The unseen toll of a warming world
By Sarah Kerr, Noah Throop, Jack Healy, Aidan Gardiner and Rebecca Lieberman
Experts and psychologists are racing to understand how a volatile, unpredictable planet shapes our minds and mental health. In February, a major new study of climate change highlighted the mental health effects for the first time, saying that anxiety and stress from a changing climate were likely to increase in the coming years.
In addition to those who have lost their homes to floods and megafires, millions have endured record-breaking heat waves. The crisis also hits home in subtle, personal ways — withered gardens, receding lakeshores and quiet walks without the birdsong that once accompanied them.
To understand what the effects of climate change feel like in America today, we listened to hundreds of people. In cities already confronting the long-term effects of climate change, and in drought-scarred ranches and rangeland, many are trying to cope with the strains of an increasingly precarious future. As temperatures rise, extreme weather events will become more and more common.
The feelings are complex.
Some people grieve the loss of serene hiking trails that have been engulfed by wildfire smoke while others no longer find the same joy or release from nature. Some are seeking counseling. Others are harnessing their anxiety for change by protesting or working to slow the damage.
“This is becoming a No. 1 threat to mental health,” said Britt Wray, a Stanford University researcher and author of “Generation Dread,” a forthcoming book about grappling with climate distress. “It can make day-to-day life incredibly hard to go on.”
Psychologists and therapists say the distress of a changing climate can cause fleeting anxiety for some people but trigger much darker thoughts for others. In a 2020 survey, more than half of Americans reported feeling anxious about the climate’s effect on their mental health, and more than two-thirds said they were anxious about how climate change would affect the planet.
Young people say they are especially upset.
A survey of people 16 to 25 in 10 countries published in The Lancet found that three-quarters were frightened of the future. More than half said humanity was doomed. Some feel betrayed by older generations and leaders. They say they feel angry but helpless as they watch people in power fail to act swiftly.
Almost 40% of young people say they are hesitant about having children. If nature feels this unmoored today, some ask, why bring children into an even grimmer future?
Some of the worst physical effects of climate change are disproportionately felt by Black and Latino communities and Indigenous nations — who often live in places with a legacy of mining, energy drilling and other pollution. And while these groups are among the most concerned about the changing climate, community resources to deal with the emotional fallout may be more limited.
Experts are quick to emphasize that people are justified in their emotional response. The threat is real and growing as carbon levels in the atmosphere pass dangerous new thresholds. With rising temperatures, extreme weather events will become more and more common.
“Sometimes I feel hopeless or sad or worried,” said Andrew Bryant, a social worker in Seattle who treats patients with climate anxieties. “That’s part of being a human being at this point if we’re paying attention.”
A new world of drenching hurricanes and deadlier summer heat is also straining professions that once seemed removed from the front lines of climate change. Hospitals and police officers in the Pacific Northwest grappled with 500 heat deaths when temperatures shattered records in the summer. Along the Gulf, emergency workers are facing down larger, more frequent storms that make their jobs even more dangerous.
Millions of Americans now brace for seasons with a sense of heightened worry. Will children be able to play outside without smoky skies? What storms will shroud the Atlantic Coast? Will the house survive another wildfire season?
The challenge going forward, therapists say, is not being overcome by those fears and sorrow.
To cope and find resilience, experts say, people must now figure out ways to forge ahead individually and collectively. Researchers added that humans have one significant built-in advantage: the ability to adapt.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
My community has to fight and be resilient and be strong, and sometimes you just want to be protected. It’s constant environmental fight after environmental fight. And that causes a lot of anxiety. It causes depression.
— Tonyisha Harris, climate activist in Chicago
I know folks who have stopped fishing or stopped hunting because they don’t see a future in it. There’s just a deep and abiding sadness that comes with seeing something like climate change and recognize that we’re responsible for that.
— Todd Tanner, hunts and fishes in western Montana and is the founder of the nonprofit Conservation Hawks
The land that we come from, it stands tall with the trees. And it goes deep down into the depths of all your emotions, all your feelings, just like the depths of the ocean.
As a tribal senator, I am responsible for not just the people of my community, but the land, the water and our nonhuman relatives that live alongside us.
I always hear stories from my great-grandparent’s and great-great-grandparent’s time, when there were so many salmon that they were able to walk across them in the rivers and streams. And now we have nowhere near those numbers. The sea is warming; the river is warming. We’ve had massive heat wave like we’ve never experienced before. That has been devastating for the salmon, clams, crab.
Who we are, our livelihood is at risk. I feel depressed and powerless because I can’t control what’s happening in the ocean or what’s happening beyond. And the people that are in the positions of power do not hold our Indigenous values like we do.
What keeps me moving forward is all that we have to fight for. I truly believe that when it comes to combating climate change, our people will pull together as we always do, as we have always done. That’s what keeps me motivated, is our kin and our relationships with each other, and the future generations.
— Alana Quintasket, Swinomish tribal senator in Washington state
When I am going to work. I am thinking about the worst-case scenario in every scenario. Because if you can imagine it, we respond to it.
It’s just part of life now that you have the hurricanes here. You come from an already stressful job, and then you add 100% more stress to it. That’s the reality of being a first responder in New Orleans.
When Katrina occurred, I had been working for a year. I didn’t know what I was getting into. There was calls that would keep me awake all night long. I’ve since worked through several tornadoes, many flash floods, and then the latest being Hurricane Ida.
In the future, storms will continue to happen. And climate change will have a major impact with New Orleans. But everybody that works at New Orleans EMS knows that this is part of it. And you have these obstacles being thrown at you. Is my house OK? Are my family OK?
I started EMS under the belief that you never showed your emotions, and it was always, “this is what you signed up for.” But during a major storm, I know that this is very important. We lose so many people in our field because we don’t talk about our feelings. Doing this work is very stressful. It is to be expected. It is nobody’s fault. But the burnout is real. It happens to everybody.
— Laura Russell, a paramedic in New Orleans
Farmers, ranchers don’t really talk about their feelings that much, I don’t think, and it’s just the way we were brought up. But I guess climate scares me; it’s very volatile.
— Donald Nelson, farms and raises cattle in North Dakota