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.”