Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

COP27 + cop2

When I was in Egypt last month, I saw signs everywhere for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (a.k.a. COP27) that was to take place in Sharm El Sheikh. Over the past two weeks, heads of state, government officials, and members of civil society convened there to take action toward achieving the world’s collective climate goals as agreed under the Paris Agreement and the Convention.

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Climate change has a profound impact on the health, including mental health, of communities around the globe. And mental health, particularly our emotional resilience, has a profound effect on how well we can respond to environmental changes individually and collectively.

1. COP27. The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (a.k.a. COP27 or the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC) ends today. The conference aimed to build on the outcomes and momentum of last year’s COP26 in Glasgow. National leaders, business executives, and civil society members addressed the multifaceted impacts of climate change – from rising seas to displaced communities to deteriorating health. The program was filled with aspirations, commitments, and promises. The Marrakesh Partnership for Global Climate Action Report, the Columbia University Climate School’s coverage, and many other sources from around the globe provide a mix of sobering news and guarded optimism. 

2. Climate Impacts on Mental Health. Everyone knows about the negative impacts of climate change on the planet. The climate crisis negatively impacts mental health in a multitude of ways as well – some directly, some indirectly. The American Psychiatric Association reports that stress and mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, are correlated with increasing temperatures. Trauma from weather and climate extreme events has grown. High-risk coping behavior such as increased alcohol use has been associated with climate-related weather events. Increased water insecurity, flooding, drought, and storm frequency and strength due to climate change have societal and economic impacts by affecting supply chains, markets, and natural resource flows. This leads to disruptions to communities that result in loss of social support, resources, and livelihoods, all of which contribute to a domino effect on mental health.

3. COP2 (“cop-squared”). The ambition of COP2, which stands for Care of People and Planet, is to integrate into climate initiatives and commitments awareness of individual and collective mental health as both a serious vulnerability and a critical capability in the fight against climate change. Chair and Director of COP2. Columbia professor and colleague, Dr. Gary Belkin, said at the launch: “We are seeing growing attention, innovation and urgency to put social and emotional resilience and agency into the mainstream of climate policy and action. COP2 came together to converge this into a global agenda. Today, at COP27, that agenda has been super-sized. Like everything else with climate change, we are playing urgent catch-up. It is indeed a race, and one we must win.”

4. Double-edge Sword of Urgency. Setting targets, countdowns, and deadlines. Shining light on disasters. Detailing the risks of inaction. All these tactics have been part of the strategy to raise awareness about what is happening to our planet’s health. We know that we need to get knowledge out there and reach people emotionally to catalyze action. We also know that too much information can lead to cognitive overload, especially when messaging is complex and/or inconsistent (which is the case for climate). The same thing can happen with our emotions. Fear-based motivational efforts can lead to emotional overload and paralyzing anxiety. Under such conditions, the amygdala signals the hypothalamus to secrete stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, which can activate the freeze response – exactly the opposite outcome of what is intended. Advancing a climate agenda that achieves health for people and the planet requires finding that space where urgency is mobilizing, not paralyzing. 

5. Where are the women? Women made up less than 34 percent of negotiating teams at COP27. At the leadership level, they are even rarer. This photo of 110 world leaders was taken last week in Sharm el-Sheikh. If you look carefully, you can find seven women on stage. Only seven, even though women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change. According to UN Women, the climate crisis is a “threat multiplier,” increasing social, political, and economic tensions in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Existing gender inequalities increase in ways that make life all the more difficult and precarious for women and girls. Amplifying the voice of women in the movement for solutions, and ensuring that women more fully join the leadership for the health of people and our planet, is essential.

COP27 + COP2 are global movements committed to the health of people and the planet. The impact of climate change on mental health is real. The impact of mental health and emotional resilience of individuals and communities on climate change is also real. The health of people and planet are inextricably linked. I am reminded that another name for our planet is Mother Earth. People and planet as one.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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