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Global warming's mental health cost

Charli Shield
August 31, 2018

We often think about the impact of climate change in physical terms – extreme weather, species extinction, and the destruction of habitat. But what about the emotional toll it takes on us?

Schweiz Marsch gegen Klimawandel in Lugano
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Putzu

Psychologist Susie Burke tells the story of a woman who came to her for counselling after having her first child. Not because she was suffering from post-natal depression, but because she was "struggling with the enormity of what she had done." She felt she had brought her child into a "world she knew was going to be a lot harsher and a lot less safe," Burke told DW.

"She came to me when she was overwhelmed by this distress; questioning whether she had done the right thing. The fear she had for his future was really huge."

Burke is an Australian psychologist and academic who specializes in eco-psychology. She treats people suffering mental illness as a result of climate change, and also recently set up a free hotline called the "Climate Change Psychological Support Network," where Australians can call a qualified psychologist to talk through their feelings about environmental change.

"One of the very first things people need to do to engage properly with climate change is to acknowledge how they feel about it and talk about it," Burke said.

Eco-anxiety, grief and guilt

A sense of pervasive loss, devastation and change are endemic to a world afflicted by climate change. Polar ice caps are melting, many animal species are going extinct; the weather is unpredictable and often extreme.

We are increasingly aware of the impacts these changes are having on our physiological health - whether it be as stark as death and injury from extreme weather events, or more insidious harm from the worsening quality of water, air and food.

But as the emerging field of eco-psychology is revealing, climate change is taking a significant toll on our mental health too.

Read more: Climate change threatens crop nutrition, puts millions at risk

Protest at COP23 conference, held in Bonn, Germany
Susie Burke says many people cope with negative emotions around climate change by ignoring themImage: Reuters/A. Doyle

"For people who are hearing and paying attention to what is happening to the climate, it is a huge weight and anxiety and fear," Burke said.

Having worked in the field for nearly a decade, the psychologist describes observing people with "anxiety and depression, flat moods, helplessness and hopelessness, and anger," as well as "guilt and shame."

She said this latter feeling is common among people who might not have endured direct trauma and loss as a result of climate change, but who experience vicarious distress and are conscious of their part in the problem.

"They're aware these things are happening and it's not directly impacting them, but they know it's going to have a bigger impact on their children in the future or people in other parts of the world."

Climate change differs from other global problems in that most people can relate their own behaviour to it, Burke added, in terms of causing CO2 emissions: "We can't do that with other big global problems like genocide and conflict in the Middle East."

Read more: How can cities adapt to a hotter climate?

Bildergalerie größte Naturkatastrophen weltweit
13 years after Hurricane Katrina, many people live with lingering mental health affectsImage: J. Sullivan/Getty Images

A little-known problem

Although it might seem self-evident that extreme changes resonate with people on an emotional level, it is not something often talked about.

The health of millions of people around the world is already being compromised by global warming. Scientists are now saying it is the major threat of the 21st century. But there is little emphasis on mental health.

“It’s a huge gap in the literature,” Ashlee Cunsolo, researcher and director of an institute geared toward sustaining Indigenous culture in Labrador, Canada, told DW.

In order for the globe to comprehensively tackle the health challenges that are arising out of climate change, Cunsolo argues that the mental health dimension of the problem must inform policymaking. This, she said, requires "a mass system-wide societal shift" in how climate change is thought about and what the potential long term impacts might be.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change includes a section that details the loss and damages from climate change. Consolo notes that it intitially conceptualised loss and damage in terms of "infrastructure and the market" when it was written in the 1990s. But now it has been adjusted to account for "intangible losses," such as "cultural knowledge, language, and place," she said.

Read more: The frozen tears of New Zealand's melting glaciers

Inuit fishing expedition
A loss of sea ice impacts Inuit communities' ability to hunt, travel and pass down their cultural traditionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Inuit on thin ice

Cunsolo first observed this aspect of climate change while working in public health in Eastern Canada with Inuit populations indigenous to the area. After having witnessed rapid changes in their environment – such as melting sea ice and unpredictable weather - these communities, Cunsolo said, expressed a profound sense of "grief associated with loss of place, loss of sea ice, loss of livelihoods."

It was this research that prompted Cunsolo and her colleague, Neville Ellis, who works closely with farmers suffering drought in Western Australia, to create a new category of emotional trauma called "ecological grief." Cunsolo describes this as "the responding mental and emotional pain, stress and sadness” that arises from environmental change.

"The word 'Inuit' literally means 'people of the sea ice' – so this is a very deep, existential questioning of humanity", the researcher said." People are really having their foundations impacted by these changes."

Although climate scientists are warning that a 1 to 2 degree Celsius temperature increase globally will have devastating effects around the globe – even making some parts of the world inhospitable – evidence has shown that Laborador has already surpassed this threshold and is instead looking at a temperature increase of 6 to 8 degrees Celsius.

The unprecedented loss of sea ice that has already occurred has had an enormous impact on the Inuit communities' ability to hunt, travel, and practise their culture, Cunsolo said. "There's a lot of concern for what it means for the future – a lot of anticipatory grief."

Australia's 2018 drought
"Ecological grief" has been seen in communities as disparate as farmers in Western Australia and Inuit in CanadaImage: Reuters/D. Gray

Global reverberations

But it isn’t only those in the front line of environmental change who experience profound emotional responses and mental health impacts. For many people it is daunting to grasp the full implications of climate change, including coming to terms with their own role in it and how they can help as individuals.

Whether or not people are experiencing or observing firsthand rapid environmental changes, Cunsolo speaks of a "pervasive sense of dread and doom and anxiety."

"I think ecological grief has emerged most prominently from people at the frontline, but I don’t think we can say with certainty that they're experiencing it more than others." Often, she added, people who don’t bear the burden of global warming's direct impacts, feel a sense of guilt that they're "stuck in a system that perpetuates climate change, but [they] can't get out of it." 

Many people become depressed and immobile, or "rationalize the problem away," according to Burke. 

For this reason, the psychologist  has authored a handy guide - 'The Climate Change Empowerment Handbook'  which, she says, is designed to help people to see how they can effectively engage with the problem on a day-to-day basis. 

"What we can't afford is for people to give up," Burke said. "It's too big a problem. There is still time to turn the tide. We just need to have the will to do it - and the will comes from the people."