Jessica Newberry Le Vay, Junior Policy Fellow in Climate Change and Health, and Dr Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Lead, members of the Imperial delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), explain why mental health is both a casualty of the climate crisis and a catalyst for transformation, and how climate feelings can be connected to climate action, even within the highest levels of policy. Jessica and Emma, both based at Imperial’s Institute of Global Health Innovation, are members of Climate Cares, a team of researchers, designers, policy-makers and educators aiming to understand and support mental health in the current climate and ecological crises.
Why does mental health matter?
The climate emergency is a mental health emergency. And it’s not surprising why. The world’s addiction to fossil fuels, combined with insufficient climate leadership, is escalating global instabilities, including the devastating experiences of extreme weather events, food and water insecurities, community breakdown, economic instability and the destruction of treasured ecosystems. The cost of this on the human psyche is undeniable.
Our psychology also drives how we respond to the climate crisis. As we heard from Brian Eno at the Grantham Institute’s Annual Lecture, “we all know the information, the information isn’t changing our mind. Most people make decisions not on the basis of information, but on the basis of feelings”. Our ability to care for ourselves, including our climate-related feelings, determines our ability to care for each other and the wider world. There is no safe climate future without the mental, social and emotional resilience to cope with and act on the climate crisis.
Mental health at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP)
Attention on the mental health impacts of the climate crisis has grown rapidly in the past year alone. The World Health Organisation published their policy briefing on climate change and mental health, and the IPCC Sixth Assessment mitigation and adaptation reports included a focus on mental health and wellbeing. At Glasgow’s COP26 in 2021, the Climate Cares team was honoured to lead the first official COP side event that focused on the connections between the climate emergency and mental health and wellbeing as part of the Resilience Hub. A year later in Egypt, mental health and wellbeing featured across several events. At one such event, the World Health Organisation highlighted how they hear calls across nation states for guidance to support their citizens suffering psychologically from climate-related impacts. At the same event, we shared our research, which highlighted the lack of parliamentary discussions on the links between climate change and mental health, and that young people in the UK reported feeling even higher rates of concern or distress about climate change than the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Beyond targeted events, we also heard from colleagues how mental health was raised as an issue in many COP spaces – such as agricultural events, which highlighted how farmers face unrelenting increasing uncertainty over crop yields. A real highlight for us was an event by the UN University, which showcased work on mental health and climate change being done all around the world, ranging from initiatives to improve community mental health in East Africa, to projects developing locally relevant social-ecological resilience indicators. It was also a thrill to watch the launch of the COP2 coalition; a group of 300+ organisations working on a “plan for the people” to advance the social and emotional resilience of communities to cope with and act on climate threats. Researchers and communities are creating, uplifting and strengthening the cultures and practices that can better care for people in partnership with the wider world.
The challenge of (dis)connection
At COP27, we heard countless mentions of the challenges of operating in siloes – across disciplines, sectors and countries; and between bottom-up grass root approaches and top-down policy negotiations – and how, as a result, policymaking is disjointed. In this way, the COP process seems at times disconnected, with little dialogue between the decision makers in the negotiating rooms, and the activists outside – a reality far from the participatory approaches to local climate action that the IPCC mandates as required for success. The huge costs of the climate crisis on mental health and wellbeing, the multiple benefits of climate action, and the common causes and solutions to convergent global crises will not be understood and acted on without such joined-up thinking.
While we were heartened to learn about wonderful work happening around the world, COP27 was also a powerful reminder of how fragmented the climate and mental health space is. Shared learning, collaboration and addressing gaps in this rapidly growing field is hampered by disconnection and lack of accessibility of work happening around the world for others in the field to hear about, learn from, connect with and scale. We also saw a lack of connection between recognising mental health and wellbeing impacts of climate change, and actual support for people working in these spaces. COP can be a challenging and overwhelming time – as we experienced ourselves – yet we saw no mental health and wellbeing support.
Baha’i International Community UN Office’s ‘Values Wall’, where people shared what values guided them in their climate work on sticky notes, was a brilliant example of the desire for spaces to reflect and share values. Some of the top emerging values spoke to just how important we view connection with each other; namely love, empathy, kindness and solidarity. We chose kindness, connection, empathy, justice and hope as our contributions.
Fostering a climate of connection
For us to connect with climate activists, researchers, policymakers, politicians and health leaders all working on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of the climate emergency felt hugely energising. Yet our own feelings about being at COP27 were paradoxical: we felt both heartened by being in spaces of community, inspiration and action; and disheartened by insufficient policy action and disconnected negotiations. We were hopeful yet despairing, energised yet overwhelmed, connected and fragmented.
Climate Cares is committed to fostering a climate of connection: bringing together all the incredible work happening around the world into an accessible, navigable online hub. With this, we aim to foster a community of practice, creating spaces, narratives and interventions that connect people, communities and systems with the resources they need to cope with and act on the climate emergency. This will also connect the evidence base across disciplines, for a systems-level perspective of how climate action is mental health action, at all levels. Keep up to date with our work by following @ClimateCares on Twitter.
We look forward to seeing these connections grow, to translate climate feelings into climate action.
- The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice
- Young Persons’ Psychological Responses, Mental Health and Sense of Agency for the Dual Challenges of Climate Change and a Global Pandemic
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