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Highlighting Health Effects of Climate Change Could Inspire Action

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Preliminary research shows that more focus on the health effects of climate change could inspire action even among those who doubt climate change is happening. Researchers found that targeting climate change as a public health problem might engage those who remain doubtful about the reality of global warming, in turn leading to a healthier and better future.

Preliminary findings from George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) show that people who read a short essay on climate change, framed with public health issues brought about by global warming, reacted positively. Even those who were uncertain that climate change is happening found the information useful.

4C director Edward Maibach interviewed approximately one dozen people from six targeted segments of Americans, termed Global Warming’s Six Americas. Among those doubtful of climate change, forty percent reacted positively in response to the essay.

“Re-defining climate change in public health terms should help people make connection to already familiar problems such as asthma, allergies and infectious diseases, while shifting the visualization of the issue away from remote Arctic regions and distant peoples and animals,” says Maibach. “The public health perspective offers a vision of a better, healthier future—not just a vision of an environmental disaster averted.”

On the whole, everyone was responsive to the health issues associated with climate change. Maibach says, “Many leading experts have suggested that a positive vision for the future, rather than a dire one, is precisely what has been missing from the public dialogue on climate change thus far. We believe this survey is one step in shaping a way to talk about climate change that will reach all segments of the public—not just those who already are making behavioral changes.”

According to background information from the study, "Climate change is taking a toll on human health, and some leaders in the public health community have urged their colleagues to give voice to its health implications."

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The goal of the survey was to find ways to engage the American public to make changes toward cleaner energy, improving the design of cities and towns to allow for more physical activity such as walking and biking and fewer cars and decreasing beef intake and consuming more fruits and vegetables that can have a significant impact on preventing heart disease and cancer in addition to curbing climate change.

Most people remain unaware of the personal health issues associated with climate change, instead viewing it as an "environmental' rather than a health issue. The result has lead to public ambivalence about policy changes that seem personally irrelevant to most.

The CDC, World Health Organization and professionals are aware of the health effects of climate change, but the authors write, "...it is not clear the extent to which public health professionals, journalists, or most importantly, the public and policy makers have taken notice."

The authors write, “If our government and other governments around the world do not soon take steps to limit global warming, a growing number of people in the United States will likely be harmed and killed. Conversely, if our government does take steps to limit global warming, our health and wellbeing will likely improve in a number of important ways."

Cleaner energy will reduce respiratory problems. Reducing mass transit will lead to improved physical fitness and less obesity and consuming more fruits and vegetables and less beef would curb cancer and heart disease. Weather patterns that are becoming more severe could become less so, saving lives from direct harm. The study also points out the re-emergence of diseases such as Dengue fever and malaria that had been previously eradicated from the United States but are now threatening public health from global warming.

The researchers concluded, "Peoples' health is dependent on the health of the environment in which we live. Global warming offers America an opportunity to make choices that are healthier for us, and for our climate."

The study shows that even those who doubt the reality of climate change reacted positively when the health effects of global warming were highlighted in an essay. They suggest that highlighting the health effects of climate change could inspire action from the public that could lead to a healthier and better future.

BioMed Central