Rebranding Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

By Courtney Subramanian
Published August 8, 2013

To most people, climate change means melting snowcaps and helpless polar bears sweltering under escalating temperatures. But most of the world’s populations aren’t likely to see an iceberg in their lifetimes, much less a stranded polar bear in the wild. Which explains why the dangers of these environmental changes haven’t exactly earned high priority on most people’s list of attention-worthy crises. (Does anyone remember Al Gore’s $300 million We Campaign?) The politicization of climate change — the never-ending debate over whether it exists, for example, and the ensuing back-and-forth over its causes, its implications and potential solutions — further discourages the public from action.

But what if climate change were instead about an increase in childhood asthma, or a surge in infectious diseases, or even an influx of heat-induced heart attacks? Would that hold more resonance for the average citizen of the world? That’s what some climate change experts are hoping, as they steer the conversation about global warming toward the public health issues it raises. Last week, the journal Science  featured a special issue on climate change and included a study on the complex yet growing connection between global warming and infectious diseases.

According to a recent study, framing global warming as a public health issue rather than as an environmental or national security one produces the most emotionally compelling response among people, since it focuses on the immediate implications a warmer climate could have on people’s lives. This strategy also has the benefit of providing a sense of hope that the problems can be addressed and avoided, if people take action early enough. Matthew Nisbet, co-author of the study and an associate professor at American University, says such positive actions are critical for communicating the importance of climate change to a broader and more diverse proportion of Americans who may not care about environmental issues. “It’s easy to become fatalistic about the problem,” he says. “You have to give them a sense of hope that they can become part of something that addresses the problem.”

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