Climate Change’s Direct Contribution to Worsening Mental Health

Attention to the emotional effects of climate change has previously been focused on people working on the problem. In the last few years, for example, organizations working on climate change have encouraged activists to prioritize taking care of their emotional health. Why? Working on a complex and pressing problem like climate change can be incredibly depressing. Taking an occasional break can prevent activists from giving in to hopeless thinking or burning out entirely.

But even if you have developed a healthy set of coping skills, sometimes the reality of climate change can take the wind out of your sails. For instance, a recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has shown that climate change itself can be harmful to mental health[1]. While this has been hypothesized before, this is the first time that empirical evidence has been provided to support the claim.

When I called Nick Obradovich, the article’s lead author, to discuss his recent paper on the mental health effects of climate change, it was a sunny 65 degrees Fahrenheit in Boston. “It was in the single digits just a few days ago,” he explained. It turns out that these intense swings in temperature, a steady warming trend, and the uptick in extreme weather events aren’t just depressing to climate activists— they are worsening the psychological state of the wider public too. Indeed, a recent a YPCCC survey has shown that hope about climate change is decreasing while worry is on the rise[2].

Obradovich’s prior work has looked at a wide range of phenomena related to climate change. “Climate change is everything change,” he says. “If you turn up the heat in a complex system, the effects will be seen everywhere.” Researchers across the disciplines study these changes on global scales, looking at fundamental physical and biological dynamics. Obradovich, though, is interested in what he calls “the rest of everything”–the micro-scale climate effects impacting day-to-day life, governance, and wellbeing.

Throughout his research career, Obradovich has used novel datasets to elucidate some of climate change’s less-anticipated effects. Previous research he co-authored has shown how bad weather worsened the sentiments in people’s social media posts[3]. A 2017 paper showed that climate change patterns were positively correlated with the turnover of elected officials and disfavored incumbent candidates[4]. “By aggregating all of these smaller changes over space and time,” he says, describing these trends, “you may end up with pretty costly changes.”

His most recent PNAS paper uses data-intensive and statistically rigorous methods to illustrate how these small changes might add up to the detriment of people’s mental health. The research compared mental health data self-reported to the Center for Disease Control against nationwide meteorological data. By using data over a long time series and geographic area, the authors were able to identify a significant effect of climate change on respondents’ emotional wellbeing.

The specific reasons for the decrease in self-reported mental health are still unknown. Just as the global warming trend is the net effects of many smaller interlocking patterns, the empirical effect on people’s mental state is likely the additive result of many smaller stresses.

But some clues to these effects may be present in the fact that the effects weren’t the same across income categories or gender identity. Low-income people were affected more than high income people, and respondents who identified as women were also more susceptible to the detrimental psychological effects of a changing climate than those that identified as men. Taking these results to heart is essential for the equitable execution of climate change mitigation strategies. The IPCC has repeatedly called for attention on the differential effects of climate change.

While it would be easy to let these new results contribute to hopeless thinking, there’s a silver lining. As Obradovich states, climate change is everything change. This means that it’s important for every constituency to realize they have a role to play in addressing its implications. While its conclusions are worrisome, this work can help to mobilize psychologists and public health professionals into the discourse on climate change.

Since the mechanisms behind these effects are still unclear, the involvement of public health professionals is of paramount importance. “Absent a drastic change in the mental health care system,” Obroadovich points out, “these effects are going to continue.” Against that fact, increasing baseline resilience, and ensuring equity in these efforts, is an essential task.

As the world is gearing up for another year of record-setting temperatures, Obradovich is gearing up for his next round of studies. Against a trend of declining hope, we must still ask bold questions about what it might take to reverse global climate change. We must also, however, work alongside global efforts to find local adaptive solutions. Improving baseline mental health resilience isn’t usually a part of climate adaptation plans. This work is a clear signal that it should be.


[1] Obradovich, Nick et al. “Empirical evidence of mental health risks posed by climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.43 (2018): 10953-10958.


[3] Baylis, Patrick et al. “Weather impacts expressed sentiment.” PloS One 13.4 (2018): e0195750.

[4] Obradovich, Nick. “Climate change may speed democratic turnover.” Climatic Change  140.2 (2017): 135-147.