Environmental conditions help regulate our bodies and emotions, which in turn shape the sense we make. Climate change and other natural disasters create environmental conditions that disrupt our emotional stability, making it harder for us to think clearly.
Climate change seems to impact certain social behaviours, such as surges in aggression during heat waves[i] or the decision to have children.[ii] New terms, like solastalgia,[iii] eco-anxiety,[iv] ecological grief,[v] and disaster fatigue,[vi] have arisen to describe the psychological toll of changes in the natural environment. In the future, heightened anxiety[vii] and emotional activation[viii] due to changes in the climate conditions[ix] we are accustomed to, could make it even harder for some people to discern scientific consensus from personal opinion.[x] And that could make evidence-based policy less effective.
Similarly, mental models of nature appear to be shifting. Dramatic doomsday narratives, including mythological storytelling,[xi] highlight the risks of climate change with stories about famine, war, and conflict. Scientific predictions[xii] about the consequences of climate change use language akin to end-of-the-world scenarios. Together, these shifts in how we talk about nature could lead more people to think of nature as threatened and threatening.
Going forward, these changing views of nature might drive some to push for stronger climate action and lead others to double down on their disconnection from nature. As a result, recreational patterns could shift away from the outdoors, sustainability efforts might see reduced support, and reckless exploitation of natural resources could seem far more attractive.
But there is a counter-narrative; new genres of fiction, like cli-fi[xiii] and hopepunk,[xiv] have emerged and are challenging apocalyptic narratives of climate change.[xv] Should such positive visions of successful adaptation become dominant in the future, they may lead people toward solutions that promote synergy with nature rather than isolation from it. In this context, holistic views of nature and seventh-generation thinking[xvi] could become guiding principles when weighing the long-term consequences of our individual and collective decisions.
[i] Zaria Govett, “The troubling ways a heatwave can warp your mind,” BBC Future, last modified Aug. 17, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200817-the-sinister-ways-heatwaves-warp-the-mind.
[ii] Gale Golden, “Why Climate Change Might Keep You From Becoming a Grandparent,” Next Avenue, last modified Jul. 12, 2017, https://www.nextavenue.org/climate-change-grandparent/.
[iii] Zoe Schlanger, “A philosopher invented a word for the psychic pain of climate change,” Quartz, last modified Oct. 13, 2018, https://qz.com/1423202/a-philosopher-invented-a-word-for-the-psychic-pain-of-climate-change/.
[iv] Ciara Nugent, “Afraid of Climate Change? You Might Have Eco-Anxiety,” Time, last modified Nov. 21, 2019, https://time.com/5735388/climate-change-eco-anxiety/.
[v] Michaela Cavanaugh, “It’s Time to Talk About Ecological Grief,” Canada’s National Observer, last modified Jan. 10, 2019, https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/01/10/opinion/its-time-talk-about-ecological-grief.
[vi] Sharon Pruit-Young, “Climate Change Is Making Natural Disasters Worse – Along With Our Mental Health,” NPR, last modified Sept. 11, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/09/11/1035241392/climate-change-disasters-mental-health-anxiety-eco-grief.
[vii] Gaia Vince, “How Scientists are coping with ‘ecological grief’,” The Guardian, last modified Jan. 12, 2020, https://amp.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/12/how-scientists-are-coping-with-environmental-grief.
[viii]Joël Guérette, Caroline Blais, and Daniel Fiset, “Ça chauffe dans les stades! L’augmentation de la température accentue les comportements violents dans la MLB,” The Conversation, last modified Jul. 12, 2022, https://theconversation.com/ca-chauffe-dans-les-stades-laugmentation-de-la-temperature-accentue-les-comportements-violents-dans-la-mlb-184707.
[ix] Pruit-Young, “Climate Change.”
[xi] “Why this Icelandic writer says 99% of climate talk is meaningless ‘white noise’,” CBC Ideas, last modified Jan. 10, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/why-this-icelandic-writer-says-99-of-climate-talk-is-meaningless-white-noise-1.6060620.
[xii] J. Deaton, “Real-life climate disasters are mirroring doomsday myths – and that’s worse than you think,” Popular Science, last modified Jan. 23, 2020, https://www.popsci.com/story/environment/climate-change-apocalypse-mythology/.
[xiii] Climate fiction, or Cli-fi, explores dystopian and utopian climate futures. Bernadette McBride, “Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important,” The Conversation, last modified Sep. 19, 2019, https://theconversation.com/imagining-both-utopian-and-dystopian-climate-futures-is-crucial-which-is-why-cli-fi-is-so-important-123029.
[xiv] Hopepunk is a brand of speculative fiction characterized by optimism and positive change. See A. Romano, “Hopepunk, the latest storytelling tend is all about weaponized optimism,” Vox, last modified Dec. 27, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/12/27/18137571/what-is-hopepunk-noblebright-grimdark.
[xv] Doug Specht and Silvia Angeli, “Apocalyptic films have lulled us into a false sense of security about climate change,” The Conversation, last modified Aug. 10, 2021, https://theconversation.com/apocalyptic-films-have-lulled-us-into-a-false-sense-of-security-about-climate-change-165837.
[xvi] “How climate action can benefit from Indigenous tradition of ‘7th-generation decision-making’,” CBC, last modified Jan. 21, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/what-on-earth-indigenous-seventh-generation-thinking-climate-action-1.5882480.