The Real-life Impacts of the Changing Climate on Psychosocial Functioning

Climate change has become a common household word in the 21st century. Yet despite its prevalence in mainstream media, surprisingly few people have considered the long-term psychosocial impacts of a changing climate and environment on physical and emotional health. Moreover, these negative effects are rarely addressed in research and policy.

In this article, we examine the unique impact of the changing climate on older adults’ physical and emotional health. In addition to factors that can make older people more susceptible to the changing climate, we also identify factors that may contribute to older adults’ resilience in the face of environmental threats and the changing climate.

There is a small but growing volume of scientific literature on the increasing number of hurricanes, floods and other severe weather events and their psychosocial consequences for individuals and families. To fully understand the impact of life-changing climate and environmental events on health and well-being, using a lifespan perspective works best.

Recent research has shown that catastrophic climate disasters are likely to impact children, adolescents, emerging adults, middle-age and older adults in different ways. Given that future climate events are unknown yet expected to be more frequent and more severe, it is likely that younger people more so than older people will be exposed to more possibly catastrophic climate change events throughout their life course. An equally pressing concern in the short term is how mounting climate change effects may threaten both physical and emotional health for the older population.

Direct Versus Indirect Effects

One way to better understand the psychosocial consequences of the changing climate is by distinguishing between direct and indirect climate effects. Direct impacts result from threats to immediate needs (shelter, food, clothing) brought about by extreme weather events. In that regard, climate events such as hurricanes, floods or wildfires have not only severe health and mortality impacts, but also affect people’s mental health and well-being. Direct psychosocial impacts of the changing climate are evident mainly in the form of elevated symptoms of posttraumatic stress, anxiety and depression following severe weather events. It also is important to recognize that direct effects can be chronic (having an ongoing impact), as in the case of droughts.

‘Long-term care populations are particularly at risk, due to the need to rely upon caregivers for assistance.’

In addition, there are indirect impacts of the changing climate that may be less noticeable at first, such as eco-anxiety, known as anxiety about the imminent impact of the changing climate. Eco-anxiety also is called eco-grief, solastalgia, or ecological trauma, and often is seen as non-pathological manifestations of concerns and worries about the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the changing climate. It has been argued that although eco-anxiety can have negative mental health implications, it also can serve as a motivator for action and engagement in pro-environmental behaviors.

When considering the susceptibility of older adults, it is clear that climate change poses a unique threat to their health and mortality. However, this vulnerability is not necessarily due to their chronological age, but to other characteristics such as impaired health, existing premorbid conditions including mental health challenges, and the limited availability of social support. For instance, older people with physical and/or cognitive impairments often are dependent upon others for their care. This can leave them differentially vulnerable to severe weather events in the absence of a caregiver to assist in evacuation or even notify them about upcoming dangers.

The death toll of older adults from the 2005 Atlantic hurricanes Katrina and Rita surpassed that of all other age groups combined. Likewise, a study examining the impact of heatwaves on mortality in Finland has found a higher mortality risk among older adults. Wildfires pose a special threat to older adults, too, with even greater risk for minority and low-income elders.

Intersectionality plays a role, too, as chronological age is not the only factor responsible for older adults’ outsize susceptibility to climate impacts. Long-term care populations are particularly at risk, due to the need to rely upon caregivers for assistance. Under such circumstances, forced relocation dramatically raises mortality risk of long-term care residents.

Women also are thought to be particularly susceptible to the negative impact of the changing climate. This trend is partially attributed to their lower financial status as well as to their limited voice in local and global policies. Likewise, older adults in the developing world and those who live in poverty are more susceptible to the negative impacts of the changing climate.


Clearly, climate change has very real psychosocial consequences for people of all ages. While there is good reason to be concerned about the emotional health of all people exposed to severe weather events, older adults are of special concern. One alarming statistic shows that older adults are less likely to survive severe weather events, and those who do may face myriad interpersonal and practical stressors that can undermine health and shorten life expectancies.

Hurricane and flood recovery often involves costly repairs and lengthy delays to rebuild damaged homes. For older adults on fixed incomes, the financial stressors associated with rebuilding after a disaster can be overwhelming. Time is another valuable resource in short supply for older people whose lives have been disrupted by a disaster. Older adults who are nearing the end of their lives are at a disproportionate disadvantage compared to their younger counterparts whose perceptions of time may be more expansive. The combination of more frequent and severe climate events, coupled with an aging population with limited income and fewer years left to recuperate from their losses, warrants continued attention and concern.

‘Older adults who survive severe weather events often contribute substantially to disaster relief efforts.’

While some studies have pointed to the negative impact of severe climate events particularly on older adults’ mental health and well-being, others have stressed this population’s resilience. It is likely that prior life experiences have prepared older adults well, emotionally, to face climate threats. Often, older adults recover after hurricanes, floods and other forms of environmental trauma. Older adults who survive severe weather events often contribute substantially to disaster relief efforts, not only monetarily but in hands-on, meaningful ways as well. Likewise, in the case of the indirect mental health effects of the changing climate, it is younger people, rather than older people, who are more likely to report anxiety and worries about the future impact of the changing climate.

Next Steps and Possible Solutions

At this juncture, one might ask what steps can be taken to mitigate the impacts of disasters on older persons’ emotional health and well-being? Undoubtedly, there is no one-size-fits all formula for promoting healing after a single or multiple disaster exposures or in the face of ongoing climate challenges. However, clearly, an important gap in current policy concerns older adults, who are rarely addressed as a unique population group.

In the United States, this exclusion of older adults could be partially attributed to ageism, which is characterized as stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination toward people because of their age. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 44/7 has concluded that despite their high susceptibility to the changing climate, which poses a clear threat to their enjoyment of human rights, older persons often are neglected from relevant policies and laws. Further, in the United States, climate actions plans developed by many states do not focus on risks to older persons.

Volunteerism as a Panacea

Older adults may feel alienated from the current climate change movement, which is characterized primarily as a youth movement. Yet research has shown that activism and engagement is a key way to promote emotional healing in the face of environmental threats. A particularly promising development is the increasing number of local and national organizations of older people specifically dedicated to addressing climate change. Moreover, older persons (especially in the developing world) often hold traditional knowledge and practices that can be invaluable for sustainable living and for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. By joining forces and bringing younger and older people together, it is possible to overcome ageism and at the same time ensure healthy aging in a dynamic and less certain climate for all.

Katie E. Cherry, PhD, is the Emogene Pliner Distinguished Professor of Aging Studies in the department of Psychology at Louisiana State University, and author of The Other Side of Suffering: Finding a Path to Peace after Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2020). Liat Ayalon, PhD, is a professor in the School of Social Work at Bar Ilan University, Israel. She was selected by the U.N. Decade of Healthy Aging as one of 50 world leaders working to transform the world to be a better place in which to grow older. Ayalon is funded under the Israel Science Foundation to study ageism and intergenerational relations in the context of climate change (ISF 217/20). Karl A. Pillemer, PhD, is the Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging.

Photo caption: University students and older adults help with recovery from Hurricane Irma in Cuba, 2017.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Eric Prendes