Climate Change and Mental Health

PsySRClimate change will cause more psychological than physical harm for U.S. citizens and people around the world, and the costs socially, societally, and economically are apt to be enormous.

Millions of people are likely to exhibit some of the following symptoms in response to climate change’s stressors:

  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Depression
  • Interpersonal conflict and societal conflict
  • Family stress
  • Persistent grief
  • Child behavioral and developmental problems and academic decline
  • Eco-anxiety, hopelessness, and avoidance from the awareness of climate change

Climate change’s devastation, from severe storms and droughts to heat waves and more-polluted air, has been shown to increase citizens’ rates of anxiety, depression, and traumatization. These symptoms can persist for years after experiencing the loss of homes, livelihoods, and community resources — such as schools, grocery stores, shops, hospitals, and farms — that help us to manage our daily lives. Hurricane Katrina is but a microcosm of what may happen across the nation and world in the coming years as climate change unfolds.

Climate change stems from the burning of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels that are central to our current way of life, but the resulting greenhouse gas emissions not only are fueling global warming but also increasing environmental degradation that imperils our very lives. This seeming paradox creates its own anxiety, depression, and helplessness.

While climate change is a long-term process that prevents us from tying any one outcome to it, the data nonetheless indicate that in the United States alone its citizens are likely to experience the following psychological responses in the coming years:

  • Heat waves that can engender increased interpersonal violence, anxiety, depression, and reduced work capacity apart from sickening or killing those unable to find the means to remain cool. Recall Chicago in 1995 when about 700 people died during a massive heat wave, and across the country in 2006. Also, consider the European heat wave of 2003 that killed more than 45,000 people and created a host of human stressors, anxiety, and depression for those who survived.

  • Prolonged droughts, heavy rains that run off quickly, and less snowfall, such as we’ve seen recently in the West, Southeast, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain states — which can contaminate or diminish water supplies, severely limit farming and food production, and cause damaging flash floods that all contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression.

  • More and/or more-powerful storms, such as we experienced with Hurricane Katrina, that include infrastructure-destroying flash floods, storm surge, and damaging winds; displace tens of thousands of people; and disrupt the normal rhythms of families and communities for months or years if not forever. Research continues to show the severe and persistent psychological consequences of these events in adults and children.

  • Sea level rise, which will create inordinate stress, depression, grief, and post-traumatic stress as it inundates many of our coastal areas and displaces tens of thousands of U.S. residents or requires us to build walls and enlist other costly means to keep the water from harming our communities and polluting our water supplies.

  • More polluted air, which causes asthma; increases risks for a host of diseases, including heart disease and cancer that have their own mental health sequelae; and is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia.

PsySRWhile it’s impossible at this juncture to predict how climate change will show itself and how people will respond to it, already the planet is experiencing historic levels of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, rising sea levels, and the melting of vital ice resources that have contributed to higher rates of anxiety, depression, conflict, and other behavioral symptoms in Earth’s citizens.

It’s also difficult to calculate the psycho-economic costs associated with climate change, but untold billions or trillions of dollars in human capital will be lost as people are displaced; family groups, jobs, and infrastructure are damaged or destroyed; and people contend with their painful psychological responses to all of climate change’s harm. The result could be severe, lasting tears in the fabric of our society.

Ultimately, what most concerns mental health professionals is the breadth of human suffering that will arise from climate change as its devastation unfolds. Clearly, if we are to deter the psychological — much less physical and planetary — harm that climate change portends, strong, quick action is needed now to implement energy and consumption alternatives that prevent this risk to our collective psychological well-being.

As psychologists, we are at the forefront of addressing human behavior, thought, and feeling, and all of these are central to tackling the problem of climate change. How people consume resources, how we think about risks, and the emotions we feel about something as complex and seemingly distant as climate change in the context of our natural environment are central to preventing or limiting the harm it will bring to our citizens and natural places in our nation and across the globe.

Considering the potentially severe psychosocial repercussions of climate change for millions of U.S. citizens and billions of citizens of the world, bold individual, community,organization, and government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is vital now if we are to prevent the impending psychological harm that will arise otherwise. Psychologists and other mental health professionals must help lead the way for this action.

Return to PsySR’s Program on Climate Change, Sustainability, and Psychology.