Mental health and psychosocial impacts of climate change for rural Australians

Climate change is arguably the biggest global health threat of the 21st century (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2016). The safe limit for temperature increase is 1.5oC, but if we continue with business-as-usual, global temperature will rise between 3.7o and 4.8oC, with catastrophic consequences (IPCC, 2014). Already we see climate disruption around the globe which will certainly increase: unprecedented heatwaves, severe drought, bushfires, flooding of cities and land, major storms.

Climate change increases the severity or frequency of health problems already affected by weather factors, as well as creating unprecedented health problems in new places. Groups especially at risk include communities that rely on the natural environment for sustenance and livelihood, and populations living in areas most susceptible to extreme weather (Dodgen et al., 2016), like rural and regional communities in Australia.

Every impact of climate change, be it extreme weather devastating human settlements, changed rainfall and temperature reducing food security and land habitation, or ill health from shifting disease vectors, has flow-on effects on people’s psychological, social, and emotional wellbeing. Climate change is as much a psychological and social problem as an environmental catastrophe.

Climate change impacts on people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing in many ways. Many people are already experiencing emotions like anxiety, fear, despair and anger, and these feelings will intensify and spread as global average temperatures continue to rise and disrupt climate.  There is a significant risk of mental health problems like depression and PTSD following extreme weather events that are more frequent and intense with climate change.

Then there are the psychological impacts caused by climate change’s more gradual impacts, like sea level rise, changed  agricultural conditions, associated increases in food insecurity, changes in land use/habitation, associated increases in displaced people, ecosystem disruptions, greater wear and tear on infrastructure, associated increases in disruptions to transport, energy supply, and increases in cost of living. These all have flow-on effects on relationships, stress levels, substance use, family breakdown, reduced social participation etc (Clayton et al., 2014).

Understanding the psychological impacts of climate change is a crucial step in coming to terms with and then psychologically adapting to a climate-changed world and reality.

Dr Susie Burke PhD
Senior Psychologist, Public Interest, Environment and Disaster Response
Australian Psychological Society

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