Photo by Adam Geiss.

Among the many concerns attributed to climate change, the negative effects on our mental health don’t often receive top billing. But a new report co-authored by Dr. Christie Manning, an environmental psychologist and Macalester’s director of sustainability, aims to bring more attention to the rising issue as world leaders, diplomats, scientists, activists and others gather in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties. The report, entitled “Mental Health and our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, and Solutions,” was commissioned for release ahead of the summit by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

With the number of people who say they experience some level of “climate anxiety” on the rise, Dr. Manning shares some thoughts about what’s happening and what we can do to mitigate our fears about climate change. 

Q: In what ways are we seeing mental health issues manifest right now in individuals due to climate change?

A: There are generally three different types of mental health impacts that I’m seeing and that are reported in the literature. 

The first is from acute climate events—the sorts of after-effects of deep trauma from surviving a wildfire or a hurricane that forces you to leave your home and displaces you from your community. Those things cause PTSD and other types of lingering mental health issues. We’re seeing an increase in those. 

We’re also seeing the mental health impacts from chronic changes, like increasing heat and drought. For example, farmers have already been facing really difficult economic challenges, often with very little mental health infrastructure. Around the world, there’s a rise in farmer suicides because of drought. Similar trends are happening in many Indigenous communities, as well. 

The third type is the forward-thinking anxiety about the future. This is hitting young people particularly hard. A very recent article surveyed more than 100,000 young people and found that not only are they experiencing a lot of anxiety around climate change, they’re also really angry at the government and corporate powers for their inadequate response that is basically guaranteeing a diminished future.

Q: What is “climate anxiety”?

A: Put simply, it’s the term for the worry we feel over climate change, which is in fact a natural and evolutionarily adaptive response. If you follow the science, you understand that the consequences of our changing climate are really significant and very real, and we humans are wired so that if we encounter something dangerous, emotions like anxiety and fear motivate us to change the situation so that this scary thing doesn’t impact us or impacts us less. 

The problem with climate change is that we as individuals hold little power to actually change anything. To alleviate our anxiety, we need to see the systems-change happen. Until we see the types of actions from people in power that address the problem, there is no way for individuals to feel comforted that solutions are coming. And so anxiety builds and interferes with the ability to carry out daily life routines. More and more young people ages 18 to 34, as many as 47 percent in one survey and even over 50 percent in another, are saying, “Yeah, climate worries are starting to interfere with my daily life.”

Q: How is climate change exacerbating inequality? 

A: Many of the people who are on the front lines of climate impacts, for example, the Inuit people of the Arctic in Alaska and in northern Canada, have collectively contributed so little to carbon emissions and yet they are losing their homes, their cultural traditions, and their livelihoods right now. The people who have lived the most carbon intensive lifestyles are actually experiencing generally among the lowest climate impacts. And this is due to a whole number of reasons. 

Q: What can people do right now, as individuals?

A: As an individual, you can do a number of things to prepare and buffer yourself, both psychologically and practically. One is learning more about what climate risks your community might be facing. Are you in a place where you may experience sea level rise? Or urban heat island effects or extreme storms? Examine what events are most likely to happen where you live and take measures to prepare. 

For example, here in the Twin Cities, Pat Hamilton at the Science Museum of Minnesota, who has been a friend and colleague to us here Macalester, is a proponent of doing things like making sure the furnace and all the utilities in your basement are a couple feet above the ground in case of flooding from torrential rain storms, which are becoming more likely here in Minnesota. You can also make sure there are no big tree limbs over the house that could come crashing down during an extreme storm. 

The research shows that people who take measures like this benefit emotionally and psychologically from the relief of knowing they’re better prepared.

Q: What can we do collectively as a society to mitigate the mental health effects of climate change? 

A: They’re intertwined, right? You’re helping your own mental health the more you get involved in collective action against climate change. And that can be things like gathering together with your neighbors to plan in case of an extreme storm. Do we want to check on each other and find out who lives alone and might need extra attention? Planning ahead increases your social connectedness and also gives you a sense that you’re in this with other people. Human interconnectedness is a really basic psychological need. 

You can also join with other people in your community to plan a solar garden or lobby your local utility to not build another coal-fired power plant. I’ve talked to activists who successfully did that here in St. Paul. The victory feels really good, and victory in community feels even better.  And collective action can make a tangible difference to the climate—one less coal-fired power plant is a big deal. 

November 10 2021

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