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Beyond Storms and Droughts

A report on the psychological impact of climate change

Soil, Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Hughes County, SD
Soil, Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Hughes County, SD
Colette Kessler, USDA NRCS
We are a fickle lot. When asked in April of 2014, 64% of a representative sample of Americans told pollsters from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication that global warming is real. Only 52% believed that humanity was a prime suspect. Fewer still, about one in three, worried that global warming might put a crimp in their day.  

Scientists are not skeptical.  Ninetyseven percent of climate scientists believe that global warming is a bona-fide threat to our well-being and they are becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns.  Recently, psychologists Susan Clayton and Christine Manning have joined the chorus with their report, Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change*.  It chronicles:

  • the likely psychological impacts of climate change, from stress, anxiety and depression, to loss of community identity, to increases in violence and aggression
  • the pathways through which these and other impacts on human well-being will arise
  • why some communities will be hit harder than others
  • how psychological impacts will interact with physical health

The future is fraught in this summary of what we know, as well as the gaps in our understanding. Clayton and Manning start with theories about why it is so hard for us to comprehend the reality of climate change and quickly segue to its impacts on mental, physical, and community health. The trauma and shock of natural disasters come with a series of unwelcome correlates ranging from anxiety and grief to post traumatic stress disorder.  Slower, insidious changes, like drought, can add a veil of fatalism and resignation as residents watch the landscape they knew and trusted decay. It is no surprise that under these circumstances some people question their sense of self while grieving the loss of land, work, friends and co-workers. They also worry about what the future holds for their children.

The burdens of climate change, say Clayton and Manning, will weigh heavier on some backs than others. Our social safety nets, already frayed, may be too fragile to break their global warming fall.  Individual, group, or community vulnerability will depend on:

  • the frequency and intensity of climate impacts
  • weakened physical infrastructure
  • social stressors such as racism and economic inequality
  • socioeconomic and demographic variables such as lower average education levels
  • the presence of large numbers of children and older adults

Lest you think that this is just another collection of apocalyptic exhortations, take heart. Clayton and Manning’s definition of well-being is more than disease and injury on hiatus. They believe in “human flourishing and resilience” for individuals and communities. This holistic view infuses the report.  Moreover, they were wise enough to take their own advice and “communicate specific solutions.”  In the end they offer two sets of recommendations – tips for communicators and policymakers to engage the public and tips for people and organizations of all kinds to prepare and strengthen communities.  Some highlights:

  • give people confidence that they can prepare for and help prevent further climate change
  • focus on local conditions and customs
  • acknowledge emotions associated with climate change and its impacts
  • strengthen community and social networks
  • involve and informing the community in preparation efforts
  • work to create a sense of safety and optimism

Clayton and Manning acknowledge that we need to learn more about the psychological impacts of climate change, but this report is a welcome start.  To read it, got to ecoamerica.org.

* Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., & Hodge C. (2014). Beyond storms & droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. 

How Brave Are You?