Coping with climate change

Looking at the psychological effects of a changing climate

Chico State faculty member Marianne Paiva, who teaches a class called Sociology of Stress, believes that the North State is particularly susceptible to acute effects of climate change.

Chico State faculty member Marianne Paiva, who teaches a class called Sociology of Stress, believes that the North State is particularly susceptible to acute effects of climate change.

photo by christine G.K. lapado-breglia

Psychology of climate change: Go to to learn more about the Climate Psychology Alliance.

With drought and wildfire risks high in the North State, and extreme weather events striking all over the country, discussion of climate change has centered on physical effects.

But what about mental effects? What about impacts of environmental shifts on the psyche?

That’s the focus of a growing field known as climate-change psychology. Researchers and therapists have begun delving into human cognition to determine how people react to global conditions, and what those reactions mean moving forward.

“Most centrally, there’s the issue of anxiety,” said Dr. Renee Lertzman, a psychologist and adjunct faculty member at University of San Francisco. She is also part of an international organization, the Climate Psychology Alliance, devoted to “understanding human responses to climate change.”

She continued: “People are becoming increasingly anxious, and therefore either activated, or paralyzed and despairing—and there’s a whole spectrum in between. What happens when people are anxious, typically and historically, is they don’t necessarily behave at their best.

“I honestly feel the confrontation with the reality of what climate change implicates is so profound that most of us aren’t well-equipped to deal with it, and in the environmental sector, there isn’t really adequate acknowledgement of how profound it is on an existential level.”

Ripple effects could be tsunami-sized. Consider this report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Climate Education Program, whose title alone is telling: “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States—And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is not Adequately Prepared.” Among the assessments:

• “[Climate change’s] specific effect on U.S. mental health, societal well-being and productivity will increase current U.S. expenditures on mental-health services, adding to our current $300 billion annual burden.”

• “The estimated 60 million Americans who currently suffer from psychological disorders … will have a harder time finding publicly funded mental-health treatment programs as these budgets shrink in favor of more basic emergency-response services and community repairs.”

• “[F]irst responders will need additional education and training to handle the immediate psychological trauma and symptoms of climate-disaster victims.”

• “[G]lobal climate change will have destabilizing effects on economically, politically and environmentally fragile nations. … Many of these crisis zones will draw in American fighting forces. … Wars have profound psychological effects on service members, their families and friends.”

Those are just some of the implications. As Lertzman explained, “We’re talking about destabilization of a lot of things we take for granted.”

Locally, psychological impacts already register. Chico therapist Silona Reyman has observed distinct reactions, which seem to vary by individual, based on how close to home climate change hits.

“What I find here is if there’s a direct and clear consequence to their livelihood, people are more concerned,” she said. “Other than that—and I think this is the indirect effect—people will comment on feeling out of their natural rhythm when we have weeks and weeks and weeks of sun when it’s supposed to be raining a little. It’s kind of disconcerting; it’s not the primary issue [for my clients], but it comes up.”

Reyman also sees a link between high temperature and altered moods. The NWF report cites research correlating heat waves with upswings in violence, and “just anecdotally,” Reyman said, “people will talk about feeling just agitated or unusually edgy when it’s hot, when it’s oppressive.”

Marianne Paiva, an instructor in Chico State’s Sociology Department, says the North State is particularly susceptible to specific, acute effects of climate change—namely the implications of water scarcity and fires. She cites as an example how area farmers have invested in drilling deeper wells for fear of losing their farms and orchards to drought.

“When you’re in a place like the North State, those fears are realized much more easily and much more directly than if you live in a very urban area,” she said. “Because we have a much more visceral relationship with the environment, we’re going to see those effects more dramatically, and they’re going to affect how we live every single day.”

Cataclysms also seem more immediate. Rather than just an occasional earthquake or tornado, the North State has seen frequent wildfires, and Paiva also recalls the Glenn County flood of 1997 that strained the local levees. She was a paramedic at the time, on duty for 72 hours straight, going door to door in Hamilton City to make sure homeowners evacuated properties at risk.

“There’s only so much emergency medical [and] so much emergency fire response available,” she said. “So, from that aspect, we’re going to see a lot more strain on those resources, because they are going to be the first line of defense when the natural disaster turns into a human disaster, and those people are going to be overwhelmed. … The services from those institutions are going to be strained, and the people within those institutions are going to be strained.”

Clearly, climate change presents an array of challenges.

“The lesson in this,” Paiva said, “is that mental-health professionals need to encourage community building and strong social ties. We need to be anticipating the scope of both the drought and possible wildfires that could wipe out towns or large neighborhoods in the area. … The effects of these things aren’t necessarily things that mental-health professionals would prepare their clients for; mental-health professionals would deal with the aftermath of individual psychological and community trauma.”

Climate-change psychology may well provide such strategies.