With record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires and floods, 2021 could be the year we finally wake up to climate change. According to the latest assessment from the International Panel on Climate Change, the impacts are now “widespread, rapid and intensifying.” Many impacts are irreversible and changes in the oceans, ice sheets and sea levels will continue for thousands of years.
In August, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported that half of the world’s 2.2 billion children are at “extremely high risk” from the effects of climate change. More than 230 health journals have since published a joint editorial calling for urgent action to combat the “catastrophic health damage” caused by climate change.
Despite these warnings, surprisingly little has been written about the psychological impact of climate change on children.
In new research, we show that climate change is already affecting the healthy psychological development of children around the world. These impacts begin before birth and continue throughout development, and will accelerate as climate change progresses.
Play havoc with development
Although awareness of climate change and mental health is increasing, most attention has focused on the issue of concern about climate change – sometimes referred to as “environmental anxiety” – and the impact of individual acute stressors such as extreme weather events. While these issues are important, mental health (both good and bad) is not the result of isolated events, but the result of complex causal chains that begin before birth and unfold throughout development.
We need a broader conceptual framework to understand the relationship between climate change and mental health. A developmental biology perspective is particularly suitable for this. Developmental perspectives are widely used in psychology, psychiatry, and allied developmental sciences to understand the origins, course, and outcomes of mental health across the lifespan.
The approach is based on the observation that most mental disorders begin early in life, that disorders are the result of genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors – including the interplay between them – and that the timing, severity and duration of early life stressors can have a lifelong impact on mental health and well-being.
Development approaches are well suited to study the effects of complex, interactive and persistent stressors such as those associated with climate change. This can be illustrated with a few concrete examples.
Children’s vulnerability to climate change
Childhood is a time of extremely high developmental vulnerability. Even before birth, acute environmental stress – such as hurricanes, forest fires, floods and heat waves – can traumatize the mother physically and emotionally. These experiences can harm the developing fetus and increase the unborn child’s susceptibility to disease for life.
Subacute stressors such as summer heat waves are associated with an increased risk of obstetric complications and preterm birth, which are known risk factors for several serious psychiatric disorders.
From birth to five years of age, children are highly vulnerable to infectious diseases, environmental toxins, exposure to heat and dehydration. Physical health problems can delay achievement of developmental milestones in areas such as cognition and language, and these interact with and increase mental health vulnerability.
In middle childhood (6 to 12 years), children remain vulnerable to both acute and chronic environmental stressors and become better able to understand climate change and its likely impacts. This increases their ability to feel stress and anxiety about the consequences of living on a warming planet.
Youth on a warming planet
Great physiological, hormonal and social changes characterize puberty and many teenagers feel overwhelmed by the challenges of this time. The peak age for onset of any psychiatric disorder is 14.5 years, and about half of all disorders occur before age 18.
Climate change is fueling this pressure-cooker phase of life by increasing the frequency, intensity, and duration of weather-related stressors such as drought, heat waves, hurricanes, and flooding. Exposure to such events is associated with an increased risk of PTSD, anxiety and depression, which impair long-term mental health resilience.
Heat waves alone can disrupt sleep, learning, performance on cognitive tests, and high school graduation rates. These factors can impede the healthy transition into adulthood and affect long-term social and economic prospects.
In other words, climate change creates new risks for children and adolescents because it can trigger a cascade of abnormal developmental changes that interact in complex ways to undermine healthy psychological maturation throughout life.
The best way to protect children from the effects of climate change is to aggressively curb global warming and accelerate adaptation to the damage already done. This may seem obvious, but the continued failure of national governments to act collectively on climate change has shattered optimism and dashed hope.
Many young people feel helpless and betrayed and are angry with adults for not preventing the climate crisis. They can and should be empowered to participate in adaptation and response planning. Effective education about climate change is of central importance. It can help children cope and lay the foundation for a new generation of engaged citizens and effective leadership.
Around 85 percent of the world’s children live in developing countries, which are the most vulnerable to climate change, although they cause it the least. Swift and effective action to reduce this burden is therefore a matter of great international and intergenerational justice.
No time to waste
Healthy psychological development underpins society’s future social, economic and human capital, but is being undermined by unabated climate change. Damage begins before birth and cascades through development, with each unresolved challenge setting traps for the next.
Acting quickly and effectively to reduce these risks is an urgent practical and moral imperative and a critical investment in the health and well-being of present and future generations of children around the world. There’s no time to lose.
Fast facts on mental health
- Mental disorders affect more than a billion people worldwide each year.
- They are a major contributor to the global burden of disease and rank first in terms of years lived with disability.
- In high-income countries, one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year.
- People exposed to extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires are at increased risk for PTSD, anxiety, depression and suicide.
- 15-60 percent of children and adolescents exposed to such events suffer from PTSD, anxiety and depression.
- Most children with mental health problems, including those living in high-income countries, do not receive treatment.