Global warming

The invisible impact of climate change

By Martin Montague

Climate change is not only damaging the planet, it’s endangering our mental health, too.

Experts warn it puts us more at risk of developing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).1

The situation is bleak. Compared with the 1980s, there are now twice as many days over 50C and in more locations around the globe.2 And accompanying this rise in temperatures has been a five-fold increase in weather-related disasters over the past 50 years.

*If you, or someone you know, have been affected by mental health issues, the following organisations may be able to help.

Aerial view of Great Barrier Reef near Whitsunday Islands
The devastating impacts of climate change can be seen across our oceans as well as on land. © Holger Leue
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Eco-anxiety is the fear of the current or predicted effects of climate change,4 or as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) put it, the “chronic fear of environmental doom.”5

It’s hitting youngsters especially hard. In a 2021 global survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, three quarters said the future of the world was frightening, while more than half said they thought humanity is doomed.6 The report was co-authored by Susan Clayton, a psychologist at Ohio’s College of Wooster, who notes there is real pessimism about the future. “It’s not just scary, but it’s also demotivating.”7

This fear for the future has even made couples rethink or abandon plans to have children. In a 2018 poll of American men and women aged 20 to 45, a third said they’d made the decision to have fewer children due to climate change worries.8

Professionals working in the field aren’t immune to it, either. “There’s been times that you cry into your mask because you look around and realise how tragic it is,” says Tim Gordon. He’s a marine biologist at the University of Exeter whose work has taken him to places like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and the middle of the Arctic Ocean. “Occasionally… it’ll strike – you just float into the middle of the water, look around you and think: ‘Wow, it’s all dying’.”9

Bushfire in Queensland, Australia
Climate change is making hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding more likely. © Holger Leue

Climate Trauma

Climate change is making hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding more likely – and this can cause climate trauma for anyone caught up in them. “Across the board, you get increased rates of general psychological distress [...]” explains Helen Berry, Honorary Professor of Climate Change and Mental Health at the University of Sydney. “When you’re evacuated for a long period of time [and] your home is being completely destroyed… then the risk to your mental health is extreme.”10

A case in point is when 88,000 people were forced from their homes during the 2016 wildfire that swept through Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.11 A study by the University of Alberta found that a third of children in Grades 7 to 12 (12 to 18-year-olds) were experiencing PTSD, 18 months after the fire.12

Susan Clayton is worried about long-lasting effects on children, as they’re still developing psychologically, physiologically, and neurologically. “There’s some evidence that children who experienced trauma when they’re young, it might have basically a permanent impact on their ability to process strong emotions as they’re older, as adults.”13

South Africa has a different problem; half the population lives in poverty, making it extremely difficult for them to adapt to climate change. Garret Barnwell, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, is concerned about climate trauma because it will impact people who are already disadvantaged. “The same social conditions that make individuals and communities more vulnerable to climate change, are the same that put people at higher risk of mental illness and psychological adversities.”14

Meanwhile, in the Philippines global warming is making typhoons more frequent, intense, and unpredictable. “Projecting our future is really scary,” admits Esperanza Cayanan from the Philippines’ national meteorological agency.15 In November 2020, the country was hit by their 21st typhoon of the year. “It makes me feel hopeless, and like life isn’t worth living,” reveals Mitzi Jonelle Tan, who was in the Philippines at the time. “That’s why we have to talk about climate trauma so that people understand that the climate crisis is already here and it needs to be dealt with today.”16

Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada
Organisations in Fort McMurray in Canada have taken steps to support young people with climate trauma. ©


The good news is that some steps have been taken to tackle this. In the case of climate trauma, an example is Canada, where organisations like the Canadian Mental Health Association provided support in response to the Fort McMurray fire. There are now more counsellors in schools, and students wear heart monitors to warn when they’re getting stressed or anxious, so they can take time out to calm down with breathing exercises.17

For young people wanting to turn their eco-anxiety into positive action, there are also initiatives like ‘Force of Nature’, which describes itself as being “at the junction of mental health and the climate crisis”. “We’re going to see massive, massive widespread climate crisis in every country around the world,” warns Clover Hogan who set up the group in 2019 when she was 19.18 “It’s about developing the emotional resilience to carry on, but in a way that ignites really dramatic individual initiative.”19

Connecting with nature is also beneficial and in South Africa, urban gardens are being planned for Cape Town.20 These natural spaces serve a dual purpose: aiding mental wellbeing and lessening the impact of intense heatwaves. It’s part of an action plan that also tackles the root of the problem – climate change itself – with zero-emission zones, car-free spaces, more shaded areas, and cooling centres accessible across the city.21

Grocery shopping with reusable bag
Adopting good environmental practices and encouraging others to do the same are two ways for us to shake any feelings of helplessness. © Oscar Wong

Adopting good environmental practices and encouraging others to do the same are two ways for us to shake any feelings of helplessness. “Make climate change a factor in the decisions you make around what you eat, how you travel, and what you buy,” says Duncan Geere, who edited a paper detailing achievable steps to slow global warming.22

Next, talk to friends, family and colleagues. “We don’t need to convince 100% of people, only 25%,” says Owen Gaffney, co-author of the report. “Then an idea can go from marginal to mainstream.”

“Finally,” concludes Duncan, “demand that politicians and companies make it easier and cheaper to do the right thing for the climate.”23

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the impact of climate change will vary depending on where you live on the planet. The worst hit areas tend to be low-income countries who are least responsible and can least afford it. The IMF has recognised that they will not be able to cope – or adapt – without help from the international community.24

Silhouette of a high industrial pipe with sun behind it
Combining forces now to combat climate change is paramount to averting catastrophe. © Xuanyu Han

Hope for the Future?

Carbon emissions need to fall by half by 2030 in order to keep global heating under the internationally agreed limit of 1.5C. But according to the UN, they’re actually expected to rise by 16%.25 

However, the UN Secretary General António Guterres believes that if we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. “But,” he warns, “there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”26 

“It’s in our power to protect what’s left and make a meaningful difference,” says marine biologist, Tim Gordon. “And that’s why we do this. That’s why we carry on.”


*If you, or someone you know, have been affected by mental health issues, the following organisations may be able to help.


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