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Sarah Mancoll

SPSSI Policy Director


Connecting the dots between climate change, migration, and psychology

The Spring 2019 edition of Forward focuses on the themes of immigration, migration, and internationalization. With these themes in mind, I am reminded of past Psychology Days at the United Nations, which SPSSI’s UN/NGO Committee co-organizes in collaboration with other psychology NGOs. For years, the Permanent Mission of Palau to the UN has co-sponsored Psychology Day, which takes place at UN Headquarters in New York City. Why Palau? In large part, because of the work of Dr. Caleb Otto, a physician and researcher who later became Palau’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Dr. Otto, who passed away in November of 2018, was a strong proponent of UN initiatives that address public health, human rights, and climate change. It comes as no surprise then of his deep interest in psychology, as psychologists have valuable roles to play on issues pertaining to climate change, human migration, and the relationship between the two.

Rising seas, environmental degradation, and population movement: Insights from Palau

Palau is a country of 20,000 people in the western Pacific Ocean and is comprised of 300+ small islands. According to articles in The Independent and Harvard Political Review, small-island, low-lying nations in the Pacific Ocean—including Palau—are especially at risk of losing their land as the sea level rises. A rising sea could bring about shoreline erosion, increased flooding, and groundwater salination. In Palau, where there is at least some upland terrain, there is the option of moving people and farms to higher, fertile ground if necessary. Many islands in this region do not have such an option.

In his 2015 statement to the UN General Assembly, Ambassador Otto of Palau noted that that there are connections between environmental degradation, climate change, and the need for people to seek refuge away from their motherlands. The UN has also recognized this fact. If you visit the website of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), you will read that “the Global Compact on Refugees, adopted by an overwhelming majority in the UN General Assembly in December 2018…recognizes that ‘climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.’”

Fiji and Palau are two of the countries that most face an existential crisis precipitated by sea level rise and the broader effects of climate change. Not coincidentally, Fiji and Palau were the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement.

Connecting climate change to migration

A UNHCR report states that 2014 was the first year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the UN body that assesses the science related to climate change—explicitly acknowledged that, “climate change over the 21st Century is projected to increase displacement of people.” The Panel went on to write that climate change “can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

Because the causes of migration are complex, and because climate change can contribute to and exacerbate other conditions associated with migration, it can be difficult to predict the scale of what is to come. According to Global Estimates 2015, a publication of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes by disasters brought on by natural hazards. This is equivalent to one person being displaced every second.” Elsewhere in the report, the authors write that the “latest historical models suggest that even after adjusting for population growth, the likelihood of being displaced by a disaster today is 60 per cent higher than it was four decades ago.” The authors also write that “the best scientific knowledge available makes clear the urgency of action to both mitigate global warming and adapt to its human impacts, including displacement.”

How can psychologists contribute within this space?

I could pull numerous examples from the work of SPSSI members. For the sake of brevity, I will include one example here that comes from our Psychology Day programming.

The theme of the 2016 Psychology Day at the United Nations was “From Vulnerability to Resilience: Using Psychology to Address the Global Migration Crisis.” During this event, panelist and SPSSI member Dina Birman, PhD noted that “the mind and [human] behavior do not occur in a vacuum. They occur in the context of families, communities, political structures, cultures, and societies.” Accordingly, her presentation made clear that different kinds of psychologists can contribute in this area (e.g., developmental psychologists, community psychologists) and that psychologists can contribute in different ways (e.g., providing psychotherapy, designing interventions).

Why should psychologists be in this space?

Here again, I will include one example that comes from our Psychology Day programming.

The theme of the 2018 Psychology Day at the United Nations was “Climate Change: Psychological Interventions Promoting Mitigation and Adaptation.” In a keynote address, past SPSSI President Susan Clayton, PhD illustrated three important ways in which psychology is relevant to climate change. First, psychology sheds light onto human understanding of climate change (e.g., how social norms relate to public perceptions of climate change as a worrisome problem). Second, psychology sheds light onto the human consequences of climate change (e.g., how changes to climate can adversely affect physical health, mental health, and social relationships). Third, psychology shapes human responses to climate change (e.g., how interventions can encourage a culture of mitigation and adaptation).

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