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Reframing climate change as a public health issue

It's a bizarre phenomenon: While scientific consensus (.pdf) on the dire consequences of global warming mounts, the number of Americans who see climate change as a serious problem has fallen in recent years, from 44 percent in April 2008 to 35 percent in October 2009. Such a severe defiance by the general public of findings that are, by our accepted metrics, unambiguous begs the question: Is the problem in the message?

New research from George Mason and American Universities suggests it might be. Reframing global warming from terms of environmental consequences to specific human health effects, they found, generated higher acceptance of the issue in a small group of subjects.

"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 [study author Edward] Maibach. "The public health perspective offers a vision of a better, healthier future-not just a vision of an environmental disaster averted."

Cognitive research has shown that how people frame (mentally organize and discuss) an issue shapes their understanding of it. In light of a 2005 survey, in which not a single respondent "freely associated climate change as representing a threat to people," the George Mason researchers hypothesize:

[T]he 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, 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.

The health implications of climate change are huge, and will disproportionately harm the poor, the very young, the elderly, those in poor health, the disabled, individuals living alone and people with inadequate housing and health care. The harmful effects include higher rates of death and disease due to worsening air quality, rising temperatures, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and higher incidences of food- and water-borne pathogens and allergens.

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