Dr. Karyne Messina’s Newsletter — Issue #8: Responding to the Threat of Environmental Collapse

Karyne Messina
6 min readNov 8, 2021



That’s how young people around the world are describing our governments’ failure to cut carbon emissions. And it’s no surprise.

We are catastrophically far from the crucial goal of 1.5°C, and yet governments everywhere are still accelerating the crisis, spending billions on fossil fuels.

This is not a drill. It’s code red for the Earth. Millions will suffer as our planet is devastated — a terrifying future that will be created, or avoided, by the decisions you make. You have the power to decide.

As citizens across the planet, we urge you to face up to the climate emergency. Not next year. Not next month. Now:

— Open letter by Greta Thunberg and other youth climate activists calling on world leaders to act. (Read the whole letter and petition here.)

Feelings of helplessness in the face of global catastrophe can be managed and addressed once they are addressed; something many people , including therapists, aren’t yet facing on a conscious level. While scientists believe that even if we don’t have the means to solve the environmental crisis, we have the tools to mitigate some of the problems.

Other factors are contributing to the devastating decline of the world’s resources that are beyond the scope of science, including quite a few that are psychological in nature; a phenomenon that could be problematic if we don’t adjust to the new reality that climate change is foisting upon us.

As more practitioners become aware of the fact that global warming and other environmental calamities are not events that will occur in the distant future but are problems that are facing us now, the relatively new field of climate psychology will help make interpretations and other interventions about the possibility of global collapse more commonplace.

An important part of that process, I believe, is understanding the work that’s being done (or not) by global leaders to address the issues. For example, fighting climate change will require trillions of dollars to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) underway in Glasgow welcomed a consortium known as GFANZ (Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero Emissions) from 450 firms around the world who pledged over $130 trillion of private capital in their portfolios would be climate friendly.

Some critics are suspicious of these grand claims — The Guardian reports that many GFANZ members figure among the top backers of fossil fuel companies; HSBC and Citi, for example, continue to finance oil extraction in the Amazon. This “fossil capitalism” is not so easily undone, and so these pledges, though laudable, now need to be backed by real action. To achieve net-zero emissions will require an increase in green investment banks that fund zero-carbon technologies. Currently, such initiatives only account for 20% of all global banking, but it is a start. Governments must now ensure that these institutions actually clean up the messes they’ve financed.

Other big news out of COP26: more pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over 100 countries, including 6 of the top 10 methane producers, agreed to cut methane by 30%. If these countries hold up their bargain, cutting methane emissions would be a quick and relatively inexpensive environmental win. The technology to cut emissions exists, and some solutions are little more than enacting better practices in industries like agriculture and waste management.

PTSD on the Rise Among Survivors of Environmental Disaster

A recent article in the Washington Post Magazine examined the mental health disaster that took place among survivors in the aftermath of the devastating Camp Fire in 2018. One survivor described her trauma as, by turns, a “beast” that “could come out at any moment,” and sometimes, leaves her “so numb, she can talk about painful memories like she’s ordering a sandwich.” Though PTSD did not touch all survivors, a study conducted by scientists at UC San Diego “found that an overwhelming number of Camp Fire survivors were suffering from various mental health disorders, most prominently PTSD.” The participating researchers likened the findings to what they would have expected to see among war veterans.

Mental health professionals, on the whole, are not prepared to take on this influx of patients dealing with the after-effects of a climate disaster, but change is happening; an American psychiatrist, Lisa Van Susteren visited London in 2014 to learn firsthand how her British colleagues were dealing with the twin issues of mental health and climate trauma. What she learned helped launch two groups stateside: the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, and the Climate Psychology Alliance. As of 2021, there’s even a climate-aware therapist directory. (Though, of the 150,000 active psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S., this directory only lists 97.) I recently joined the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America and am looking forward to exploring key questions surrounding this field and learning new techniques for addressing climate-induced traumas. Participating mental health practitioners adhere to a code that acknowledges the climate crisis as one of many “new forms of distress” and that “professional training of the allied mental health therapy and counseling community can attend to this distress.” It is an exciting step towards offering much-needed services in relation to the climate crisis.

Eco-anxiety and how to address it is also a topic I explore at length in my forthcoming book, Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Blame-Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy (Routledge, 2022) — and one that was discussed at a recent two-day conference co-hosted by the Contemporary Freudian Society, Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis, and Washington School of Psychiatry. Read below for that event’s recap.

“Awakening to the Existential Threat of Environmental Change” Conference Recap

Fifty years ago, psychoanalyst Howard F. Searles was nearly alone in sounding the alarm on the consequences of unchecked interference with the delicate balance of the natural world. As a pioneer of psychiatric study and the intimate, inextricable link between humans and the natural world. Even in 1972, Searles recognized the devastation the impending climate crisis would mean for our collective mental health. Though his work did not reach a wide audience right away, it has become, sadly, more relevant in the intervening years. Last month, participants of “Awakening to the Existential Threat of Environmental Collapse” explored the implications of human detachment from the natural world and the role mental health professionals must assume to help people through these crises. The conference was dedicated in Searles’ honor and aimed to take up the challenge he laid before the psychoanalytic community a half-century ago.

The two day conference provided an engaging forum to discuss human detachment from the natural (non-human world) and the defense mechanisms employed to achieve a semblance of psychological equilibrium even as the global situation worsens. Though we humans possess the knowledge and the ability to solve the crisis, the barriers to action are largely psychological. This conference offered the tools to do so in the hopes that we in the mental health community are not caught flat-footed by the ever-growing need for our assistance.

Green Briefs

  • Climate change’s “first-mover problem,” according to Fareed Zakaria, is that plenty of people are talking a big game about climate, but putting those words into action is slow-coming. Financing net-zero initiatives and getting China to play along are two of the largest hurdles. However:
  • We know that fighting climate change will require trillions of dollars to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. At the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, banks, investors, and other representatives from 450 firms around the world pledged over $130 trillion of private capital to help meet that goal.
  • Solar geoengineering: Can we cool the planet? (DW.com)
  • A recent report in the journal Nature Food found that climate change will negatively alter global production of crops like rice, soybeans, wheat, and corn as soon as 2030. Major culprits include increases in average temperatures and rainfall patterns alongside a rise in carbon dioxide. Researchers said they were not expected to see such a “fundamental shift as compared to crop yield projections…conducted in 2014.”
  • The recipient of the 3rd annual OBEL AWARD is the theory of the 15-minute city Professor Carlos Moreno coined the term to describe walkable urban communities where residents can easily access all their daily needs within a quarter-hour radius.

Other News:

My manuscript, Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Blame-Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy (Routledge, 2022) is with the editor! I can breathe a small sigh of relief, and I can’t wait to share more details with you in the coming months.

I was invited to participate on the Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast, which will be airing here on Thanksgiving Day!



Karyne Messina

I'm a psychologist and psychoanalyst focusing on helping people heal from toxic relationships