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2018 APS Congress

The 2018 APS Congress will be held in Sydney from Thursday 27 to Sunday 30 September 2018


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Climate change and health

Climate change is recognised as the greatest health threat of the 21st century and has significant impacts on physical and mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

There are likely to be some (modest) positive health consequences from climate change (for example, reduced extreme cold weather events in some locations); however, climate change is already and will predominantly have mostly negative, and in some circumstances devastating, impacts on human physical health and mental health, particularly on those with low adaptive capacity. Thus, climate change is as much a psychological and social problem, as it is an environmental or ecological catastrophe.

Key points

  • Psychological impacts of climate change range from mild stress responses to chronic stress and significant mental health problems. The composite term ‘mental health and psychosocial wellbeing’ is often used to capture the full spectrum of psychological impacts.
  • Mental health refers to diagnosable mental health conditions. There is a significant risk of mental health problems following extreme weather event disasters, for example. The most common are PTSD, depression, complicated grief, followed by substance use, and other anxiety disorders. Approximately 30% of people affected are at risk.
  • Psychosocial wellbeing refers to non-clinical indicators of wellbeing that are affected by direct, indirect or vicarious effects of climate change. These include: levels of stress, heightened distress, substance use, family breakdown, grief, loss of autonomy, loss of identity, grief at loss of familiar places (solastalgia), social isolation, negative self-perception, strain on relationships, increased rates of suicide, reduced participation in ‘optional’ activities such as social events, increased workloads, separation of families to access employment opportunities etc.
  • Many people may also feel seriously concerned, frightened, angry, pessimistic, or guilty in response to climate change. Qualitative research finds evidence of some people being deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change. New terms such as ‘eco-anxiety’, ‘climate change anxiety’, are sometimes used to describe this.
  • Community health includes impacts that have a particularly strong effect on community fabric and interpersonal relationships. These types of impacts are understudied, but may include things like a diminishment in community cohesion, likelihood of criminal behaviour, violence and aggression, the loss of community identity, threats to a sense of continuity and sense of belonging.
  • Understanding the psychological impacts of climate change is important so that we can help people come to terms with and psychologically adapt to a climate-changed world and reality.


Australian Academy of Science (2015). Climate change challenges to health: Risks and opportunities. Recommendations from the 2014 Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank. Published by AAS. www.science.org.au/theo-murphy-high-flyers-think-tanks

Children and Climate Change. 2016. Published in The Future of Children, Princeton University.

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.

Costello, A., Abbas, M., Allen, A., Ball, S., Bell, S., Bellamy, R…..Patterson, C. (2009). Managing the health effects of climate change: Lancet and University College London Institute for Global Health Commission. Lancet, 373, 1693–1733. Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/climate-change

Dodgen, D., Donato, D., Dutta, T., Kelly, N., La Greca, A., Morganstein, J., Reser, J.P., Ruzek, J., Schweitzer, S. & Shimamoto, M. (2016) Mental health and well-being. In U.S. National Climate Assessment/U.S. Global Change Research Program (USCGRP) Climate and Health Assessment: Interagency special report on the impacts of climate change on human health in the United States. (pp 217-246). Washington, DC: U.S. National Climate Assessment/U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Doherty, T. (2014) Mental health impacts. In J. Patz & B.S. Levy (Eds) Climate change and public health. New York: Oxford University Press.

Doherty, T.J. & Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 265-276. Abstract available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21553952

EcoAmerica. (2016). Let’s talk health and climate: Communication guidance for health professionals. Washington, D.C: Climate for Health.

LANCET (2015). Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change.

LANCET (2016). The Lancet Countdown: tracking progress on health and climate change

USGCRP (2016). The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins, A., J. Balbus, J.L. Gamble, C.B. Beard, J.E. Bell, D. Dodgen, R.J. Eisen, N. Fann, M.D. Hawkins, S.C. Herring, L. Jantarasami, D.M. Mills, S. Saha, M.C. Sarofim, J. Trtanj, and L. Ziska, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 312 pp. dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0R49NQX.