Rebranding Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

Why medical professionals may be the best messengers for global warning right now

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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.

MORE: Infectious Disease Could Become More Common In a Warmer World—Especially for Plants and Animals

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.”

For example, tying the frequency of extreme weather events, such as last year’s devastating Hurricane Sandy, widespread wildfires or the recent summer heat waves to global climate change can help people to appreciate the immediacy of the problem. As people deal with the public health consequences of such events — from floods to contaminated water to heat-related illnesses — the impact that environmental events have on health starts to hit home.

To exploit this potential, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a Climate and Health Program in 2009, and associate director George Luber has been advising 16 states as well as New York City and San Francisco officials, on regional climate change problems and the public health issues they entail.

(MORE: States Show Improvements but Remain Unprepared for Public-Health Emergencies)

The Obama administration also seems to be getting the message. In an energy speech in June at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the President laid out his plans for climate change. Speaking in the midst of a blistering heat wave that was roasting the Northeast, Obama called on policymakers to readdress global warming and implement new pollution standards. And he emphasized that such action was necessary not only to preserve the planet, but also our health. “Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our economy or the health of our children,” he said as he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.

“By simply having him put those two words in his speech makes an enormous difference in people recognizing that it’s a public health problem,” says Dr. Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

By re-branding global warming as a health issue, the administration is hoping to bypass the political quagmire that has kept climate change initiatives such as regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants or passing renewable energy standards from being implemented. Earlier this month, the White House chose to honor medical and environmental professionals in its Champions of Change program, for their efforts in “protecting public health in a changing climate.”

(MORE: Fighting Climate Change by Not Focusing on Climate Change)

But even Champion of Change recipient Gary Cohen, co-founder and president of global non-profit Healthcare Without Harm, says that the re-branding will require the backing of medical professionals, who serve as the hubs of education for raising community awareness about the health consequences of climate change.  That’s why Healthcare Without Harm, for example, is trying to transform the healthcare industry into a greener sector — encouraging hospitals to adopt more environmentally friendly energy resources and waste management practices — and informing medical professionals about the close connection between climate change and medicine. “Healing is their core mission,” Cohen says. “It’s the one sector of the economy that has an ethical framework that underpins it.”

Sabrina Mccormick, an environmental documentary filmmaker and sociologist at George Washington University, agrees that doctors have a unique role that can transcend political differences.  “[The public is] kind of attuned to their expertise and we really care about what they say,” McCormick says. “They have a potential for an impact that scientists may not have.” Indeed, a 2012 Gallup poll found that the American public ranked nurses with the highest honesty rating (85%) while doctors placed third with 70%.

That’s why anti-smoking advocates, for instance, focused on educating medical professionals to quit smoking first before addressing the greater public. Cohen believes doctors can do the same for climate change as long as they are prepared and educated to lead by example as environmentally responsible stewards.

And they have reason to be hopeful. The environmental group Sierra Club was successful in doing just that with its “Beyond Coal” campaign, which shut down coal power plants in several states by eliciting the help of local stakeholders, including  physicians, who informed local residents about the respiratory problems that the plants triggered among its workers and children in the area.

(MORE: ‘Coal Kills Every Day': Michael Bloomberg Pledges $50 Million to Fight the Coal Industry)

It’s also encouraging that more physicians, particularly newly minted ones, are inclined to join in the climate change conversation. The American Medical Association has hosted state-based courses on climate change since 2011, educating doctors about how to prepare for and respond to climate-related illnesses and injuries. In May 2011, the journal Lancet hosted a worldwide symposium on climate change and health concerns, drawing international experts to discuss the health implications of a changing climate while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has since shifted its efforts to focusing on the health concerns emerging from global warming after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for its 2007 report.

Such efforts to embed awareness into medical training are important, says Nisbet and other experts, since the re-branding is not about spin as much as it is about changing the type of dialogue people have about climate change. “You’re creating the context and the relationship around which people are discussing, interacting and bumping into information about climate change,” he says. For instance, he says pediatricians may start to explain how higher regional pollen counts, which may be contributing to their patients’ asthma and allergies, could be due in part to changing climates that boost pollen production of trees.

And the timing may also be right for such conversations as well. With unemployment now below 7%, coupled with the frequency in extreme weather, people may be more inclined to accept public health efforts aimed at reducing their exposure to potentially costly health problems that might be emerging from changing patterns in the global climate. Among young voters, a new poll found that 79% were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports taking action on the issue, regardless of the candidate’s party.

(MORE: Dengue Fever Creeps Back Into the U.S. — and Climate Change Isn’t Helping)

The hope is that seeing climate change as a health issue will spur more people into pushing for environmental reforms, but that’s still a big ‘if.’ “My biggest concern is that like many things in prevention, people might want to put it off,” says Benjamin. “We don’t have 20 years to wait like the tobacco campaign. Every year we wait puts us behind the eight ball, and I think it’s important to move that message.”

33 comments
AAKDJ
AAKDJ

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ShippedCarbonNeutral
ShippedCarbonNeutral

Salutations,

To have a dream that one day it is part of our common to regard steps taken economic, social and environmental are realised - with a salute to those talking the talk and walking the walk - with small change can make a big difference - to one example being to perhaps for those who have superannuation of a kind to regard what and who are the investments of the said - to think perhaps #3 conversation as to past, current and future with all the best kind of growth a start Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) their currency onto the underwriters on this capacity  CSR and Sustainability Policies with follow through as to 'use phase'  All the best thank you for sharing kind regards Caroline

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

So what does it take? What has to happen? How close to unstoppable warming will the lab coat consultants you doomers pray to like bible thumpers lead us before they agree their own crisis is "inevitable" and "eventual"?

They have never said these real words of a real warning in 28 yeasrs and if science had really agreed a crisis WILL happen, they would have said so and ended this costly debate to save the planet for our children. Deny that!

Did Bush issue CO2 death threats to billions of helpless children in an exaggerated climate crisis? You remaining climate blame believers are WORSE than neocons. This was YOUR Iraq War without a real enemy.

alpadula
alpadula

Doctors as our saviors in the battle against global warming? Hah!   In Maine there is only one LEED rated hospital,

energy use is wildly wasteful, and Maine's Physicians for Social Responsibility are quite inactive. Doctors are probably

the worst profession to advance as champions for the environment.  

Leithauser
Leithauser

It should also be framed as an economic issue. The fossil fuel industry likes to say that combating climate change will cost billions and ruin the economy. Aside from the fact that this is not true, consider the economic impact of having much of our farm land turn into desert and most of our coastal cities and towns inundated by rising seas, not to mention the economic impact of the destruction from storms.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

Isn't the fact that scientists can say comet hits are real but can't say climate change is as real as a comet hit, serve as undeniable proof that 28 years of "maybe" clearly shows it "won't be" a crisis? One would have to WANT this misery to be real as science has NEVER said it is "inevitable", like their comet hits are. If it were a crisis the scientists would have said so and ended this debate to save their own grand-kids. Climate blame believers are worse than neocons!

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki


Climate Blame believers claim a crisis WILL happen while the world of science has NEVER said anything past "could be" and has NEVER said any crisis WILL happen. Prove me wrong! Be glad that 28 years of “maybe” has proven it “wont’ be” a crisis.  If it were a crisis they would have said so and ended this costly debate to "save the planet". Deny that!


Science: “Climate change is real and is happening and could lead to unstoppable warming."


Never has science or the IPCC in 28 years ever said "inevitable" or "eventual" or "unavoidable" or "certain" or "imminent" or WILL happen so if “maybe” is good enough to threaten your children with……………………..

Who's the fear monger now? Did Bush condemn billions of children to an exaggerated crisis? This was our Iraq War.

climatehero1973
climatehero1973

Climate change makes the water cycle more extreme. Higher evaporation rates can make heavy rainstorms heavier, and droughts deeper and longer. http://clmtr.lt/cb/v8c0bJd

This leads to more particulates, pollen and dust in the atmosphere. Higher temperatures allow dangerous viruses and illnesses to spread out of the tropics (Dengue fever, West Nile virus). No one argues that those dangerous diseases have spread. Warmer temperatures are a contributing factor. Climate Change is a health issue for everyone on this planet. 

Yoshi
Yoshi

If "climate change" (current name?) is real and doing all the things said about it, why does it even NEED "branding"? The reality should be self-evident, yes?


DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

You remaining believers must have WANTED your CO2 climate crisis to be real what with science ONLY agreeing for 28 years that it only COULD be a crisis and never saying it WILL be a crisis. Science has never agreed it will be a crisis only might be. How is that a crisis? REAL planet lovers are happy a crisis wasn't real after all. The rest of you are Green Neocons.


IF this really were a crisis the scientists would have ended this costly debate to save the planet long ago and simply said their own comet hit of an emergency was as real as they say comet hits are.

Its not a hoax or a crime to say "maybe" but it's a crime for you doomers to fear monger our children with 28 years of your exaggerated CO2 panic. Science didn't lie, you doomers did. Shame on all of you!

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

JasonSimpson
JasonSimpson

I am a pediatrician.  While I agree that global warming is a problem, and I agree that there is a possible link between global warming and increased pollen counts, it is certainly NOT appropriate for me to waste time in the exam room with my patients on some kind of crusade to get them to believe that global warming is responsible for their child's asthma.

The vast majority of parents would not appreciate such commentary from me, even if they are very supportive of efforts to counter global warming.  They want me to focus on their child, not go off on tangents on the environment.  

Doctors dont know anything about global warming at any rate.  This discussion should be left to the experts -- scientists who truly understand the issue.  Doctors are poor spokespersons for global warming.  


roger.g.foster
roger.g.foster

Well, the "movement" had better frame is somehow differently.  It was AGW, but then the climate stopped warming.  Then it became "Climate change', and then the earth's climate flatlined for the last 15 years!

What this really says is that this is no longer a scientific investigation - it's a social cause, with junk science to make the case.

If you really want to see how badly every climate model has performed, just look at this post:

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/06/06/climate-modeling-epic-fail-spencer-the-day-of-reckoning-has-arrived/

Here, we see all the models that the IPCC has been using graphed out - all showing a significant increase in global temperatures.  Underneath - in a flatline - are the actual observations.  

Me thinks that there is something seriously wrong with the crap science that is being thrown around...

This stopped being about science long ago.  The Flat Earthers from the 1400s would be proud of the IPCC.

RobMetcalf
RobMetcalf

Talk of "rebranding" makes one think Climate Change has been branded.  Which it has.  


The ends justify the means to liberals, unless the means leads towards less governmental power. 


Also; i once had an acquaintance who wouldn't talk to anyone, literally, unless they'd read about ice core samples.  Good man, a little bit of a hipster, but good man.  He educated me on how ice core samples showed how much carbon had been in the atmosphere at which times in history; and as the industrial age came about, so did carbon in the ice samples.

What ice carbon samples failed to convince me of, however, was that they were tied to climate change.  Sure, carbon is more prevalent in atmospheres where it is used more, but how does it effect climate?  Carbon in the early 1000's may have been minuscule as opposed to now, but how did the climate change from tropical to ice agish to temperate; without the advent of man's industry?


I'm not being critical, or political; I actually want to know.  How did climate change without us?

dabears85
dabears85

mhall - i think what the author is saying is that organizations (government or otherwise) are framing climate change as a public health issue.  scientists may be helping these groups in order to promote factual evidence, but the just of this article, in my view, is that the conversation needs to be revamped because it is stale in the states.  if you can look past the economic implications that could come with climate change policy, and focus more on individual health concerns associated with climate change, the US may have more luck enacting reform and taking the necessary steps to move, sustainably, into the future. 

mhall
mhall

Courtney,

As a graduate student in public health, I find it curious that you believe climate scientists are "framing" climate change as a public health issue for political purposes. Beyond revealing deep cynicism toward scientists, you may lack a basic understanding of public health science.  For a simple example of an environmental factor being clearly identified as a public health issue, read about John Snow and the cholera epidemic in London in 1854. In that case, John Snow had the foresight to geographically map out cholera cases in London; his data revealed a clear association between cholera cases and a specific drinking water source. Once Londoners were prohibited from using that drinking water source, the cholera epidemic subsided. The field of public health has come a long way since John Snow's investigation 200 years ago. Scientists use sophisticated data gathering and statistical methods to identify statistically significant associations between environmental factors and public health issues.   If public health scientists identify significant associations between features of climate change and specific human health issues, they are not "framing" an issue for political reasons.  Like John Snow, their data shows an important association. 

M. Hall

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

One word could summarize anthropogenic global warming and public health: Malaria. I mean, there are other health risks, of course. (Among other things, death from heat exhaustion is becoming more common.) But malaria is still a serious killer in the developing world. What happens when the planet warms? Quite simply, Anopheles gambiae radiates to higher latitudes.

akerber
akerber

Well, as anyone with knowledge of health statistics could tell the evidently uneducated author of this article, many more people die during the winter months than summer months, with the coldest months having the highest death rates.  This would rather strongly indicate that the health concerns of a warming world would be, charitably, unclear, or more accurately, different but not nearly as bad as a cooling world.  So, go ahead, try and claim there are dangerous health concerns with a warming world.  Maybe there will be an ignorant person or two who wont see this claim as nothing more than yet another lame attempt to try and panic people over a non-issue.

ScienceFact
ScienceFact

@DavidNutzuki 

Comet hits are in the past and verifiable as such - climate change is just beginning. They aren't saying "Maybe". They are saying that as a future event the quantity and quality of that event is only partially predictable. Much of what will happen in the future, immediate and distant, is based on what we do now and how the natural systems of the planet that we live on react to what we do. 99% of scientists are saying that it is a crisis and have been for been for some time now. Politicians and Fossil fuels pundits are saying it isn't. 

flowsk
flowsk

@DavidNutzukithe IPCC in all of their reports describes the language they use. There is a very good reason words such as "likely" are used. Science is about probability and risk. Go educate yourself.

TeaPartyGeezer
TeaPartyGeezer

@climatehero1973    Those diseases are spread by mosquitoes, not by weather or climate.  Once upon a time, the US used DDT to kill disease-spreading mosquitoes.  The eco-nuts talked politicians into banning DDT; those diseases have since been plaguing 3rd world countries.  Now those same mosquitoes have, as they were inevitably going to, started to reappear here.  Way to go, eco-nuts!  Not only did they doom many people in other parts of the world to preventable death, it has returned to the United States of America!  Maybe we can all start swathing ourselves on mosquito netting ... doesn't that sound like fun?

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

@Yoshi Yes yes I have seen the signs of change all around me and one cannot deny that the change is happening and is real!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

PaulSmith3
PaulSmith3

@JasonSimpson I am also a pediatrician and while I do not spend my patients time talking about climate change, I do advocate on my own time for changes.  Here in Montana, the most readily visible effects of climate change are in drought and forest fires.  Since the 60's the acreage burned per year has increased with a "hockey stick" configuration that parallels CO2 and temperature.  The direct effects here and in other states in the west is an increase in asthma, meds used and changes in daily lives.  I care about children and so I speak out (on my own time).  If we as physicians don't know about climate change, we should learn.  Spend sometime becoming truly informed, not just listening to the news or reading "Time" magazine. 

mhall
mhall

@dabears85 dabears85 - good point. I agree with you in terms of the gist of the article being that certain organizations (non-governmental or otherwise) appear to be reframing climate change as a public health issue. I understand that reframing an issue is not synonymous with "spinning an issue"; reframing is actually refocusing the attention on an other facet of the issue. What concerns me is the assertion that political ideology may be driving the greater focus on public health issues associated from climate change when, in fact, the change in focus is most likely driven by the scientific weight of evidence--which is now revealing links between human disease and climate change.    

TeaPartyGeezer
TeaPartyGeezer

@aliberaldoseofskepticism   Which, of course, is why the econuts should NOT have banned DDT.  

Many more people die from the cold than from the warmth.  This has been true since the beginning of mankind.

marysue5252
marysue5252

@akerber Because you don't agree with the author doesn't mean the author is uneducated.  Anyone who doesn't believe the ocean water has not increased globally is in denial of reality.  We humans have been steadily raising the world's water temperature ever since the industrial revolution. Look around and see the devastation in our own lifetime!  Or maybe you're just too young to notice any difference?  The wholesale slaughter of forests?  Swampland? These things were man-caused--not nature.  Take a good look around pulp mills and see and smell the changes as compared to other areas of similar vegetation away from the mills.  Some idiot came into a pristine setting--an inlet full of salmon and seals and the idiot clasped his hands together and said, "Oh, what a great place for a pulp mill!"    Granted, I raised two kids working in that mill, but I wish it hadn't ever been built in the first place.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

If science agreed openly that a climate crisis WILL happen "eventually" instead of "might" happen, the planet would be saved as what denier would deny; "inevitable" and "unavoidable" ? Scientists have kids that are doomed as well so you can't brand this as the saintly "science" you pray to. This is a CO2 death threat to YOUR kids so spare us the science worship. Science has condemned billions of helpless children to the greenhouse gas ovens of unstoppable warming. We demand certainty otherwise CO2 mitigation is impossible.

roger.g.foster
roger.g.foster

@marysue5252: So... you're against harvesting wood?  Is there a link between harvesting wood and changing of the climate and the rising of the oceans?  I'd like to review that scientific study.

On a more scientific note, if the changing of temperatures is being caused by the rise of CO2, then this would be a first in world history.  Ice core studies have proven that the climate changes first, then the CO2 responds with an 800 year time lag.  And hey - you know the Medieval  Warming Period (That IPCC's Michael Mann tried to eliminate with "creative modeling") - Is it coincidence that it happened... 800 years ago?

I'd also like you to show me the rise of the ocean levels that everyone is talking about.  

Here's what the British High Court said about Gore's claims about ocean level rise in his movie "inconvenient truth":

"This is distinctly alarmist and part of Mr. Gore's "wake up call".  While it is generally accepted that the melting of Greenland's ice will eventually lead to rises in sea levels of this magnitude, it will only happen "after, and over, millenia"


aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@roger.g.foster Gore's Corollary to Godwin's Law states that "As a discussion on AGW increases in length, the probability of a person mentioning Al Gore approaches one...and will be immediately laughed out of the room."

I love how you think the British High Court is a scientific body. Too bad they aren't. Also too bad you think what happens in millennia is irrelevant. I know, you'll be dead by then.

And I love how you 1) completely misrepresent ice cores (unsurprising, since American cons have issues with geology in general), and 2) ignore that maybe, just maybe, the current CO2 is anthropogenic? 

BTW, there's a reason Mann sued Ball for defamation. You know that, right?