Mental scars linked to climate disasters surface at Cop28

Campaigners call for mental health funds to support survivors of the crisis

Demonstrators at the Cop28 UN climate summit in Dubai with their message to 'stop ecocide'. AP
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Climate disasters are taking a heavy toll on the mental health of survivors, campaigners calling for better care say.

From floods and fires to rising sea levels and storms, there are increasing concerns about deteriorating mental health as communities around the world face the loss of land, homes, livelihoods and their traditional ways of life.

And campaigners at Cop28 in Dubai drew attention to what they call “climate depression”, saying that taking action is one of the ways to improve mental resilience.

Sophie Osbourne, finance and sponsorship lead at the Nuclear for Climate initiative, said: “Physically, we can protect people if we move them but that doesn't stop the impact of what they could be losing, not just their houses but their ancestral homes, which for some communities is incredibly important.”

Raki AP, a climate justice campaigner from the Indonesian province of West Papua and a Netherlands-based civil servant, agreed but also said protecting the environment and ecosystems is hugely beneficial for mental well-being.

How do we make a way forward for the generations to come?
Casey Camp-Horinek

“For my community in particular, we've seen how those in power have turned a blind eye to our lives and rights for decades,” he said.

“So, for us, unfortunately being resilient and organising ourselves is a common thing.

“Looking at my own experience, I've seen that planting seeds in individuals, giving them tools to act in their own way, that's the medicine. That gives me the energy to continue the next day.

“Over time, you see this growth of support and awareness, of youngsters who find a way to fight back and this is what gives me hope to fight every single day.”


Extreme weather and natural disasters brought by climate change mean “significant upheaval” and trauma to communities, according to the American Psychiatry Association.

And there is a clear relationship between experiencing the effects of climate change – such as rising temperatures or more severe extreme weather – and worsening mental health, according to Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment.

Experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand directly increases the risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and extreme distress, it said.

Damage to infrastructure and supply chains by climate change also risks disrupting the provision of mental healthcare, the briefing paper showed.

Those with existing mental health conditions or living in poorer countries are more likely to be affected by climate change, are less likely to have access to support, and are at higher risk of reduced well-being, it added.

Loss of culture

Indigenous communities at Cop28 have called on world leaders to protect the ancestral land and forests where their families have lived for generations.

Casey Camp-Horinek, environmental ambassador of the Ponca nation of present-day American state of Oklahoma, said the impact of climate change has added to the effects of colonisation, displacement and loss of culture.

Extractive industries and industrial agriculture have “impacted the way in which we lived within the natural laws”, she added.

“When these mega fossil fuel industries were allowed in our backyard, it created a situation where we were not only removed from the land, removed from our abilities to grow our own food and to drink from the springs and to hunt, but also the instability and insecurity of 'what's going to happen next?' … and now we can't even breath the air,” Ms Camp-Horinek said.

“What happens to the generations to come? Our understanding of the natural world has been turned upside down.”

Substance abuse

Ms Camp-Horinek spoke of how the climate change added to a sense of “hopelessness” among members of her community, while instigating a rise in substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

“When climate change began, the tornadoes got larger, the droughts got more extreme and the flooding began to happen. So, as a result, the hopelessness came into our lives,” she said.

“How do we make a way forward for the generations to come? How do we live within the natural structure we always lived in?

“We have a disconnect with our youth: drugs, alcohol, social ills, murdered and missing people, high rates of incarceration.

“Depression and panic attacks are very, very prevalent in our society now,” she said.

Oklahoma has recorded a surge in earthquakes since 2009, which, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), have been induced by oil and gas-related processes.

“When you can't even depend on the Earth to be stable under your feet, what does that create?” Ms Camp-Horinek said.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 9:20 AM