Experts In This Article
- Alan Barreca, PhD, associate professor, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California Los Angeles
- Amy Deacon, MSW, RSW, CEO and founder, Toronto Wellness Counselling
The climate crisis already impacts an estimated 85 percent of the world’s population, and will shape every aspect of our lives. You’re likely familiar with some of those changes, like the aforementioned extreme weather events, or soaring prices of food due to droughts and shortages. But there’s one aspect of your everyday existence that is secretly a victim to the climate crisis, too: your sex life.
At first glance, focusing on sex may seem trivial, considering the other critical issues created or exacerbated by the climate crisis. But for most people, sex is a key aspect of our health. Not only does sex support your emotional health, but it’s also been linked to improved sleep, cardiovascular health, immunity, stress, blood pressure, and more. And anything threatening our ability to have or enjoy sex is worth taking seriously.
As the planet continues to propel towards an unsustainable future—whether that’s the physical heat, the air pollution from wildfires, or anxiety about climate change—experts say that climate change affects our sex lives, too. And if our libido is at risk, so is our overall well-being.
Why hotter isn’t always better for your sex life
As mentioned, the world is getting hotter, which directly translates to hotter days and nights. Some of the hottest days recorded in history have occurred this year, with Arizona hospitals filled with people burnt from asphalt sidewalks, and thousands of people dying worldwide from extreme heat exposure. City dwellers are particularly impacted by heat thanks to the “urban heat island effect,” a phenomenon that occurs when green space is replaced with roads and buildings—trapping and absorbing heat to increase temperatures even further in those areas.
There is some interesting evidence that extremely warm temperatures (like what we’re experiencing with climate change) can negatively impact one’s sex life. A 2015 study published in the journal Demography explored how seasonal “temperature shocks” impacted annual birth rates in the U.S. between 1931 and 2010. The researchers found that years with extra days above 80 degrees Fahrenheit were associated with a decline in birth rates.
“My research showed that hot weather leads to fewer births 9 to 10 months later,” says lead author Alan Berecca, PhD, a professor at the Institute of the Environment & Sustainability at UCLA. He and his fellow study authors also suggest that with global temperatures rising due to the climate crisis, the world’s population may be reduced in the coming century.
“We need to remember that our emotional state greatly impacts our ability to feel sexual arousal and desire.” —Amy Deacon, MSW
To be sure, birth rates aren’t a perfect metric for understanding sexual patterns and habits. People get busy for many more reasons than procreation, and contraception exists. But considering that the majority of pregnancies happen from, well, sex, surges and dips in birth rates can be an interesting indicator of how much sex people (at least, heterosexual people) are having. And Dr. Berecca’s study seems to suggest that fewer people are getting busy when it’s very hot.
However, the reasons why aren’t entirely clear—research isn’t robust in this area—but there are certainly a few potential possibilities. Typically warmer months tend to correspond to lower testosterone levels in men and women (even those on hormonal birth control). Testosterone plays a key role in our libido; with less testosterone, you might be less likely to be in the mood. (But again, we don’t know why warmer weather results in less testosterone.)
Warmer weather can also have some direct impacts on reproductive health, adding to our woes in the bedroom. Research shows, for example, that fall and summer, where temperatures are typically warmer on average, is associated with lower sperm concentration and more sperm defects compared to sperm collected in the winter months. (Defective sperm can lead to fertility issues and make it harder to conceive.)
Heat also has indirect effects on our sex lives. “There’s research showing that hot weather causes sleep problems, which is bad for people’s health and, in turn, their reproductive health,” says Dr. Beracca. A 2022 study in the journal One Earth found that people worldwide lose 44 hours of sleep per year due to hotter weather. And not getting enough sleep is associated with reduced desire and arousal in women.
Even if you do somehow feel in the mood, having sex in swampy temperatures is no joke. In the 2018 heat wave in Columbia, the health secretary of Santa Mara actually advised residents to refrain from sex due to overheating and dehydration.
The potential impact of air quality on sexual health
Excessive heat is not the only byproduct of the climate crisis. Changing weather patterns fueled by global warming creates the perfect environment for more active (and intense) wildfires. Take the fires in the summer of 2023 that devastated Greece, Canada, and Hawai’i—and contributed to poor air quality that impacts the heart, brain, and lungs. Even short-term particle pollution from wildfires can exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, according to the EPA. There are mental health impacts, too: A 2022 study published in Environmental Health found that long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and black carbon (which are found in wildfire smoke as well as fossil fuel emissions) contributed to anxiety and depressive disorders.
Unfortunately, there are potential consequences to your sexual well-being, too. Air pollution from wildfires, fossil fuel emissions, and other sources have been associated with abnormal testosterone levels in men and estrogen levels in women. This may have big implications for reproductive health—since testosterone and estrogen play key roles with libido and fertility—although exactly what needs to be studied further. There’s also some evidence that air pollutant exposure is associated with erectile dysfunction in older men.
There are lots of indirect effects from being constantly exposed to air pollution, too. For example, decades of research has shown that air pollution not only exacerbates existing asthma cases, but may trigger new cases of it as well. And studies suggest that there is a link between severe asthma and a loss of sexual desire. One small 2007 study in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that women with asthma were more likely to have issues with arousal, lubrication, and orgasm compared to women without it.
Climate anxiety can hamper sexual desire and pleasure, too
The climate crisis is an existential threat to life on Earth, and coping with that threat (or thinking about it at all) can have a huge impact on your mental health. A 2021 study published in Lancet Planet Health found that 50 percent of people had feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, and guilt regarding climate change. These feelings are so prevalent that they have a name. “Eco-grief,” also known as “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety,” is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
“Environmental grief, like other forms of grief, can render a person feeling helpless and hopeless,” says Amy Deacon, MSW, RSW, a registered social worker, psychotherapist, and founder of Toronto Wellness Counselling. “It is easy to feel overwhelmed with uncertainty, not knowing what the future and the health of our climate will look like.”
Deacon says that this type of stress, depression, and grief can present itself in many ways. For some, they may become angry, while others can see an issue in the bedroom. Depression is linked to low arousal and sex drive, especially in women. In fact, one study found that women with depression (whether it was considered mild, moderate, or severe) were significantly more likely to experience sexual dysfunction than women who did not have any kind of depression.
Deacon says that climate anxiety, like other types of anxiety, can also cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, muscle tension, insomnia, and panic. These physical and mental disruptions all have a link to lowered libido and sexual dysfunction.
“We need to remember that our emotional state greatly impacts our ability to feel sexual arousal and desire. Therefore, when we are mentally or emotionally stressed, it’s very common that our desire for sex and intimacy will decline,” says Deacon.
Is it possible to address how climate change affects our sex lives?
Just because the climate crisis is trying to ruin our sex lives (along with everything else) doesn’t mean we just have to accept it. There are certainly things in your direct control to protect your health and well-being on a changing planet. For example, having air purifiers in your home can help clean up your air indoors, while fans, air conditioning and lightweight clothing can help make hot-weather sex more enjoyable.
For the emotional aspect of climate change, Deacon suggests cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for those struggling with eco-anxiety. This is a form of talk therapy that has people manage anxiety and depression by addressing problematic thoughts and behavior patterns.
It’s also a good idea to be mindful of how much news you consume (enough with the doom scrolling already!) and nurturing yourself by exercising and eating a nutritious diet. Deacon also recommends that people “practice gratitude, and create moments of stillness, whether through meditation, mindfulness or prayer.”
Don’t underestimate the power of activism, either, for mitigating eco-anxiety. Research shows that participating in collective action to combat climate change (rather than just individual-focused stuff) significantly reduced symptoms of depression in people with climate anxiety. Not only does working with others help you feel more connected and validated, but you’re also working to address the many systemic issues that contribute to the climate crisis. Talk about a win-win.
Yes, the climate crisis is very real, and we’re already living with the consequences. But Deacon says we are a “resilient species,” and protecting our humanity—and our sexuality—is possible.