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Agents for Social Change: Report on Conveying the Health Implications of Climate Change

May 5, 2011, 8:40 PM

In a 2008 study led by my colleague Ed Maibach,  over half of the nation’s public health departments reported that their communities were already experiencing health effects from climate change, yet fewer than 10% were taking steps to educate members of their community about the risks.  Motivated by this finding, over the past two years – with financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – Ed and I have conducted research on how to effectively communicate the public health implications of climate change.

In one study published at BMC Public Health, we find that even segments of the public doubtful or dismissive of climate change respond positively to information about the health risks of climate change when paired with local mitigation-related actions that offer benefits to public health.  In another forthcoming study, we find that conservatives and those dismissive of climate change are among the segments of the public most concerned about energy insecurity and the health impacts of rising energy prices.

Both studies suggest that effectively translating for the public the health implications of climate change and energy insecurity should be a central strategy for widening the scope of public concern and participation on these problems and for increasing societal resilience.  In this effort, public health professionals and officials are vitally important opinion-leaders and agents for community capacity-building.

As a product of our research, last week we released a report and primer designed to help public health professionals communicate effectively about climate change.  The report is available here at no cost. We encourage you to download and share it with public health officials in your community or to use in guiding your own efforts at public engagement on climate change.

Below is the Table of Contents.

Chapter 1 Why Should Public Health Professionals Communicate About Climate Change?

1.1 Climate change is a serious threat to the public’s health and wellbeing worldwide.

1.2 The health of Americans is already being harmed by climate change, and it’s likely to get worse in the not too distant future.

1.2.1 Illness and death from extreme heat.

1.2.2 Injury, illness, and death from extreme precipitation

1.2.3 Vector-, food-, and water-borne disease

1.2.4 Respiratory problems and disease

1.3 Many public health officials are aware of these risks, but the public is not.

1.4 Public health professionals have an obligation to prevent climate change from harming human health, to the extent possible. This requires, at a minimum, effectively informing the public and other decision-makers about the risks.

Chapter 2 With Whom Should Public Health Professionals Communicate About Climate Change?

2.1 News organizations, journalists, community media outlets, and prominent bloggers

2.2 Decision-makers in government, business, and non-profit organizations

2.3 Other professionals whose work is — or will be — affected by climate change

2.4 The public, and various segments therein 2.4.1 Vulnerable communities and at-risk populations

2.4.2 Global Warming’s Six Americas

Chapter 3 How Should Public Health Professionals Communicate so as to be Most Effective?

3.1 Getting the message right

3.1.1 Frame the issue as a human health problem — rather than as an “environmental problem” — to help the public and other decision-makers consider and engage in the issue of climate change.

3.1.2 Localize the issue.

3.1.3 Emphasize the immediate health benefits — i.e., the “winwins” — associated with taking action.

3.1.4 When possible, make or reinforce four key points.

3.1.5 Use the fundamentals of good communication.


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