Ecological Grief: The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health

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Written by: Brahminy Tumminello

As the current path of climate change is determined to become the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history[1], continuous pre-determined environmental changes will have deep impacts on mental health and well-being, of mourning the loss of the natural environment.

Systems that uphold Earth’s climate, biology, ecology and geochemistry[2] are being severely challenged by human-induced mass concentration of greenhouse gasses within our atmosphere[3].

Where the rise of the Industrial Revolution brought a sudden mass use of coal and gas to fuel the global economy, it also brought unseen effects of global average temperature increase. While temperature escalation slowly rises over time, the increase we see on a short term basis in habited areas of the planet: increased heat waves during summer months, a long-term “lag” of temperature increase exists below the surface of our oceans, in deep water currents. Here, warming in oceanic systems – the oceanic thermal inertia, where thermal mass of ocean water has not yet absorbed the full potential of temperature increase[4]. Therefore, environmental responses to global warming will continue to be in effect for years after emissions begin to significantly reduce.

What does this mean for the future of the human race?

Physical responses to climate change can be seen through the rise of active progress in sustainability initiatives and advocacy groups yet, individual psychological response to climate change will have devastating long-term effects on mental health and well-being.

While ecosystem collapse devastates our physical world, ecological grief and the mourning of nature identifies an individualistic emotional response to loss². Personal bonds with the natural environment impart significant meaning to individual identity⁴, creating everlasting symbolic interactions.  Self-recognition of connection with the natural world in an individuals immediate environment allows the growth of psychological interactions, where to people create their lives and derive meaning² in and around the environment.

It is within human nature to respond to loss by grieving. Emotional grief connects human values, identity and meaning with their physical self. A new discipline within social and psychological sciences look towards the psychology of “loss” to understand relations of ‘human being’ in the natural environment².

Ecological grief is the individual attachment of place on the land within culture and society[5]. As society flourishes it requires the mass production of economic resources such as food, water, and livable areas, in order to hold spaces where populations can emerge4. Society can form and develop areas of shared cultural meaning⁴ either built upon the land, or pre-existing elements within the environment. As populations settle, recognition of elements in the physical environment allows individuals to hold emotional attachment to parts of the land. Here, value is placed upon physical aspects of the natural environment⁴.  

Ecological grief can be shared between groups of people but, is also an individualistic experience.4 Attachment to a physical place in the environment brings forth a form of identity, where people develop emotional bonds with parts of their familiar physical environment⁴. Recognition and expression of “belonging” to place, space or object in the natural world, shows vast emotional attachment the natural environment has on creating individual identity².

As the flow on effects of global warming slowly but dramatically rise, human psychological response to climate change will manifest within people and populations as ‘mourning loss’ and ‘ecological grief’ which could lead to deeper, negative states of mental health. Emotional attachment to parts of the environment and biotic life within ecosystems will have severe repercussions on human mental health and well-being in any society across the globe.


[1] Stewart, Alan E. 2018. “Hope at the heart of Ecological grief and loss.” Review of Mourning Nature, by Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman. Ethics and the Environment 23, no.1 (spring 2018): 79-86.

[2] Marshall, Nadine, William Neil Adger, Claudia Benham, Katrina Brown,  Matthew I. Curnock, Georgina G. Gurney, Paul Marshall, Petina L. Pert, and Lauric Thiault. 2019. “Reef Grief: investigating the relationship between place meanings and place change on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.” Sustainability Science 14, no.1 (February 2019): 579-587.

[3] Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner,  Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein. 2009. “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions.” PNAS 106, no.6 (February, 2009): 1704-1709.

[4] Wigley, T. M. L. 2005. “The Climate Change Commitment.” Science 307, no. 5716 (March 2005): 1766-1769.

[5] Dandy, Justine,  Pierre Horwitz,  Robert Campbell, Deirdre Drake, and Zoe Leviston. 2019. “Leaving home: place attachment and decisions to move in the face of environmental change.” Regional Environmental Change 19, (January 2019): 615-620.