COP28: Centring Mental Health in the Health Response to Climate Change

Join us on this journey as we recap the highlights of COP28 in the UAE. The Climate Cares Centre team shed light on the profound interconnections between mental health and climate change, and the critical window for shifting from a vicious to a virtuous cycle, enabling people and the planet to thrive. 

The 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) was a turning point for the centring of human health in climate negotiations. Political leaders began to acknowledge climate change as a health emergency, including at COP’s first ‘Health Day’, where more than 140 countries made a historic commitment to the UAE Declaration on Climate and Health, and one billion USD in finance commitments were pledged for climate and health.

This progress follows years of advocacy by the climate and health community, who have worked tirelessly to put people and health at the centre of the multilateral climate processes. The health community collectively used its trusted voice to achieve recognition of the fact that in negotiating the amount of fossil fuels that can be dug up and burned, what is ultimately being negotiated is how many people will lose their lives, their health, their land, and their livelihoods. The 7 trillion USD given in fossil fuel subsidies in 2022 alone is also subsidizing air pollution and the premature deaths of more than 8 million people. It is additionally subsidising the increased intensity of a changing climate and all the associated hazards, which is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the greatest threat to human health. And it is not only physical health that is on the line.

COP28 also saw growing recognition of the deep interconnections between climate change, mental health and well-being. Starting with the first-ever mental health event at a COP in Glasgow, the Climate Cares Centre has been part of international efforts to bring attention to the psychological stressors and traumas of the climate crisis. At every COP, we highlighted how climate impacts are raising the risk of people dying by suicide, new cases and worsened symptoms of mental health problems, and reduced well-being through more distress, stress, and negative sentiment in the population. The extra mental health burden from extreme weather events, air pollution, and lack of access to green space has been estimated at 537 billion USD every year by 2050. The mental health toll of the climate crisis is reducing the capacity of individuals, communities, and systems to take action to prevent and adapt to the increasing climate hazards they face.

From a vicious to a virtuous cycle, the opportunity for action should not yet be missed. Climate action is an opportunity multiplier for creating the conditions that foster good mental health such as more connected and equal societies, clean air, and access to green spaces, while good mental health and psychological resilience can be an enabler of sustained climate action.

[Climate Cares Centre Delegation: Nienke Meinsma, Dr Omnia el Omrani, Dr Emma Lawrance, Jessica Newberry Le Vay]

Recognizing the climate-mental health nexus

Out of the many “firsts” for health at COP was a COP Presidency-led dialogue on mental health and climate change, hosted at the COP28 Youth Climate Champion Pavilion. The Climate Cares Centre supported the organisation by the co-hosts of Wellcome and the Health Working Group of the official Children and Youth Constituency.

[Jessica Newberry Le Vay speaking at the COP28 Youth Climate Champion event on Mental Health and Climate Change]
Dr Emma Lawrance set the stage for the open discussion by summarising the current evidence exploring the multiple pathways by which climate change interacts with mental health. Jessica Newberry Le Vay also presented highlights of the youth perspectives gathered by the Wellcome-funded Connecting Climate Minds (CCM) dialogues on climate-related mental health consequences. Further efforts were shared including the COP² Roadmap for Care and Change to build psychological resilience, the UNICEF Climate-Changed Child Report, and the upcoming Youth Mental Health toolkit by the African Union Youth Envoy on emerging issues affecting mental health in Africa including climate change, in a packed room of diverse young people – standing room only!

Participants also shared the overlooked impacts of climate change on the mental health of people with disabilities including social isolation and increased vulnerability during climate-related disasters. A powerful question came from one of the COP28 youth delegates, who spoke of the need to understand how people with disabilities are affected in particular in the climate crisis, and what these risks and burdens do to their mental health. She noted, “Mental health is often overlooked, but we often become stressed in our minds, and then sick in our bodies.”

session participants at the Youth Climate Champion Pavilion
[Session participants at the Youth Climate Champion Pavilion]

Introducing Connecting Climate Minds at COP

One of the Climate Cares Centre’s flagship initiatives is Connecting Climate Minds (CCM), a global Wellcome-funded project that aims to develop an aligned and inclusive agenda for research and action on climate change and mental health that is grounded in the needs of those with lived experience of mental health challenges in the context of climate change. Over the last year, the CCM project has developed communities of practice in climate change and mental health around the world, including diverse expertise including that of lived experience.

[Connecting Climate Minds team]

The second day at COP28 had us brimming with enthusiasm as we held the first official in-person Connecting Climate Minds (CCM) as a UNFCCC side event. We focused on the methodology by which the seven regional communities have developed research and action priorities for climate-mental health nexus. We also highlighted the priority themes that emerged from the eighteen virtual and in-person dialogues across Peru, Nigeria, India, and Cameroon with indigenous communities, smallholder farmers, and young people. Professor Sir David Nabarro chaired a lively discussion with remarks by exceptional representatives from the CCM global team and youth ambassadors, Wellcome, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Federation of Medical Students Association.

Dr. Britt Wray presenting findings from the lived experience expert dialogues that Connecting Climate Minds has been hosting with youth, Indigenous populations and smallholder farmers
[Dr. Britt Wray presenting findings on behalf of Connecting Climate Minds Lived Experience Working Group]
Dr. Britt Wray, Director of CIRCLE at Stanford Psychiatry shared “The CCM dialogues surfaced the fact that many young people are typically looked to as the beacon of hope for climate action by older generations and powerholders, but this puts a deeply unfair burden on their shoulders for fixing a crisis that they did not create. Youth participants also told us that they want and need safe collective spaces where they can find legitimization and support for their frustrations and grievances. Several audience members shared that this portrait of youth activist mental health aligned with their experience and helped them feel validated and resourced. Sometimes, just a little bit of information can go a long way in terms of providing psychosocial support that can make a difference in the lives of individuals. COP28 was an unexpected venue to do just that.”

Later that day, Jess presented the work and process led by the CCM team to develop a youth-led agenda for research and action in climate change and mental health level based on the insights and expertise of the 150+ young participants. Jess highlighted “Critically, young people want and need to be at the heart of research to better understand and respond to the impacts of climate change on their mental health. We also heard many young people share the need to integrate mental health into climate education, which is one of the Climate Cares Centre’s areas of focus for 2024”.

[Jessica Newberry Le Vay presenting the findings of the CCM youth dialogues at COP28 Children and Youth Pavilion]

Insights and hopes of young people

The second week of COP began with Youth, Children, Education, and Skills Day, which aimed to bring the perspectives and actions led by young people to the centre of climate diplomacy. Not only are young people among the most vulnerable when it comes to the intersecting risks of climate change for mental health, but they also have important perspectives on actions that can foster both psychological and climate resilience. Thus, involving young people in decision-making around climate action is a critical pathway for supporting their mental health and well-being in the context of climate change.

[Dr. Emma Lawrance speaking at a joint mental health event at the WHO Pavilion organised by the Climate Cares Centre and the United Nations University]
That is why we co-organized a panel discussion with the United Nations University (UNU-CRIS and UNU-Merit) to discuss the impacts of climate change on the mental health and well-being of young people and the opportunities to build resilience. “From COP28’s groundbreaking focus on climate and health to the vital recognition of the climate-mental health nexus in academic, media, and policy discourses, we’re on the promising pathway toward transforming advocacy into action. The coming together of climate and health professionals on the sidelines of COP28 reflected the importance of stakeholders coming together to shape the future of climate and health research and collective activities.” says Prof. Dr. Nidhi Nagabhatla, Program Lead- Nature, Climate and Health, UNU CRIS.

In addition, we had the opportunity to speak at the Entertainment and Culture Pavilion demonstrating the impacts of climate change on livelihood and culture leading to ecological grief as a reaction to threatened and realized loss. Conversely, the connection of many young people to culture, land, and communities has been strengthened by their engagement in collective climate action. Omnia El Omrani shared that: “As the COP27 President Youth Envoy, I saw the exceptional ability of youth to communicate the urgency of climate action in ways that resonate with communities and build agency through the lens of culture and arts, bridging the gap between science and lived experiences.”

[Dr. Omnia El Omrani at the COP28 launch of the first ever Youth Stocktake, a comprehensive analysis of youth involvement in the COP process]

Elevating the political profile of mental health

At COP28, our team focused on making the case for mental health as a priority action in the health response to climate change. We were inspired to see that the climate and mental health intersection was integrated in the first section of the UAE Climate and Health Declaration on common objectives: “Promoting a comprehensive response to address the impacts of climate change on health, including, for example, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, loss of traditional medicinal knowledge, loss of livelihoods and culture, and climate-induced displacement and migration.

[Climate and Health Ministerial led by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus]
Furthermore, the climate and health ministerial session, co-moderated by Dr. Maria Neira, WHO, Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Amref Health Africa, and Climate Care’s Dr Omnia El Omrani, saw 50 Ministers of Health and senior health delegates come to COP for the first time. They were provided the space to showcase progress made on climate and health by their countries, alongside their country priorities, needs, and opportunities for action and continued collaboration. We witnessed only fourteen mentions of mental health in the statements delivered by the UAE, Canada, Philippines, Senegal, Vanuatu, the European Commission, and others – as tracked by United for Global Mental Health. “The importance of people’s mental health and emotional resilience in the climate emergency is increasingly recognized: the massive positive impact of investing in the mental well-being and resilience of societies may be less well appreciated,” said Professor Sir David Nabarro, Co-Director, IGHI.


On the last day, the COP28 Global Stocktake outcome was adopted and included the first-ever mention of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and several country delegates used their final interventions following the text adoption to acknowledge that, for them, COP28 negotiations had represented a step forward in being more “heart-centred”. Such mention can be a springboard for the development of concrete targets with the finance needed and the means of implementation to equitably phase out fossil fuels aligning with what the science says is urgently needed to protect people from the worst consequences of climate change on their health and well-being. Dr. Emma Lawrance shared her reflections with The Guardian: “The COP negotiations are ultimately negotiating human health and wellbeing – mental and physical. Unless developed countries lead the way in delivering emission cuts and the fair funding structures other countries need to act, the cost of inaction will be lives and quality of life.”

[Adoption of the GST during the final plenary]

What’s next?

Despite the progress made on the recognition of mental health in the context of climate negotiations, the awareness and prioritization of the climate-mental health nexus remains more concentrated on climate anxiety in young people. It was also evident that research and action remained disconnected, with successful interventions being quietly implemented but not widely identified and elevated at COP. Climate and mental health policies and practices continued to operate siloed, missing opportunities for co-beneficial cost-effective action. This could be attributed to the under-researched complexity of the interactions between climate and mental health leading to the inadequate consideration of all mental health impacts and actions across climate discussions and vice versa. Nienke Meinsma noted: “It was great to see mental health prominently featured on the Health Day and throughout COP. However, we need to see concrete commitments to research, policy, and funding for climate and mental health as to safeguard the mental health of the most affected communities by the climate crisis.”


This presents a significant opportunity for future COPs to increase the awareness and deep understanding of the overlooked climate-related mental health presentations, economic outcomes, and interventions that respond to them such as post-traumatic stress disorders due to extreme weather events, suicide due to increased traumas and livelihood impacts (e.g. crop failure), and physical heat stress risks for people with pre-existing mental health challenges (e.g. psychotropic medication side effects in extreme heat impairing ability to regulate temperature).


To effectively address this, funding institutions such as multilateral development banks and philanthropic foundations could fund research and research capacity building/awareness raising to better understand and address the linkages between climate and mental health. The research findings could provide policymakers with scientific data and indicators to integrate mental health into climate policy and vice versa.


Thus, on 19-21 March 2024, we will come together in person in Barbados to finalize the Connecting Climate Minds Global Research and Action Agenda on climate change and mental health, celebrate the communities that have been built and the past year’s tremendous work and discuss how the agenda can be translated into policy and practice. You can sign up to join us virtually here.