policy in response to climate change .[23][63][64] A potential example of positive impact via the indirect channel would be financial benefits for the minority of farmers who could enjoy increased crop yields. While the overall effects of climate change on agriculture are predicted to be strongly negative, some crops in certain areas are predicted to benefit.[65][66]

At a personal level, emotions like worry and anxiety are a normal, if uncomfortable, part of life. They can be seen as part of a defense system that identifies threats and deals with them. From this perspective, anxiety can be useful in motivating people to seek information and take action on a problem.[67][23][68] Anxiety and worry are more likely to be associated with engagement when people feel that they can do things. Feelings of agency can be strengthened by including people in participatory decision-making. Problem-focused and meaning-focused coping skills can also be promoted. Problem-focused coping involves information gathering and trying to find out what you personally can do. Meaning-focused coping involves behaviors such as identifying positive information, focusing on constructive sources of hope, and trusting that other people are also doing their part.[67][23] A sense of agency, coping skills, and social support are all important in building general resilience.[69][70][71] Education may benefit from a focus around emotional awareness and the development of sustainable emotion-regulation strategies.[72]

For some individuals, the increased engagement caused by the shared struggle against climate change reduces social isolation and loneliness.[73] 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.[8][12][10][74][43]

Mitigation efforts[edit]

Psychologists have increasingly been assisting the worldwide community in facing the "diabolically" [note 2] difficult challenge of organizing 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 defenses 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 organize 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.[75][76][77][78][24][74]

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. ^ 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.

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