Climate Action

Why mental health and human resilience are key to climate action

climate change action crisis mental health human resilience

The climate crisis will undoubtedly affect our mental health. Image: Unsplash/Ümit Bulut

Jules Chappell
Chief Executive Officer, Kokoro Change
Elisha London
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Prospira Global
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  • The climate crisis negatively impacts mental health, which in turn reduces our ability to deliver the changes needed for a sustainable planet.
  • At COP27, the issue of human resilience will be integrated into the United Nation’s Race to Resilience initiative.
  • The COP2 (Care of People and Planet) group of climate and mental health organizations is collaborating to recommend mental health action for nations as part of their climate response.

The United Nations’ Paris Agreement to keep global warming to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels – and its ensuing legal, financial and implementation frameworks – means that we collectively know what is needed and by when to create a sustainable planet.

What we don’t yet have is a global plan for the resilience of people, including those nearly 4 billion people living in communities most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis.

This is a critical gap. Not only because of the growing evidence of the impact that climate change has on our mental health but also because of the impact that poor mental health has on our collective capacity to adapt, to transform and to drive the changes on which a sustainable planet now depends.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in its sixth report that “healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change”. This is true not only of natural ecosystems but of human and societal ecosystems too.

Failing to invest in the community and national systems that strengthen mental health and emotional resilience risks creating a vicious cycle whereby people are less able to cope with and adapt to the impacts of climate change and thereby become increasingly vulnerable and less resilient when faced with further negative impacts.

In its most recent Human Development Report, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) details this paradigm shift, explaining that “mental wellbeing is under assault” to the degree that threatens the prospects for peaceful, cohesive societies and human development capable of navigating the uncertainty and challenges of the Anthropocene.

The growing burden of poor mental health

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as our capacity to cope with the stresses of life, to realize our abilities, to learn well and work well, and to contribute to our communities.

Mental health has intrinsic and instrumental value, helping us to connect, function, cope and thrive
How mental health has intrinsic and instrumental value, helping us to connect, function, cope and thrive. Image: World Health Organization

Despite the importance of mental health for our overall wellbeing, our productivity and our ability to navigate a fast-changing and complex world, there continues to be a serious gap between mental health needs and the provision of support.

The WHO, in its 2022 World mental health report, concludes “most societies and most health and social systems neglect mental health and do not provide the care and support people need…”.

The WHO also highlighted that nearly one billion people around the world suffer from a mental health disorder, of whom 80% live in lower and middle-income countries where more than 75% will go without any treatment at all.

This is particularly chronic for children and adolescents where a specialized workforce is ‘nearly non-existent’, despite the fact that 50% of all mental health disorders start by the age of 14. The WHO expects that in the next decade, depression will put more burden on nations than any other disease.

Connecting climate and mental health

To exacerbate what is already a global mental health crisis, in February 2022, the IPCC reported with “very high confidence” that climate change impacts are expected to “further threaten mental health”, citing “exposure to high temperatures, extreme weather events, displacement, malnutrition, conflict, climate-related economic and social losses, and anxiety and distress associated with worry about climate change”.

The IPCC notes that children and adolescents, particularly girls, older adults, and people with existing mental, physical and medical challenges, are most at risk.

The IPCC’s conclusions reflect a growing body of research on the impacts of the climate crisis on mental health, as well as growing investment into the science behind the interventions that are proving to be most effective at creating benefits for both people and the planet.

Wellcome will lead a major effort in 2023 to understand and help to consolidate this global research. In doing so, they will identify opportunities for the translation of research on climate change and mental health into policy and action, underpinning advocacy with data and science.

physical mental health threats climate change impacts human resilience
The physical and mental health threats resulting from current and anticipated climate change impacts. Image: Imperial College London

Need to consider human side of climate change

Around the world, experts and activists alike are increasingly recognizing the importance of considering the human side of climate change. In response to this growing momentum, an initiative has been launched to help to convene and coordinate action.

COP2 (Care of People and Planet) is a global network of 250-plus organizations, including climate and mental health experts and systems innovators, youth networks, sustainability and wellbeing practitioners, community leaders and researchers.

This network is working together to integrate mental health into existing climate initiatives and commitments, and at COP27 will join forces with the Race to Resilience, an effort led by the UNFCCC High Level Champions Office to support the adaptation efforts of the billions of people living in communities most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis.

The WHO, which has joined the COP2 initiative as an observer, recently highlighted a number of actions that countries can already take to build resilience and respond to the negative impacts of the climate crisis on mental health.

Nurture people to nurture the planet

Sustaining a strong social fabric for people is right at the heart of how we will individually and collectively navigate the coming years of climate-driven disruption and trauma.

The climate crisis will undoubtedly affect our mental health. But what is still in our hands is how well we equip ourselves to cope and fight back.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

The systems that we put in place now to protect and strengthen our mental health will deeply influence our future, and our collective capacity to sustain life. People and planet are indivisible. It’s time to address the issues impacting both, together.

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