We Must Better Communicate the Health Risks of Climate Change

Climate change march / Safety Messenger
Climate change march / Safety Messenger

“Climate change is a complicated topic, which makes it anathema to clear communication,” explained Dr. Ed Maibach, who runs the center for climate change communication at George Mason University. At the climate and health summit at the Carter Center, Maibach said most Americans associate climate change with “plants, penguins, and polar bears,” and view it as a “22nd century problem.” Climate change is seen as a “scientific, environmental, and political problem, but not a public health one.” Given only about one-third of Americans are environmentalists, framing climate change as a health problem first and foremost could help spur more action. Everyone is concerned with the health of their communities and children.

Maibach is seen as a leading expert on climate change communications. His advice for how we can better reach the public is practical: “the less you say, the more you’re heard; say the things that have the most value; and use audience research to determine which messages have the most value.”

When crafting communications messages, it’s important to “repeat things over and over again,” adapt key messages, reinforce them, but also find a variety of trusted voices, like doctors and nurses, to convey them. “Aim simple, clear messages at target audiences. They will then share with their family members and friends.”

Maibach has been studying what messages will work with various segments of the public. He found there are a number of different Americas. “About 18 percent are alarmed by climate change, 34 percent are concerned, 23 percent are cautious, 5 percent are disengaged, 11 percent are doubtful, and 7 percent are dismissive.”

The messages that will resound with more of these groups include: “(1) 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced human-caused climate change is happening; (2) climate change is already harming our health now. All of us can he harmed, but some are more likely to be harmed, like children, the elderly, pregnant women, student athletes, the sick and poor; and (3) reduce energy waste and embrace clean energy, so we can clean up our air and water.” Maibach said even “the dismissive segment gets that last point, as many of them are enthusiastic about renewable energy.”

Dr. Susan Pachecho, University of Texas Health Science Center, said instead of focusing on tailored messages, communicators must create narratives with personal stories that really connect. “Stories of patients work. Less is better.” She also called for using the humanities — fiction, poetry, art, and music — to better reach students on the health risks of climate change.

And one of the most intriguing speeches came from Jerry Taylor, head of the Niskanen Center, and a Republican who was a climate denier at the Cato Institute for decades before he saw the light and started to believe the science. Taylor explained how to reach Republicans, who really are the ones who need to shift their views if we are going to have more support for climate action. “Democratic opinion on the left and center has been there [supportive of efforts on climate change] for 25 years. Republican opinion: What will move them?”

Taylor said “for the most part, tribal political leaders guide public policy. What drives Republican opinions on climate change are Republican political leaders.” In 2008, Senator John McCain promoted a cap and trade program to reduce carbon emissions. Positions have shifted farther to the right in just under a decade, as neither presidential candidate Mitt Romney or Donald Trump put forth any climate plan. (But, still, 49 percent of Trump supporters agree climate change is happening, and 62 percent want to see emissions regulated).

What’s needed are a few more McCains, Republican tribal leaders who will show some leadership on the issue, just like former Secretaries of State James Baker III and George Schultz, along with former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson did with their call for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

To reach more Republican and grow more of these leaders, Taylor advised against using phrases like “massive socio-economic transformation.” He said “that’s not going to happen, and Republicans like capitalism and the 21st century as it is.” Also, “unleashing the government,” like the environmentalist Bill McKibben has proposed, with a sort of New Deal for a new green economy, also isn’t going to fly, as that would be viewed as a “war on the economy.” He said for Republicans, “it’s not about the debate on the climate science,” but fear of government control of the economy.

Taylor also urged Democrats “not to overplay certainties. There is less knowledge of future scenarios” than many would like. “Will we reach a new climate stability in 60 years or 3-4 centuries? Will temperatures level out at a 1.5-3 Celsius or 8-10 Celsius increase? There is a lot we don’t know about how bad it will be.”

Instead, “risk management works well on Capitol Hill. There is a big distribution of possible outcomes, with one option being ‘no impact,’ and another being ‘big impact.'” Advocates can present the “most likely outcomes,” which will encourage Republicans to hedge their bets. Also, discussing the co-benefits of fighting climate change, like improved health, works. For example, we can have a cleaner and healthier planet.

But “de-industrialization, raising energy costs, massively increasing government spending — we don’t need to do this. Harnessing the market is a near-universal remedy that Republicans can put into play.”

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