Loneliness is “the most human of feelings,” Jeremy Nobel, faculty at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, said on the podcast Harvard Thinking.

When people’s need for social connection isn’t met, that feeling can turn serious, with potentially devastating consequences for their emotional and physical health as they spiral into isolation. According to Nobel, “The spiral is what takes people to the excessive levels of loneliness.”

During the first part of the pandemic, when people were urged—and in many places around the globe, ordered—to self-isolate in order to curb the spread of COVID, loneliness reached all-time highs. But there’s no vaccine for loneliness, and four years on, the feeling continues to surge.

Loneliness has now reached epidemic status, according to the US Surgeon General. What’s behind the lack of connection many people persistently experience—and could aspects of our rapidly changing climate be making it worse?

As the Canadian Medical Association Journal wrote in 2021, “Studies have linked the consumption of bad news to increased distress, anxiety and depression, even when the news in question is relatively mundane.” In recent years, however, bad news across the globe has been anything but mundane—from escalating military conflict to famine to the ever-worsening impacts of climate change.

It’s this last type of bad news that is affecting people so severely that researchers have coined new terms to describe it. NPQ has written about “climate fatigue,” a weariness specifically related to exhaustion from the climate crisis. This feeling of overwhelm is especially troubling as it contributes to inaction.

As NPQ reported, “Another name for climate fatigue is apocalypse fatigue, based on the idea that much of our global coverage about the environment is dismal, dystopian, and inevitable: that we are destined to fail.” But thanks to the tireless work of activists, youth, scientists, funders, and others who care about the planet, we are not necessarily doomed. But climate fatigue—along with climate anxiety and eco-grief—can contribute to spiraling mental health, regardless of what’s actually happening.

Along with feelings about climate change eroding mental health, climate events can contribute to loneliness. Severe weather events, from torrential rains to severe snowstorms to intense heat, force people indoors, away from their communities, and cut off from potential social interactions. How many community events have been canceled in the last few years due to unprecedented weather? How many seasonal celebrations were deferred, and social connections interrupted or never even made?

Heat, specifically, can create a vicious circle when it comes to loneliness: high temperatures make loneliness worse—and loneliness makes heat worse for many. As Grist reported, “In the U.S. and many other countries, social isolation is a major risk factor for dying during a heat wave.” Adults who live alone and have no one to check on them suffer during every heat wave. This risk is compounded “by a shortage of social infrastructure like libraries, local businesses, green spaces, and public transit, leaving people who are older and live in disinvested neighborhoods most at risk from extreme heat.”

Read the full article about climate change and loneliness by Alison Stine at Nonprofit Quarterly .