Climate change will have broad psychological effects

Washington, DC - Climate change will have significant negative impacts on Americans’ health and psychological well-being, due to an increase in the frequency and severity of climate-related natural disasters and other climate-related changes in the environment and weather. Likely effects, which will increase as climate change’s physical impacts accelerate, include stress, anxiety, depression and a loss of community identity, says a new report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

Climate change is also likely to result in an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions because of the rise in the number and severity of natural disasters, according to the report. Climate change could also lead to increased feelings of loss and helplessness if individuals and communities are forced to relocate. 

"The striking thing is how these effects will permeate so many aspects of our daily lives,” said Norman B. Anderson, PhD, CEO of the American Psychological Association. “The effects we are likely to see aren’t just trauma from experiencing natural disasters. We can also expect increases in long-term stress and anxiety from the aftermath of disasters, as well as increases in violence and crime rates as a result of higher temperatures or competition for scarce resources.”

The report, which was produced in collaboration with College of Wooster psychology professor Susan Clayton, PhD, Macalester College environmental studies professor Christie Manning, PhD, and ecoAmerica researcher Caroline Hodge, also recommends actions that individuals and communities can take to address the psychological impacts of climate change.

“There are a number of things communities can do to prepare for acute impacts of climate change — such as hurricanes and wildfires — as well as the slowly evolving changes like droughts that permanently and profoundly affect communities,” said Bob Perkowitz, president of ecoAmerica. “Virtually everything a community does to prepare for or help prevent climate change has co-benefits, like increased community cohesion, increased health and well-being, and risk reduction.” 

According to the report, certain populations and communities will be especially vulnerable to mental health impacts. Studies have shown that women, children and the elderly are particularly at risk for serious and long-lasting psychological effects. And communities with poor infrastructure may experience worse physical — and consequent psychological — impacts. 

The report outlines steps people and communities can take to buffer themselves against psychological and mental health impacts from climate-change related events. One recommendation is for city planners and health officials to put resources toward strengthening collaboration with existing community and social networks, like neighborhood or faith-based groups. These groups can serve as important sources of social support before, during and after disasters. 

The report emphasizes that taking steps to prepare for these effects can lead to other benefits, such as stronger community cohesion and reduced disaster risk. 

Perkowitz said he hopes the report will deepen public understanding of climate change, and help the communities around the U.S. understand what they need to do to respond. “Some of these psychological impacts are alarming,” he said. “But by carefully planning for these effects, and helping people understand what we can do to move toward climate solutions, we’ll be prepared to meet this challenge and make our country stronger as a result.”

Visit the ecoAmerica website to read the report.

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