Ecological Grief and the Mental Health Toll of Climate Change

As Australia burns, people around the world have expressed despair over the unprecedented destruction of our beloved natural landscapes and wildlife – but rather than looking to a future of hope, restoration and recovery, we fear what’s next.

The 2019-20 Australian bushfires have burnt through over 10 million hectares of land and killed over a billion animals so far. In the midst of a catastrophic bushfire season rooted in climate change – and with no end in sight – many are feeling helplessness, distress, and mourning.

This is known as ecological grief, and in the wake of global warming it’s an area in need of further study.

Ecological grief is defined as “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”

Of course, experiencing an emotional response to environmental damage after a natural disaster isn’t new.

But with the growing prevalence and effect of climate change being realised, we can no longer view natural disasters in isolation.

In the wake of the events that have already transpired and with more predicted to follow as a result of climate change, the mental health toll of natural disasters has intensified.

Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia Dr Neville Ellis has studied ecological grief through three lenses: grief associated with physical ecological losses (land, ecosystems and species); grief associated with disruptions to environmental knowledge and loss of identity; and grief associated with anticipated future ecological losses.

Dr Ellis believes these anticipated future losses are why climate change may be exacerbating the ecological grief experienced in relation to the bushfires.

“Not only are people experiencing loss in the present, but because of climate change, they are also actively grieving over a future that has become foreclosed to them.  

“If these are the losses that we’re encountering today, what are we going to encounter tomorrow, knowing what the climate projections are telling us? It’s the start of what we are likely to encounter, so I imagine there’s quite a lot of fear and anxiety around what the future might actually bring under climate change,” says Dr Ellis.

Of those climate projections, perhaps the bleakest is how little time humans have to change the course of action before catastrophic results.

In 2018, a UN report by the world’s leading climate scientists revealed that we only have until 2030 to enact the extraordinary changes that would keep global warming from surpassing 1.5°C.

An increase greater than that and we’ve been told to expect devastating consequences such as extreme heat, droughts, severe storms and floods.

Just as 2019 was declared Australia’s hottest year according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s records – as well as the lowest for annual rainfall – these projections are too close to home.

But it’s not just those directly impacted by natural disasters that are inclined to feel ecological grief. This is evidenced by the outpour of compassion that the world has expressed in light of Australia’s environmental and wildlife destruction.

How can someone on the other side of the world grieve the loss of a place they’ve never experienced? Dr Ellis believes that this is because of nature’s intrinsic value.

“We know that these places are home to a whole range of unique flora and fauna that you can’t find anywhere else; and we can also empathise with the people we see on TV and read about in the news who not only lost their homes and businesses, but the beautiful landscapes around them.

“I think it’s our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and our ability to value things that we might not have directly experienced ourselves but that we feel are important to others or the world in general, are the reasons why we might grieve for ecological losses happening afar.”

The current bushfires aren’t the first natural disaster to be attributed to climate change.

In 2016, the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef as a result of global warming and rising sea temperatures triggered international outrage.

Two years later and unfortunately very little has changed in the way of Australian political action. Scott Morrison’s management of the bushfires – on top of the government’s poor climate change policy – has received widespread criticism and fuelled anger in those who demand better.

Posted by Nathan Harradine Hale on Saturday, January 4, 2020

“We’re just starting to see the political fallout from this crisis event. It might intensify the grief associated with anticipated future losses insofar that people feel that the government isn’t doing enough to act on climate change,” says Dr Ellis.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is experiencing ecological grief, you can find strategies for coping with climate change-related distress here.

Image by Emily Savage