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Study: Re-Framing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue
Changing the conversation about climate change: Graduate students from American and George Mason Universities prepare interview tent on the National Mall.
WASHINGTON, DC -- How do Americans respond when they are asked to reflect on the public health risks of climate change and the benefits to health from mitigation-related actions? In other words, if we were to re-frame climate change in terms of localized impacts that people personally experience and can understand--such as vulnerability to extreme heat or poor air quality--could we shift public thinking on the issue? Those are the questions that I examine with Ed Maibach and colleagues in a study published this month at the open access journal BMC Public Health.
We find that even Americans who tend to discount climate change or are ambivalent about its relevance react favorably when the issue is re-framed in the context of public health. Our results suggest that when it comes to public engagement, health experts have an important perspective to share about climate change. This still dramatically under-communicated perspective offers Americans a compelling way to think about an issue that has proven deeply difficult for many people to fully comprehend. The new frame of reference also focuses on a range of possible policy actions that offer local as well as global benefits.Below I provide brief background on the method, the findings, and our conclusions. We encourage readers to review the full open-access study. We wrote the article in a style that was intended to be informative, understandable, and engaging to a broader audience. Later this year, we will be conducting a follow up experimental study that tests the public health frame against a traditional environmental message in the context of a nationally-representative online survey.
Shifting the Train of Thought Towards Public Health
Research over the past several decades has shown that how people "frame" an issue -- i.e., how they mentally organize and discuss with others the issue's central ideas -- greatly influences how they understand the nature of the problem, who or what they see as being responsible for the problem, and what they feel should be done to address the problem. Polling data collected by Ed Maibach and colleagues suggest that the dominant mental frame used by most members of the public to organize their conceptions about climate change is that of "climate change as an environmental problem." However, as I reviewed in a paper published last year and as we discuss in the study:
...when climate change is framed as an environmental problem, this interpretation likely distances many people from the issue and contributes to a lack of serious and sustained public engagement necessary to develop solutions. This focus is also susceptible to a dominant counter frame that the best solution is to continue to grow the economy - paying for adaptive measures in the future when, theoretically, society will be wealthier and better able to afford them - rather than focus on the root causes of the environmental problem. This economic frame likely leaves the public ambivalent about policy action and works to the advantage of industries that are reluctant to reduce their carbon intensity. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of a countervailing populist movement on climate change that has made policy solutions so difficult to enact.
Suggesting a novel frame for climate change -- i.e., a frame such as public health that people had not previously considered -- is potentially useful when it helps people understand the issue more clearly by providing additional personal and societal relevance. Re-defining climate change in public health terms should help people make connections to already familiar problems such as asthma, allergies, and infectious diseases experienced in their communities, while shifting the visualization of the issue away from remote Arctic regions, and distant peoples and animals. In the process, giving climate change a public health focus suggests that there is a need to both mitigate (i.e. reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and adapt to the problem (i.e. protect communities and people from current and future health related impacts). The frame also presents the opportunity to involve additional trusted communication partners on the issue, notably public health experts and local community leaders.
Evaluating How Americans Respond to Climate Change as a Health Problem
Last summer, joined by outstanding graduate students from AU and GMU, we conducted approximately hour-long open-ended interviews with 70 subjects recruited on the National Mall, at a rural Maryland outlet mall, and over the phone. We were looking for respondents who lived at least 1 hour outside of the Washington, DC area. (In all, our final respondent pool represented 29 states.)Using a short screening survey, we categorized subjects in terms of 6 previously identified audience segments on climate change. These six segments of Americans - the Alarmed (18% of the adult population), the Concerned (33%), the Cautious (19%), the Disengaged (12%), the Doubtful (11%), and the Dismissive (7%) - fall along a continuum from those who are engaged on the issue and looking for ways to take appropriate actions (the Alarmed) to those who actively deny its reality and are looking for ways to oppose societal action (See below and the Six Americas of Global Warming report.)
During the open-ended interview, we asked respondents to articulate in their own words their beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and behavior relative to climate change. At the end of the session, we then re-set the frame of reference on the issue by asking respondents to read a short essay.
My co-author Ed Maibach conducts an interview in the shade of the Hirshhorn sculpture garden on the National Mall.
The one-page essay was organized into four sections: an opening paragraph that introduced the public health frame on climate change (5 total sentences); a paragraph that emphasized how human health will be harmed if action is not taken to stop, limit, and/or protect against global warming (i.e., a description of the threat; 7 sentences); a paragraph that discussed several mitigation-focused policy actions and their human health-related benefits if adopted (4 sentences); and a brief concluding paragraph intended to reinforce the public health frame (2 sentences). (Read the full essay.)When respondents finished the reading, they were asked to describe in an open-ended format their "general reaction to this essay." For each portion of the essay they marked in green, they were subsequently asked: "What about each of these sentences was especially clear or helpful to you?" For each portion of the essay they marked in pink, they were also asked: "What about each of these sentences was especially confusing or unhelpful to you?"Two graduate student coders were then trained to reliably code each general reaction statement into one of several thematic categories. The coders were also instructed to assess the overall valence of each respondent's statements - the first of our dependent measures - rating them as: -1 (entirely negative comments); 0 (mixed, including both positive and negative comments); or 1 (entirely positive comments). To code the respondent's sentence-specific reactions made with the highlighting pens, sentences marked with only green on at least one word were scored +1 (i.e. indicating "especially clear or useful"), sentences marked with only pink on at least one word were scored -1 (i.e. indicating "especially confusing or unhelpful), and sentences with either no highlighting, or both green and pink, were scored 0. Composite scores were created for each of the four sections of the essay - the opening, the threat section, the benefit section, and the conclusion - by summing the sentence-specific scores in the section and dividing by the number of sentences.
Americans Respond Favorably When Climate Change is Framed in Terms of Public Health
Full details on the findings, conclusions, and limitations to the study can found at the open-access BMC Public Health article. Below I highlight several major findings that readers should consider. First , overall, subjects on average reacted positively and favorably to the public health-framed essay. Many of the respondents in all five segments made open-ended comments about the essay that demonstrated a positive engagement with the material. For example, nearly half (44%) of the comments made by the Disengaged segment indicated that the essay reflected their personal point of view, was informative or thought-provoking, or offered valuable prescriptive information on how to take action relative to the climate problem. Similarly, 39% of the comments made by respondents in the Doubtful segment reflected one of these three themes.
In a methodology that advances dial group techniques used by pollsters and marketing researchers, we statistically analyzed the sentence-by-sentence reactions to the essay across audience segments.
Second, as shown above, the ascending sentence-specific evaluations between the opening and concluding sections of the essay, for the sample overall and for all of the segments (excluding the Dismissive), suggest that the value of the public health frame may not be immediate, but rather may manifest more fully after people have had time to consider the evidence, especially when this evidence is presented with specific mitigation-related policy actions that are likely to have human health benefits.Third, all six segments reacted positively to the following statements focusing on specific mitigation-related policy actions that lead to human health benefits:
"Taking actions to limit global warming - by making our energy sources cleaner and our cars and appliances more efficient, by making our cities and towns friendlier to trains, buses, and bikers and walkers, and by improving the quality and safety of our food - will improve the health of almost every American.""Cleaner energy sources and more efficient use of energy will lead to healthier air for children and adults to breathe.""Improving the design of our cities and towns in ways that make it easier to get around on foot, by bike and on mass transit will reduce the number of cars and help people become more physically active, lose weight."
Fourth, respondents in all segments tended to react negatively to the statement:
"Increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables, and reducing our intake of meat - especially beef - will help people maintain a healthy weight, will help prevent heart disease and cancer, and will play an important role in limiting global warming."
From the close to the article emphasizing our take away conclusions:
We believe that the public health community has an important perspective to share about climate change, a perspective that potentially offers the public a more salient way to comprehend an issue that has proven deeply difficult for many people to fully comprehend. Moreover, the public health perspective offers a vision of a better, healthier future - not just a vision of environmental disaster averted, and it focuses on a range of possible policy actions that offer local as well as global benefits. Many leading experts in climate change communication, including the present authors, have suggested that a positive vision for the future and a localization of the issue is precisely what has been missing from the public dialogue on climate change thus far [13,22,32].Not all aspects of the public health implications, however, may be engaging. Certain key recommendations, such as eating less meat, tended to elicit counter-arguments among people in many of the segments in our research. Our research provides clues about specific public health messages that might not be helpful, and suggests the need in future research to look carefully for examples or associations that trigger counter-arguments and negative reactions.There is an urgent need for the public health community to successfully educate the public and policy makers about the serious human health implications of climate change, and to engage those publics in appropriate preventive and adaptive responses. As a point of strategy, however, our findings may suggest that continuing to communicate about the problem of climate change is not likely to generate wider public engagement. Instead public health voices may be wise to focus their communication on the solutions and the many co-benefits that matter most to people.
The study was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Health Policy Investigators program to E. Maibach and M.C. Nisbet.
Akerlof, K. et al. (2010). Public Perceptions of Climate Change as a Human Health Risk: Surveys of the United States, Canada, and Malta. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 7 (6), 2559-2606. (Open Access)
Bruno, M. (2010, March 19). Why Aren't Climate Scientists Talking about Health Care Reform. Grist magazine.
Cordon, E. (2010, Feb 5). New York Times' Andrew Revkin, American University's Matthew Nisbet Urge Better Communication on Climate Change. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. (HTML)
Frumkin, H. & McMichael AJ (2008). Climate change and public health: thinking, acting and communicating. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(5):403-410. (PubMed)
Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., and Leiserowitz, A. (2008). Communication and marketing as climate change intervention assets: A public health perspective. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(5), 488-500. (Link).
Montenegro, M. (2009, May 21). Is There a Better Word for Doom? Six Experts Discuss the Merits of Framing Climate Change. Seed Magazine.
Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).
Nisbet, M.C. & Mooney, C. (2007). Policy Forum: Framing Science. Science, 316, 5821, 56. (PDF)
Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What's Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. (PDF)
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.
Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why make it more complicated?
- The Epicureans were some of the world's first materialists and argued that there is neither God, nor gods, nor spirits, but only atoms and the physical world.
- They believed that life was about finding pleasure and avoiding pain and that both were achieved by minimizing our desires for things.
- The Epicurean Four Step Remedy is advice on how we can face the world, achieve happiness, and not worry as much as we do.
Self-help books are consistently on the best-seller lists across the world. We can't seem to get enough of happiness advice, wellness gurus, and life coaches. But, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. The Ancient Greeks were into the self-help business millennia before the likes of Dale Carnegie and Mark Manson.
Four schools of ancient Greek philosophy
From the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Jesus, Greek philosophy was locked into an ideological war. Four rival schools emerged, each proclaiming loudly that they — alone — had the secret to a happy and fulfilled life. These schools were: Stoicism, Cynicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism. Each had their advocates and even had a kind of PR battle to get people to sign up to their side. They were trying to sell happiness.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives.
Many of us are familiar with Stoicism, a topic I covered recently, because it forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Skepticism and Cynicism have become watered down or warped variations of their original forms. (I will cover these in future articles.) Today, we focus on the most underappreciated of these schools, the Epicureans. In their philosophy, we can find a surprisingly modern and easy-to-follow "Four Part Remedy" to life.
Epicureans: The first atheists
The Epicureans were some of history's first materialists. They believed that the world was made up only of atoms (and void), and that everything is simply a particular composition of these atoms. There were no gods, spirits, or souls (or, at most, they're irrelevant to the world as we encounter it). They thought that there was no afterlife or immortality to be had, either. Death is just a relocation of atoms. This atheism and materialism was what the Christian Church would later come to despise, and after centuries of being villainized by priests, popes, and church doctrine, the Epicureans fell out of fashion.
In the atomistic, worldly philosophy of the Epicureans, all there is to life is to get as much pleasure as you can and avoid pain. This isn't to become some rampant hedonist, staggering from opium dens to brothels, but concerns the higher pleasures of the mind.
Epicurus, himself, believed that pleasure was defined as the satisfying of a desire, such as when we drink a glass of water when we're really thirsty. But, he also argued that desires themselves were painful since they, by definition, meant longing and anguish. Thirst is a desire, and we don't like being thirsty. True contentment, then, could not come from creating and indulging pointless wants but must instead come from minimizing desire altogether. What would be the point of setting ourselves new targets? These are just new desires that we must make efforts to satisfy. Thus, minimizing pain meant minimizing desires, and the bare minimum desires were those required to live.
The Four Part Remedy
Given that Epicureans were determined to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, they developed a series of rituals and routines designed to help. One of the best known (not least because we've lost so much written by the Epicureans) was the so-called "Four Part Remedy." These were four principles they believed we ought to accept so that we might find solace and be rid of existential and spiritual pain:
1. Don't fear God. Remember, everything is just atoms. You won't go to hell, and you won't go to heaven. The "afterlife" will be nothingness, in just the same way as when you had no awareness whatsoever of the dinosaurs or Cleopatra. There was simply nothing before you existed, and death is a great expanse of the same timeless, painless void.
2. Don't worry about death. This is a natural corollary of Step 1. With no body, there is no pain. In death, we lose all of our desires and, along with them, suffering and discontent. It's striking how similar in tone this sounds to a lot of Eastern, especially Buddhist, philosophy at the time.
3. What is good is easy to get. Pleasure comes in satisfying desires, specifically the basic, biological desires required to keep us alive. Anything more complicated than this, or harder to achieve, just creates pain. There's water to be drunk, food to be eaten, and beds to sleep in. That's all you need.
4. What is terrible is easy to endure. Even if it is difficult to satisfy the basic necessities, remember that pain is short-lived. We're rarely hungry for long, and sicknesses most often will be cured easily enough (and this was written 2300 years before antibiotics). All other pains often can be mitigated by pleasures to be had. If basic biological necessities can't be met, then you die — but we already established there is nothing to fear from death.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives. It doesn't tell us "the five things you need to do before breakfast" or "visit these ten places, and you'll never be sad again." Just like it's rival school of Stoicism, Epicureanism is all about a psychological shift of some kind.
Namely, that psychological shift is about recognizing that life doesn't need to be as complicated as we make it. At the end of the day, we're just animals with basic needs. We have the tools necessary to satisfy our desires, but when we don't, we have huge reservoirs of strength and resilience capable of enduring it all. Failing that, we still have nothing to fear because there is nothing to fear about death. When we're alive, death is nowhere near; when we're dead, we won't care.
Practical, modern, and straightforward, Epicurus offers a valuable insight to life. It's existential comfort for the materialists and atheists. It's happiness in four lines.