What is climate resilience?
Resilience, broadly speaking, is the ability to maintain or regain physical and psychological health in the face of adversity. Climate resilience refers specifically to the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to the stresses caused by or worsened by our climate and ecological crisis.
Weather disasters, such as floods, wildfires, hurricanes, traumatize between 20% and 40% of those who are directly impacted, increasing rates of both short and longer-term depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. The effects are not limited to those directly impacted. Disasters also stress those who observe them, whose loved ones are affected, and/or who learn about disasters through the news and social media. Such stresses include the chronic fear of environmental doom, or climate anxiety, helplessness, and loss of place and identity (known as solastalgia). From a mental health perspective, climate resilience includes the ability to cope with the psychological disruptions from climate change and ecological destruction, such as current or future loss of life, housing, resources, social support, social networks, and the need for relocation.
Types and components of resilience
Individual and community resilience: Your individual resilience is your personal capacity to cope with adversity, which can be strengthened by community resilience – your community’s ability to maintain or regain its essential function, identity, and structure in the face of stress.
Components that strengthen individual and community resilience are:
- Self-efficacy: Your belief in your ability to organize and follow through with tasks to accomplish your goals.
- Adaptive capacity: You or your community’s ability to access and use resources effectively, adjust to potential damage, take advantage of opportunities, and/or cope with consequences.
- Collective efficacy: A group’s shared beliefs about its capability to accomplish collective tasks.
- Social capital: The strength of your supportive connections to others through family, school, work, neighborhood, and larger (including online) communities. Support can be emotional, as well as more tangible, for example: help with clean-up, supplies, rebuilding. Various types include:
- Bonding social capital: Relationships with people similar to you; bridging social capital: Relationships with those who differ in demographic characteristics, such as age, socio-economic status, or race; and linking social capital: Relationships with others or institutions who hold relative power over you (political or financial).
- Social identity: How your sense of belonging to various social groups becomes integrated into your concept of self.
The history of resilience in the climate crisis
The history: The word resilience, from the Latin verb reilire, means to rebound or recoil. Its first scholarly usage, in the 1800s, involved measuring and comparing how building materials, like wood, withstood extreme stresses. Interest in resilience in the field of psychology and psychiatry includes foundational work by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth on the key role of early childhood experiences and attachment in developing resilience and emotional well-being.
In the climate crisis: Since the 1970s, many academic fields have drawn upon the concept of resilience, including socio-ecological, anthropological, psychological, and sociological research—particularly sociological disaster research, a field that studies the social dynamics of natural and human-made disasters. One problem with the term resilience is the potential implication that a person or community can “bounce back” to normal. Yet with global warming, there really isn’t a “normal” to return to. Hence, newer conceptualizations highlight climate resilience as a forward-looking process of change that aims to shape and create a more equitable and sustainable future.
While the mental health implications of climate change can affect everyone, impacts tend to be greatest for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Examples include people with pre-existing chronic physical and mental health problems, senior citizens, women (especially if pregnant), children, communities of color, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and some ethnic minority groups. Individuals who live in certain regions also face more risk, such as people in developing countries, in areas with widespread poverty, less robust government, or less reliable infrastructures. Climate change is a threat multiplier for other social determinants of poor physical and mental health. For example, in the aftermath of a climate disaster, those most vulnerable and socially isolated may be even less likely to be connected to information regarding resources offering aid. This underscores the importance for climate resilience strategies to understand these inequities and actively address them.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
Without drastic reductions in carbon emissions, the likelihood of traumatic stresses will continue to grow and cause harm, especially to those most vulnerable. For example, research has shown direct negative effects of climate change on young people’s mental health; a global study reported more than 50% of the 10,000 participants feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Extreme weather events will further tax parents and other caretakers’ ability to adequately care for their children’s emotional and physical well-being. The effects of stress can increase parents’ likelihood to develop PTSD and engage in self-protective behaviors, such as avoidant withdrawal, self-medicating with substances, and/or engaging in other maladaptive behaviors.
Compounding the direct impacts of climate change on mental health are the related economic costs (e.g., job loss, displacement, homelessness) and social costs (e.g., isolation, reduced opportunities for exercise and other stress-relieving activities). The COVID-19 pandemic is a recent example of how mental health conditions, suicide attempts, drug overdoses, violence, abuse, and neglect can rise during times of increased stress and social confinement.
Social capital and other components of resilience have been shown to affect how people cope with climate-related challenges, which are expected to increase in frequency and severity.
- In New Orleans USA, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, different types of social capital were important for surviving, including the pooling of food, finances, information, and other resources. Bridging and linking social capital offered pathways for longer-term coping, such as home rebuilding and community revitalization.
- Social connections and perceptions of non-family support protected against stress and depressive symptoms after a severe flood in Kentucky, United States.
- After a tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004, residents’ perception of community participation reduced the risk of PTSD and depression, even after controlling for pre-tsunami mental health variables.
- In India, individuals with higher belief in collective efficacy were more likely to participate in community activities preserving water supplies to adapt to water scarcity. This link was stronger in communities with higher collective efficacy.
- During COVID-19 in Australia, an informal community intervention (Neighbor Day) offered to residents protected those who attended against later decreases in well-being reported when lockdown measures were tightened. The protection was shown to be directly related to a higher sense of social identity, and not to age, gender, socioeconomic status, or other factors the researchers considered.
- Researchers like Albert Bandura have demonstrated that the higher a group perceives their collective efficacy, such as their ability to mitigate climate change, the greater their likelihood to coordinate and perform behaviors that will increase their chance of success, despite initial setbacks or other barriers.
What more might we need to know?
Climate resilience is a complex construct and researchers disagree on how to best define and measure it (for example, as a trait, a dynamic process, a predictor, or an outcome). That aside, there is increasing agreement that research on resilience must move beyond psychology’s historical focus on resilience at the individual level. Individual actions alone cannot stop, or even meaningfully mitigate climate change; collective action is required. Furthermore, traditional Western mental health treatment approaches, such as counseling, medications, and hospitalization, are too limited a resource to meet the current needs of people with psychiatric and behavioral health disorders – let alone those who will need help given the anticipated levels of trauma as the climate crisis continues to unfold. A public health approach is necessary to address mental health needs at the population level and help communities adapt.
What can we do to build climate resilience?
Given that climate change is the “greatest global health threat facing the world in the 21st century”, it takes resilience to read this entry! Fortunately, there are a number of ways we can build climate resilience:
- Strengthen your individual and collective efficacy by connecting with others to build community and engage in civic action.
- Join a Climate Café, an inclusive space to get together to talk and act on climate change.
- For mental health or social work professionals, join fellow practitioners: Climate Psychiatry Alliance, Climate Psychology Alliance, or Social Workers for Climate Action.
- Join your neighbors through the Transition Town Movement, an international grassroots movement, or through statewide programs like California’s Cool Block. Both are examples in which neighbors collaborate to build community resilience to the challenges of climate change.
- The challenges of climate change can worsen mental well-being, but also have the potential to help us work together and show empathy, compassion and altruism. The term post-traumatic growth refers to the process of meeting trauma with hope, the feeling of belonging, gratitude, personal growth, and transformation.
- Look over these 10 essentials for effective community resilience initiatives: Community resilience for a 1.5 degrees Celsius world
- Support legislation to fund community-based initiatives to address mental health at the population level. U.S. citizens can support the Community Mental Wellness and Resilience Act of 2023 by contacting their elected senators and representatives.
- Check out the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, a website to help people find and use tools and information to build climate resilience.
A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development by John Bowlby, published in 1988 by Routledge.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision, published in 2022 by the American Psychiatric Association.
Transformational Resilience: How Building Human Resilience to Climate Disruption Can Safeguard Society and Increase Wellbeing by Bob Doppelt, published in 2016 by Routeledge.
Articles and Online Sources
Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) Framework, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on October 31, 2022.
Climate change as ACE, published in The Register-Guard on August 28, 2019, by Bob Doppelt.
Climate change as a “threat multiplier”: History, uses and future of the concept, published in the Center for Climate & Security on January 3, 2023, by Sherri Goodman and Pauline Baudu.
Speaking of Psychology: The psychology of climate change, with Susan Clayton, PhD, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in April 2019
The Climate Crisis Is Global, but These 6 Places Face the Most Severe Consequences, published in Time on September 30, 2019, by Tara Law.
The Concept of Resilience: Understanding its Origins, Meaning and Utility, published by the Torrens Resilience Institute on March 14, 2010, by Alastair McAslan.
Young Voices for the Planet, produced and directed by Lynne Cherry. An inspiring 24 minute video showcasing young people’s resilience in the face of climate change by taking action.
Climate Keys, an initiative by musicians engaging with audiences and creating connections and support around the climate crisis.
Resilience in the Age of Climate Change, an exhibit of visionary artists and architects exploring the specter of a warming planet.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Adger, W. N. (2003). Social Capital, Collective Action, and Adaptation to Climate Change. Economic Geography, 79(4), 387–404. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30032945
Ainsworth, M. S. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34(10), 932–937. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.932
Alcover, C.-M., Rodríguez, F., Pastor, Y., Thomas, H., Rey, M., & del Barrio, J. L. (2020). Group membership and social and personal identities as psychosocial coping resources to psychological consequences of the COVID-19 -confinement. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(20), 7413. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17207413
Aldrich, D. P. & Meyer, M. (2015). Social capital and community resilience. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(2), 254–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764214550299
Almedom, A., & Glandon, D. (2008). Social Capital and Mental Health. In I. Kawachi, S. V. Subramanian, & D. Kim, Social Capital and Health (p. 24). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-71311-3_9
Bandura, A., Freeman, W. H., & Lightsey, R. (1999). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 13(2), 158–166. https://doi.org/10.1891/0889-83188.8.131.52
Barnett, J., Graham, S., Quinn, T., Adger, W. N., & Butler, C. (2021). Three ways social identity shapes climate change adaptation. Environmental research letters : ERL [Web site], 16(12), 124029. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac36f7
Carmen, E., Fazey, I., Ross, H., Bedinger, M., Smith, F. M., Prager, K., McClymont, K., & Morrison, D. (2022). Building community resilience in a context of climate change: The role of social capital. Ambio, 51(6), 1371–1387. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-021-01678-9
Cianconi, P., Betrò, S., & Janiri, L. (2020). The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 74. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00074
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
Coverdale, J., Balon, R., Beresin, E. V., Brenner, A. M., Guerrero, A. P. S., Louie, A. K., & Roberts, L. W. (2018). Climate Change: A Call to Action for the Psychiatric Profession. Academic psychiatry : the journal of the American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training and the Association for Academic Psychiatry, 42(3), 317–323. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40596-018-0885-7
Cruwys, T., Fong, P., Evans, O., & Rathbone, J. A. (2022). A community-led intervention to build neighbourhood identification predicts better wellbeing following prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 1030637. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1030637
Cutter, S.L., Burton, C. & Emrich, C. (2010). Disaster Resilience Indicators for Benchmarking Baseline Conditions. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 7(1): 1-22. https://doi.org/10.2202/1547-7355.1732
Davoudi, S. (2012). Resilience : A Bridging Concept or a Dead End?. Planning Theory & Practice 13. 299-333. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2012.677124
Denckla, C. A., Cicchetti, D., Kubzansky, L. D., Seedat, S., Teicher, M. H., Williams, D. R., & Koenen, K. C. (2020). Psychological resilience: an update on definitions, a critical appraisal, and research recommendations. European journal of psychotraumatology, 11(1), 1822064. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2020.1822064
Fasey, I., Carmen, E., Chapin, F.S., Ross, H., Rao-Williams, J., Lyon, C., Connon, I. L. C., Searle, B.A. & Knox, K. (2018). Community resilience for a 1.5 °C world. Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 30-40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2017.12.006
Fazey, I., Carmen, E., Chapin III, F. S., Ross, H., Rao-Williams, J., Lyon, C., Connon, I., Searle, B., & Knox, K. (2018). Community resilience for a 1.5 degrees C world. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 30-40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2017.12.006
Fong, P., Cruwys, T., Haslam, C., & Haslam, S. A. (2019). Neighbourhood identification and mental health: How social identification moderates the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and health. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 61, 101–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2018.12.006
Garmezy, N. (1974). The study of competence in children at risk for severe psychopathology. In E. J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child in his family: Children at psychiatric risk: III (pp. 77–98). New York: Wiley.
Hawkins, R. L., & Maurer, K. (2010). Bonding, bridging and linking: How social capital operated in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. British Journal of Social Work, 40(6), 1777–1793. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcp087
Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: Risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 12(28). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13033-018-0210-6
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & Susteren, L. van. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863–e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3
Holland, K. M., Jones, C., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Idaikkadar, N., Zwald, M., Hoots, B., Yard, E., D’Inverno, A., Swedo, E., Chen, M. S., Petrosky, E., Board, A., Martinez, P., Stone, D. M., Law, R., Coletta, M. A., Adjemian, J., Thomas, C., Puddy, R. W., Peacock, G., … Houry, D. (2021). Trends in US Emergency Department Visits for Mental Health, Overdose, and Violence Outcomes Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA psychiatry, 78(4), 372–379. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.4402
Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2096802
Ingle, H. E., & Mikulewicz, M. (2020). Mental health and climate change: Tackling invisible injustice. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(4), e128–e130. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30081-4
IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3–33, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.001.
Kaniasty, K., & Norris, F. H. (1993). A test of the social support deterioration model in the context of natural disaster. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 395–408. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2065
Kreslake, J. M., Price, K. M., & Sarfaty, M. (2016). Developing effective communication materials on the health effects of climate change for vulnerable groups: A mixed methods study. BMC Public Health, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3546-3
Lawrance, E., Thompson, R., Fontana, G., & Jennings, N. (2021). The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice. London: The Grantham Institute. https://doi.org/10.25561/88568
McNamara, N., Stevenson, C., Costa, S., Bowe, M., Wakefield, J., Kellezi, B., Wilson, I., Halder, M., & Mair, E. (2021). Community identification, social support, and loneliness: The benefits of social identification for personal well-being. British Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12456
Palinkas, L. A., & Wong, M. (2020). Global climate change and mental health. Current Opinion in Psychology, 32, 12–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.06.023
Thaker, J., Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A., Zhao, X., & Howe, P. (2016). The Role of Collective Efficacy in Climate Change Adaptation in India. Weather, Climate, and Society, 8(1), 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-14-00037.1
USGCRP, 2016: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. Crimmins, A., J. Balbus, J.L. Gamble, C.B. Beard, J.E. Bell, D. Dodgen, R.J. Eisen, N. Fann, M.D. Hawkins, S.C. Herring, L. Jantarasami, D.M. Mills, S. Saha, M.C. Sarofim, J. Trtanj, and L. Ziska, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 312 pp. http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0R49NQX
Watts, N., Adger, W. N., Agnolucci, P., Blackstock, J., Byass, P., Cai, W., Chaytor, S., Colbourn, T., Collins, M., Cooper, A., Cox, P. M., Depledge, J., Drummond, P., Ekins, P., Galaz, V., Grace, D., Graham, H., Grubb, M., Haines, A., Hamilton, I., … Costello, A. (2015). Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health. Lancet (London, England), 386(10006), 1861–1914. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60854-6
Wickrama, K. A. S., & Wickrama, T. (2010). Perceived community participation in tsunami recovery efforts and the mental health of tsunami-affected mothers: Findings from a study in rural Sri Lanka. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 57(5), 518–527. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764010374426
June 14, 2023
Authors: Debra L. Safer, MD, Maya Cosentino, MD, and Roni Gal-Oz
Editor: Colleen Rollins