Psychology: Environment:


The Psychological Effects

of Climate Change


by Ourania Georgiadou

Decree-The American College of Greece

Athens, Greece


“Access to clean air, water and a liveable climate are inalienable human rights. And solving this crisis is just not a question of politics. It is our moral obligation. We have only one planet and humankind must become accountable on a massive scale for the wanton destruction of our collective home. Protecting our future on this planet depends on the conscious evolution of our species.” (H. Vardhan, Minister for the Environment, Forests and Climate Change of India, Opening Speech, Annual Summit, «Business and Climate Change», New Delhi, 31.8/1.9. 2017.)



In the present, an especially aggravating factor for any human activity is investigated, i.e. the development of psychological problems due to climate change and the associated phenomena, which seem to affect the human behavior substantially to the extent that it may become from dangerous up to, in many cases, disastrous, both for the personal and social stability and for financial activities, since it increases the uncertainty of important factors by enhancing and maximizes the behavior differences of local populations.



The climate change, on a yearly basis, causes already the death of almost 400,000 people and costs the world more than 1,2 billion dollars, eliminating 1,6% of the world GNP, according to recent studies. This is how fast the most important problem of our planet and its inhabitants is now developing. It is drawing great attention by the general public, politics and economy, and in particular of companies active in international business, while it creates great anxiety about potential adverse consequences.


In biological and geophysical terms, climate change is the variations in time of mean values and variability of the temperature of earth surface, precipitations and winds, as well as changes of earth atmosphere, the oceans, water reservoirs, ecosystems and living organisms. The present climate change, in comparison with similar phenomena appeared in the course of history, has a unique characteristic, according to the great majority of specialists (not all): It is due to human activities, and is termed as Anthropogenic[1] Climate Change.


Due to temperature rise, the climate change causes the physical and biological systems to change, with many species to go extinct, and is expected to create further adverse social effects burdening human health. Furthermore, due to the financial cost and the associated hazards, it creates severe impacts on financial development, and drastic measures must be taken right away, especially for the reduction of harmful gas emissions [1]. This affects, for example, multinational business active in wide geographical regions and several countries. The climate change is not just an environmental problem: It is closely connected with the dependence on fossil fuels, especially oil, and in general with energy adequacy and management. The climate change, on some occasions, leads to a wider agenda, with policy makers to invoke energy, in order to avoid conflicts, and also with companies, since, when addressing to the climate change, in practice they usually end up with specific regulations of business models.


However, irrespective of specific motives and focusing, whether it concerns climate or energy, the strategic consequences of climate change are characterized by great uncertainty, for example, in relation to time and intensity of natural events, as well as optimum ways of management.


Anthropogenic factors affect the climate change globally, such as the emission of hothouse gases creating overheating, and they are classified in sequence of importance as follows: Electric power generation, change of ground utilization (especially deforestation), agriculture and transport.


Uncertainties regarding nature and the level of long-term effects exhibit huge error margins. However, it is obvious that, if they are not treated very cautiously, they may entail disastrous results, while the various hazards are often proved worse than initially estimated. Some impacts may be irreversible, such as melting of permanently frozen ground (permafrost), which may free huge amounts of methane in the atmosphere most unpredictably.


The problem remains global in its essence: Hot house gases have the same adverse effect on the climate no matter where in the world are emitted. Therefore, efficient management requires international cooperation. No part of the world remains unaffected. However, the consequences vary substantially around the world with poor countries suffering more.




The psychological effects of climate change as factors of uncertainty and instability of economy and the social order, are by no means negligible. Psycho-social and mental health problems are summarized as follows:


(1) Personal experience of extreme weather phenomena: It often leads to mental and psychological complications, entailing cumulative impacts especially in view of repeated exposure to natural disasters [2]. Such outcomes include acute and post-traumatic stress anomalies. Furthermore, additional problems related to stress, such as complex situations of sadness, depression, anxiety and psychosomatic anomalies appear, including alcohol and drug overconsumption as well as increased suicide attempts, abuse of minors and increased susceptibility of persons with burdened histories of mental illness.

(2) Stress and emotional effects caused both by natural and technological (anthropogenic) disasters: Usually, they consist of discreet phases characterized by symptoms changing with time and include feelings of mistrust, shock, denial or anger, appearing immediately after the event, and also feelings of altruism and compassion, related to rescuing people and property. Psychological support and inspiration of optimism for the future may prevent disappointment, pessimistic thoughts and images and anger as long-term complications as soon as they appear. This disappointment phase, which may last from some months to several years, is most probably connected with autogenous excitation of stress as well as with physical and psychological symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, post-traumatic stress complications and heart symptoms.


Impacts related to stress are connected with real or hypothetical threats and may last for long. In situ studies of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island [3], conducted 18 months later, confirmed that people living close to the spot, exhibited higher norepinephrine levels, as well as disturbances with impaired cognitive ability (measured for example by proofreading) as compared with persons living in the area of other nuclear power plants, thermal coal power plants or in places with no power plants at all [4]. Indirect impacts due to interrupting support by the community or the society may last from a few years to a few decades.


Specialists of mental health confirm that, after extreme weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, support concerning basic needs and psychological first aid are indispensable. In fact, such action is focused more on personal needs and operational restoration than on psychopathology. It must be noted that the adverse effect of such events is disproportionately more intense with the poorer social layers.


(3) Distinction between normal (justifiable) and pathological anxiety as regards climate change in the area of environmental medicine [5]: The so-called “environmental anxiety” is characterized by a persistent and often catastrophic anxiety about issues practically insignificant, as compared with well-founded problems, for example traffic accidents and smoking. It was proposed that competent authorities would inform the public of the relative importance of such hazards in comparison with other priorities in health area. With increasing indications of the potential effects of climate change on human health and their diffused nature, especially on the emotional and mental health, a reasonable level of anxiety mains doubtful.

In clinical terms, anxiety is a future orientated situation, associated with a feeling of events unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is associated with both normal overexcitement and some cognitive responses, including alertness against threats and hazards and high levels of fear and/or panic [6]. Mass media keep reporting on “eco-anxiety” related to climate change, with such symptoms as panic crises, loss of appetite, irritability, weakness and insomnia, similar to those appearing with people living close to places of toxic waste disposal.


(4) Insecurity and despair: Discussions on the consequence of climate change cause serious anxiety about the long-term survival of human life and the environment on earth [7].


(5) Numbness and apathy: The environmental problems are since long connected to indifference or apathy [8, 9]. Indifference is distinguished from apathy as a secondary reaction following the realization of the importance of the threats of climate change and the inability to influence its effects, while apathy seems to be a primary emotional response, preventing people to get informed of relevant threats and exhibit a more responsible reaction. According to other researchers, the phenomenal apathy of the public is essentially a paralysis before the acuteness of the problem.


(6) Guilt feelings related to environmental conditions: Guilt feelings are emotional response of persons believing that they have not responded adequately in relation to their own moral criteria, while such persons acquire motives to correct their behavior or to assume moral responsibilities. However, this factor is not important with people choosing to ignore unpleasant news [10].


(7) Effects on the community and the society:

·        The so-called “global overheating” and the associated rise of environmental temperature was proved to cause increased social violence [11]. In fact, it was confirmed that assaults and murders in the USA keep increasing in direct proportion to the rise of temperature.

·        The relations between social groups are directly affected by the climate change, especially in view of the increasing conflicts due to the scarcity of natural resources or, because large land areas go inhabitable, and refugees are moving into other peoples’ areas [12], which is expected to increase dramatically within the next decades.

·        Dislocation and relocation: Dislocation of a person’s home undermines mental health [13, 14] entailing disruption of emotional bonds and social networks, may cause depression, anxiety and a sense of loss especially with individuals having strong bonds to their place of living.

·        Reactions towards socio-economic inequalities: Although rich countries, mainly western countries, contribute the most to the crisis, socio-economic inequalities affect poor countries more or the poor classes of rich countries (among which ethnic minorities), and this is where the greatest frictions between social groups appear, here, differences between possessing and non-possessing ones grow higher [15].

·        Implications in social justice: The atmosphere is common for all, therefore, problems of just treatment are generated when some areas are affected by the climate change disproportionally with others. Also, groups with reduced ability to adapt are more vulnerable [16]. Finally, certain countries must not take immediate measures, while others, being in direct danger, as for example with a rising sea level, obviously they have a different approach to the problem. 


Review and Conclusions

Climate change already develops into the most serious problem of our planet, influencing every aspect of human activities, from politics and economy to the well-being of humanity and eventually the existence of life on earth. The strategic consequences of climate change are characterized by great uncertainty. The psychological effects, as factors of uncertainty and instability, are very important. In fact, the following serious effects appear:


Acute and post-traumatic stressful anomalies, complex situations of sadness, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic anomalies, alcohol and drug overconsumption, increased suicide attempts and tendency of abusing minors, as well as increased susceptibility of persons with burdened health histories.


Finally, the psychological effects on individuals may develop into community, society or even international problems with most unpleasant consequences.



The author wishes to thank Professor S.A. Paipetis for his constant support and encouragement during the preparation of the present work.



1.                  Nicholas Stern, Economics of Climate Change, American Economic Review, 2008.

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3.                  The accident at the nuclear station of Three Mile Island, in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, US, the development of nuclear technology in the US was suspended for at least 30years, during which time no new nuclear plants were installed but only projects under construction were completed. As a result, the US lost their leading role in the area.

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12.              Reuveny, W. R. Thompson, Uneven Economic Growth and the World Economy’s North–South Stratification, (2008), International Studies Quarterly, 52, 3, 579–605.

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[1] Human-made.