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Green Groups Rebrand Global Warming Around Public Health

Following the demise of cap and trade legislation, green group leaders acknowledged that despite spending several hundred million dollars to pass the bill, they were unable to create public demand for action in key Midwest Congressional districts and states. 

“The community that tried to move a climate bill fundamentally lacks political power and doesn’t have the ability to either deliver punishment or reward to members of Congress who don’t vote for us,” Kathleen Welch, a Washington-based philanthropy adviser told Politico in 2011. Her admission was echoed in statements by Fred Krupp, Bill McKibben and others. 

Now, as Politico reports today, it appears that green groups led by the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club are seeking to address this weakness.  “We’re going to talk a lot about the health implications of dirty air,” Heather Taylor, director of NRDC’s political arm told Politico. “I think that the Midwest is one of those places where [there are] a million great clean energy stories, especially. And they’re not being told right now, because we’ve tended to be in other markets. That’s an area where we feel like it’s time to go tell those stories.” You can watch one of their TV ads emphasizing this message later in the post.

In a polarized America, if you are going to build support for candidates in the Midwest and other battleground states that will back legislation on climate change during the next Congress, you have to switch focus to emphasize public health and economic resilience, goals realized through incremental actions like eliminating coal plants and boosting fuel efficiency.

“Critics for a long time have argued that environmentalists and our issues don’t connect with people,” Sierra Club National Political Director Tony Cani told Politico. “The idea is this: When it comes to any issue, whether it’s Keystone, EPA regulations or any other issue … how does that impact individuals? How does it impact families? I think that it’s fair to say that that’s not always been a strength of environmentalists.”


As I reviewed in a 2009 paper at the journal Environment, in 2006 and 2007 the dominant focus of climate messaging was around the “climate crisis” and the risk of catastrophe. This message was set in motion and promoted through Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  Along with this frame was one of political accountability, emphasizing the “war on science,” the actions of the Bush administration and conservatives, and the efforts of Democrats to “return science to its rightful place” in politics, as Obama would later declare.

In late 2007, Gore with his newly launched WE campaign switched focus temporarily to a message emphasizing national unity in the face of an existential threat, similar to Americans coming to together to win WWII or to put a man on the Moon. Yet by 2009 and for most of the cap and trade debate, Green groups led by the Environmental Defense Fund and the WE campaign focused on climate action as leading to jobs.  EDF in ads told viewers that “Cap=jobs” and the WE campaign ran ads featuring construction workers, ranchers, and clean energy technicians around the brand theme “Repower America.”

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Yet the focus on jobs lacked a moral foundation.  It offered the promise of benefits, but didn’t build a case for why we should act and why we have a responsibility to do so.  The emphasis on economic benefits in the context of the recession also turned the debate into  “some economic benefits” as claimed by greens versus “dramatic economic costs” as claimed by opponents, a balance that given the economic context favored the opposition.


Public health has been a dramatically under-communicated dimension of the climate change story, yet it is a dimension that has perhaps the best ability to connect with a wider diversity of Americans, to erode polarized differences, and to create a moral foundation for action.

Consider that through 2009, in an analysis I conducted for the Centers for Disease Control with several colleagues, we found that health impacts such as extreme heat, disease, and respiratory problems, and more vivid threats such as hurricanes, were mentioned in fewer than 5% and 10% of the climate change-related articles in national and regional papers, respectively.

One reason that human health impacts were dramatically under-communicated was that major funders were not considering these types of human dimensions in their investment strategies. As I detailed in the Climate Shift report, between 2008 and 2010, the 9 major national foundations that were part of the Design to Win alliance distributed more than $360 million in grants related to action on climate change and energy, but among these grants only $1.9 million included a focus on public health and well-being, less than .05% of all funds distributed.


1. Public Health Partners Have a Built in Network in the Midwest, Greens Don’t

Partnering with NRDC and the Sierra Club is the American Lung Association. This partnership is important since by their own admission, green groups lack the network in many conservative or swing districts to make major communication gains. For public health groups, this network exists and they have a playbook specific to tobacco to draw from.

In the ALA and other public health groups’ efforts to regulate tobacco, major Congressional legislation was blocked by the tobacco lobby until 2009.  Yet over the previous 30 years, anti-smoking groups won incremental policy victories through smoking bans and cigarette taxes, while socially stigmatizing smoking through campaigns in support of these goals.  Moreover, it was legal action by States Attorney General that ultimately forced Congress to consider national legislation in 1998.  The bill failed but built momentum for legislative success in 2009, the first time after 50 years of efforts that Congress enacted a bill that regulates tobacco as a controlled substance.

2. A Public Health Frame Personalizes and Localizes the Climate Pollution Story

As I wrote in the 2009 paper at Environment, by re-framing climate change in terms of public health, several points of emphasize likely connect better with audiences beyond the environmental base:

The public health frame stresses climate change’s potential to increase the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke, and other salient health problems, especially among the most vulnerable populations: the elderly and children. In the process, the public health frame makes climate change personally relevant to new audiences by connecting the issue to health problems that are already familiar and perceived as important. The frame also shifts the geographic location of impacts, replacing visuals of remote Arctic regions, animals, and peoples with more socially proximate neighbors and places across local communities and cities. Coverage at local television news outlets and specialized urban media is also generated.

In research with Ed Maibach and colleagues, we find that by focusing communication on the health risks of climate change and the health benefits of local-level action, even those doubtful or dismissive of climate change support forms of mitigation-related actions, a starting point for building support for eventual national policy. [See discussion and study at BMC Public Health.]

As Maibach and I have also described, by focusing on public health, you additionally activate new trusted spokespeople and opinion leaders among local public health officials, nurses, doctors, and health advocates.  

With Mindy Weathers — a graduate student at GMU — we put together a report and primer on Conveying the Health Implications of Climate Change, intended to serve as an education tool and resource for public health officials, professionals, agencies, and offices across the country.

3. Personal Stories Build the Foundation for National Action

Localizing the issue of greenhouse gas pollution in terms of personal stories also resonates strongly with the strategy of health care reform advocates in the run up to the 2008 election. 

Families USA spent several million in 2008 creating a “story bank” of media that documented the personal struggles of individuals without health insurance or who had been denied coverage. This became a major resource for journalists, campaign speechwriters and communication staff, helped elevate attention to health care during the election, and set an important frame of reference for the policy debate after Obama was elected. The efforts by Sierra, NRDC, and ALA should be designed and used with these types of goals in mind.

4. A Public Health Focus Can Transcend Polarization

As evidenced by the study above, public health is a widely shared value.  Indeed, as was the case in the battle over tobacco and second-hand smoke, concern for the health of innocents including women and children is a moral foundation held by both liberals and conservatives.

In the XL Pipeline debate, opposition to the pipeline from Midwest state and local Republican political leaders did not come from appeals to act on behalf of the environment or global warming, but rather because of concerns over health risks related to the contamination of the Ogallala aquifer. “I want to emphasize that I am not opposed to pipelines,” wrote Gov. Dave Heineman in a letter to Obama “I am opposed to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route because it is directly over the Ogallala Aquifer.”

5. A Public Health Frame Morally Stigmatizes Fossil Fuel Companies

The tobacco campaign began to turn when grassroots activists across states shifted the perceived norms around smoking from something that was attractive and done openly in public to something that was harmful to innocents, disgusting and done in private. In the process, advocates morally stigmatized tobacco companies as knowingly creating an addictive product that harmed the public’s health especially innocents such as kids.  Tobacco executives then lied before Congress about the issue.

Defining greenhouse pollution as harming innocent kids and fossil fuel companies as morally irresponsible is a parallel strategy. Partnering with ALA and public health officials gives Green groups the moral authority to make this argument. 

Sierra and NRDC do this in the first of the ads that they are running in the Midwest. See below. 

6. Greens for Too Long Have Ceded the Conversation on Gas Prices to Conservatives

Focusing on fuel efficiency in cars as an antidote to high gas prices — and thanking President Obama for the fuel efficiency rules — is also an important strategy.  For too long, Greens and Democrats have ceded the gas price conversation to conservatives who redefine the issue as a supply problem (i.e. drill more) rather than a demand problem (ie. fuel efficiency, public transportation that saves money and benefits public health).

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In a study at the American Journal of Public Health with Ed Maibach and Tony Leiserowitz, we find that conservative perceptions mirror expert opinion, as they are highly concerned about the possible economic and health impacts of a spike and volatility in gas prices.  Liberals — opposite to climate change — display greater divergence from expert opinion and are less concerned about these impacts, suggesting an ideological blind spot to the importance of the issue.

The sensitivity of conservatives to gas prices and their low information, intuitive sense that gas prices are connected to public health offers a strong opening for engagement on the issue, an opportunity to start a broader conversation about the connections between energy policy, public health, and economic well-being.

See Also:

Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C., Baldwin, P., Akerlof, K. & Diao, G. (2010).  Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions.  BMC Public Health, 10: 299.

Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C., & Weathers, M. (2011, April).Conveying the Human Implications of Climate Change: A Climate Change Communication Primer for Public Health Professionals. Fairfax, VA: Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University

Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement.  Environment, 51 (2), 12-23.

Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E. & Leiserowitz, A. (2011). Framing Peak Petroleum as a Public Health Problem: Audience Research and Public Engagement. American Journal of Public Health, 101: 1620-1626.

Nisbet, M.C. (2011, April). Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate. Washington, D.C.: School of Communication, American University.


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