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January 9, 2024
David N. Pellow
Dec 12, 2023
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Research on the linkages among climate change, public health, and mental health is still in its early stages, with scholars just beginning to explore possible causal pathways between anthropogenic (“man-made”) climate disruptions and a range of impacts on human well-being. Anthropogenic climate change has been deemed to be one of the single greatest threats to human health in the 21st century and, in 2012, medical and health organizations from around the world signed and endorsed the Doha Declaration, which calls for the health effects of climate change to be elevated to a major public policy priority. However, only recently have scholars begun documenting climate change’s impacts on global mental health.1 There is little question that mental health concerns are on the rise in the context of climate change. Terms like eco-distress, eco-anxiety, climate grief, eco-guilt, biospheric concern, and solastalgia (a conjunction of “solace” and “nostalgia” that reflects how ecological disruptions can produce psychological distress, see Cianconi and colleagues2) reflect an emerging series of trends that suggest that people around the world are experiencing significant mental health effects of climate change.3
These patterns are particularly alarming considering the fact that scientists predict that climate change-driven extreme weather events will only intensify in severity, frequency, and duration in the coming years. Furthermore, the research on this subject consistently concludes that people with pre-existing mental health conditions are affected by climate change more intensely than others,4 and those uneven impacts are expected to be magnified among populations that are already facing broader health disparities, including communities of color and low-wealth/socio-economic status persons.5-7 Because climate change is a phenomenon that tends to unfold gradually and on a large geographic/spatial scale, and because alterations in mental health as they relate to climate change can be challenging to pinpoint immediately, it is difficult to fully articulate the linkage between these two factors.8 The authors of a 2016 Lancet report on mental health and sustainability contend that mental health is the “most neglected of all human health conditions” since the medical profession and public health services tend to focus almost entirely on physical health.9 And while scientists expect the effects of climate change to intensify over time, researchers predict that mental health crises will follow a similar trajectory.10 The depth of neglect of mental health needs across the world in both government and health institutions is profound and rivaled only by the prevalence of mental health crises. For example, the subject was never a focus of any official side meetings at the Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) until the 28th conference held in 2023. This historic lack of attention is particularly concerning because “cases of psychological traumas from any form of disaster exceed those of physical injury by 40-1”11 (see also Hayes and colleagues12).
Newly emergent terms like eco-anxiety, ecological grief, and solastalgia are often grouped under the umbrella concept of “psychoterratic” states, which describe emotions that have an increasingly troubled relationship to our natural environment.2 And though these concepts are productive for describing key dimensions of the emotional strains linked to a changing climate, they fail to fully reflect the experiences of populations marginalized by structural inequalities because those terms overlook the organized causes of the grief and anxiety—the fact that some communities are neglected via climate change-related policies and practices. For example, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—the Biden Administration’s landmark climate policy initiative—was made possible in part by a political compromise that made it more difficult to close down polluting fossil fuel power plants and to phase out fossil fuel developments overall,13 which are disproportionately located in or near low-income, racial and ethnic minority communities.14 Moreover, the federal government and many states have invested heavily in promoting and incentivizing the purchase and use of renewable energy technologies like solar panels to facilitate a transition to a more sustainable economy. While this is a laudable effort, nearly half of the world’s supply of polysilicon—a key component in solar panel cells—is sourced from the Xinjiang province of China where the Chinese government has conscripted hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs into forced labor camps, many of whom produce those panels—part of an overall campaign of repression that has been described as “genocidal.” In another case, incarcerated persons are among the most vulnerable people in the United States, and many of them face threats from climate change as well. For example, when Hurricane Harvey touched down in Texas during the summer of 2017, the federal prison complex in the town of Beaumont flooded. The facility was placed on lock down and no evacuations were allowed, despite the fact that water levels rose significantly inside the prison and loved ones on the outside frantically called authorities to demand the safety and security of their family members. While no one died in the prison, one can be confident that the psychological strain from such an event was considerable.
Climate change events produce emotional and psychosocial effects on populations that are disproportionately already vulnerable and marginalized. That is the reason why this is a justice and equity issue, and why universalist terms like eco-grief may miss the fact that the impacts of climate change are experienced so unevenly across populations and geography.
I offer three recommendations for future public policy that emerge from this body of research. First, policymakers would do well to allocate increased resources toward building and sustaining social network support and mental health services within and across populations that are disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly children, low-wealth communities, Indigenous peoples, racial and ethnic minorities, and incarcerated persons. These are precisely the populations that tend to lack adequate access to these services, so any augmentation of resources could have a significant impact. Second, since the evidence suggests that collective action and climate advocacy can create buffers against psychosocial stress, increased support for community-based organizations and civil society groups addressing climate change might facilitate improved individual mental health and community resilience. In a number of communities that have experienced climate change–driven extreme weather events, nongovernmental organizations have sought to fill in the gaps with mutual aid in the form of water, food, clothing, medical care. and housing when first responders and government agencies are slow to respond.15 Many scholars have called for more resources, training, and focus on climate change’s mental health effects within public health systems as well. Third and finally, health care providers need greater support to produce effective interventions, treatment, and care for patients experiencing mental health challenges associated with climate disruptions. This goal will likely require new training initiatives that combine evidence-based approaches for understanding how and why climate change and mental health are linked. In other words, above all, recognizing and acknowledging the links between a changing climate and mental health needs would be a significant step forward to strengthening our public health system in the age of global climate change.
David N. Pellow is the Dehlsen Chair and professor of Environmental Studies and director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he teaches courses on social change movements, environmental justice, human-animal conflicts, sustainability, and social inequality. His teaching and research focus on ecological justice issues in the United States and globally. His books include: What is Critical Environmental Justice?; Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement; The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden (with Lisa Sun-Hee Park); Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice; The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (with Lisa Sun-Hee Park); and Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. He has served on the Boards of Directors for Global Response, The Global Action Research Center, the Center for Urban Transformation, the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, Greenpeace USA, and International Rivers.
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