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Mental Health in a New Climate Change Report

Another UN report describes many problems, but few actions, for mental health.

Key points

  • The impacts from human-caused climate change are substantive and wide-ranging.
  • Some of the impacts are major, adverse consequences on mental health.
  • Despite a dearth of information in the UN report, constructive action can be taken.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today published its new assessment report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” Major, adverse climate change impacts on mental health are documented, but the report bypasses key ways of addressing them.

The main text provided is not the full technical report, but is the main press release—which does not mention mental health at all—and the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM), which mentions “mental health” six times. The SPM is approved by member state governments as per the IPCC’s rules meaning that divergences from the subtleties and nuances of the full technical reports are frequently documented.

What Is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

The IPCC’s purpose is to be “the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.” “Climate change” combines natural and human causes of average weather changing over the long term. Scientists are appointed by IPCC member states to review the reports.

IPCC reports do not produce new science. They synthesise and assess the state of the science based on summarising tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles. Reviewers of the draft reports submit thousands of remarks, which lead to revisions and author responses.

The IPCC’s First Assessment Report appeared in 1990, and the current version is the Sixth Assessment Report, comprising three working groups. Last August, Working Group I published “The Physical Science Basis,” and Working Group III's, “Mitigation of Climate Change” is expected next month. Today’s publication is from Working Group II.

As usual, political controversies mar the scientific summaries. Ukrainian scientists felt forced to leave the SPM’s approval session to protect themselves and their families as their country came under attack from Russia. The US government was accused of trying to avoid the term “losses and damages,” since using it could indicate that funds are owed to some countries to deal with climate change’s impacts.

In the end, the SPM authored by about 90 scientists was approved, describing some aspects of mental health impacts while missing others. The IPCC’s procedure is to assign statements with levels of confidence, such as “very high confidence” or “low confidence.”

Framing Mental Health in the Report

The report first frames mental health by explaining that “‘Mental health’ includes impacts from extreme weather events, cumulative events, and vicarious or anticipatory events.” One notable absence is the impact on mental health from negative and catastrophic reporting.

As an example, the press release’s headline is “Climate change: a threat to human wellbeing and health of the planet.” While the subtitle offers hope by noting “Taking action now can secure our future,” it is not until page 2 that doom-laden sentences are replaced by specific and constructive ways forward.

Meanwhile, the SPM is clear about the evidence that disasters and violent conflicts are not typically caused by climate change, natural or anthropogenic. That is, no matter what climate change does, we can do so much now to avoid disasters and violent conflicts—and hence their negative mental health impacts. The press release is mysteriously silent on this key point.

As such, the report itself might have adverse consequences on mental health and well-being due to its emphasis on detrimental impacts—which are real—without balancing the text with actions everyone could take to help ourselves and each other—which are as real.

Acting on Mental Health and Climate Change

The report’s main overarching statement on mental health is similarly lopsided: “Climate change has adversely affected…mental health of people in the assessed regions (very high confidence). Climate change impacts on health are mediated through natural and human systems, including economic and social conditions and disruptions (high confidence).” There is little dispute about either point. It is unclear why positive influences on mental health and well-being are absent.

For instance, people in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) recognize the major shifts they are experiencing from human-caused climate change. Aside from snow and ice melting, making winter travel more dangerous, wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity alongside possibilities for major tsunamis from rockfalls into the fjords. Many people are nonetheless willing to grasp the opportunities such as a longer tourist season and warmer weather.

No claims are made, or should ever be made, that human-caused climate change is sought or desirable. It is about supporting one’s mental health by avoiding abject despair and taking initiative to work within the grim circumstances.

This point is exemplified by the SPM’s statement, “In assessed regions, some mental health challenges are associated with increasing temperatures (high confidence), trauma from weather and climate extreme events (very high confidence), and loss of livelihoods and culture (high confidence).” If no one acts, then this prophecy will be fulfilled. If other parts of the report are obeyed, namely adopting measures to reduce disaster risk irrespective of climate change, then many of these consequences would be forestalled.

If we are given resources, opportunities, and choices to help ourselves and others, then it is not necessarily the case that “Mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, are expected to increase under further global warming…(very high confidence).” While heat–humidity combinations are moving into terrifyingly lethal realms, and they negatively affect mental health, others are heartened by reductions in cold spells and associated health risks—although positive health results from less cold cannot offset the heat- and humidity-related perils.

The SPM’s text on actions is also sparse: “Effective adaptation options for reducing mental health risks under climate change include improving surveillance, access to mental health care, and monitoring of psychosocial impacts from extreme weather events (high confidence).” These are important, yet lack mention of proactive, positive action to deal with climate change and mental health, including through eco-inspiration. Instead, we see a vague statement with very high confidence to use “integrated adaptation approaches that mainstream health” into other sectors.

Yes, but how? Specifics could have been provided for individuals to follow, drawing on numerous handbooks and extensive scientific reports on this topic.

An important aspect for supporting mental health and well-being is providing hope. Focusing on hopelessness can help to create the adverse results we prefer to avoid, no matter what climate change does.


IPCC. 2022. Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Summary for Policymakers. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Geneva, Switzerland.

Kelman, I., Mercer, J., and Gaillard, J. C. (eds.). 2017. Routledge Handbook of Disaster Risk Reduction Including Climate Change Adaptation. Routledge, Abingdon, U.K.

Romanello, M. et al. 2021. The 2021 Report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. The Lancet, vol. 398, no. 10311, pp. 1619–1662.

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