Psychologists from 40 countries pledged to use their jobs to address climate change

A man wades in the flooded crypt of St Mark’s Basilica during a period of exceptionally high water levels in Venice, Italy November 13, 2019.
A man wades in the flooded crypt of St Mark’s Basilica during a period of exceptionally high water levels in Venice, Italy November 13, 2019.
Image: REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The leaders of psychological associations from more than 40 countries signed a proclamation this week at a conference on psychology and global health in Lisbon, pledging to use their expertise as psychologists to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Already, psychologists have recognized that climate change is a threat to psychological health. But with this move, psychological associations from around the world are signaling a desire to actually address the problem. 

The proclamation, as well as a draft resolution set to be finalized this week, expresses a commitment to “inform our respective members and the public about climate crisis,” to advocate for programs to minimize the psychological harm of climate change, advocate for “those most susceptible” to “mental health impacts of climate crisis,” and encourage policymakers to “use more psychological science” in addressing climate change.

The American Psychological Association, one of the groups whose leaders signed the document, made history in 2017 by throwing its weight behind a body of research that pointed to “eco anxiety” as a legitimate affliction. That year, the APA published a 69-page report that urged broad recognition of the connection between mental health and climate change: The changing environment is a legitimate source of distress already affecting many people, the report emphasized, and it has the potential to be psychologically destabilizing.

“To compound the issue, the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are growing,” the APA wrote at the time. “These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency.”

Now, psychologists need strategies to deal with the ways climate change may be harming the mental health of their patients. Arthur Evans, the APA’s CEO, spoke to Quartz from the gathering of psychological associations in Lisbon, and said the urgency around the topic at the conference is palpable. “We have people here from the Bahamas and New Zealand and they’re talking about the disasters in their countries and the psychological impact of those.”

“And then there’s the impending impact,” Evans says. People living on islands or in low-lying areas are bracing themselves for a future where their home environments may be destroyed. “We know that that is creating anxieties in populations.”

But, Evans says, treating individuals is hardly the only way psychologists should interact with the crisis of climate change. Psychology is a broad discipline, and includes cognitive psychologists, who work to understand how people think, and behavioral psychologists, who study how to create behavioral change. Psychologists could play a role in crafting public awareness campaigns that truly speak to people and are less likely to be ignored, for example.

“Climate change has occurred because of human behavior. Psychologists are experts in human behavior. One of the things we’re assuming is that psychology needs to be part of those strategies if you’re going to be successful,” Evans says. If recent history is any guide, merely relaying the scientific facts of climate change “will not be adequate” to prompt people to change their behaviors.

“I think psychologists somewhat compartmentalize this issue. Most psychologists understand the importance of climate change, but see it more from a political standpoint,” Evans says. But that is changing. “I think increasingly psychologists are connecting [climate change] to the work that they do and the expertise they have, and how that could be helpful.”

The document is the result of several years of relationship-building with international psychology groups, Evans says. “We started to talk about how we could raise the role psychologists could play on major issues, and climate change rose to the top. We couldn’t think of a more important issue,” Evans says. The declaration itself is short and unspecific, but the signatories are expected to finalize the language of a longer resolution at the Lisbon conference tomorrow, November 16. You can read the draft resolution below: 

“WHEREAS there is overwhelming agreement among climate scientists that climate crisis poses a serious global threat, is occurring faster than previously anticipated, and is caused in part by human behavior;

WHEREAS the resistance of some individuals worldwide to accept evidence of climate crisis reflects a variety of psychological, social, economic, and political factors, including misunderstanding the relevant science; psychological threats of departing from the consensus view of one’s peer-group; deliberate exposure to misinformation; and concerns about financial losses stemming from addressing climate crisis;

WHEREAS current research and public communication on the impact of climate crisis have often emphasized the major physical damage caused by extreme weather, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires, and insufficiently addressed the increased displacement, migration, and conflict affecting those populations involved;

WHEREAS climate crisis has a disproportionate impact on already vulnerable groups with fewer resources, including low-income individuals or those who live in rural areas, people of color, women, children, older adults, and individuals with disabilities;

WHEREAS research shows that climate change-related events can result in major acute and chronic adverse mental health outcomes, including stress, trauma, and shock; post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of anxiety; depression; and substance use disorder, which have been a secondary consideration in climate change communication and action;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that our psychology organizations will advocate for and support international and cross-disciplinary collaboration to mitigate and facilitate adaptation to climate crisis. 

We will inform our respective members and the public about climate crisis, emphasizing scientific research and consensus on its causes and short- and long-term harms, and the need for immediate personal and societal action; 

We will encourage our members and other mental health leaders to be vocal advocates concerning the necessary preparatory and responsive adaptations to climate crisis and to invest more in research and practice is this area;

We will advocate for Universities and other entities could include [in]formation [sic] on societal challenges and, particularly, climate crisis for psychologists and other mental health professionals;

We will increase the availability of services and supportive interventions to help minimize harm to mental health and well-being, especially among vulnerable populations, and increase community resilience;

We will advocate for the rights of those most susceptible to the negative health, and mainly, mental health impacts of climate crisis, for example, by encouraging policymakers to fully fund programs to aid those who suffer harm from severe climate crisis-related events;

We will support the development of a public awareness campaign to encourage individuals and communities to adopt behaviors to help prepare for and recover from gradual climate change and acute climate crisis events;

​We will encourage governmental, educational, health, and corporate leaders to use more psychological science in police [sic] designs as well as to adopt norms, values, and policy to promote sustainable preventive and corrective behaviors in individuals, groups and communities.”