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Reframing climate change could deliver health benefits

Climate change is a complex problem but appears to many people as lacking immediate impact on their lives. Reconceptualising it as a health issue may allow for both better understanding of the issue and…

One of the benefits of using the health frame is that it makes the issues more tangible – here and now and about people, not just polar bears. Roderick Eime/AAP

Climate change is a complex problem but appears to many people as lacking immediate impact on their lives. Reconceptualising it as a health issue may allow for both better understanding of the issue and greater scope for changing behaviour.

Climate change is often perceived as affecting people far from us in both time and space. And what doctors, psychologists and other health professionals have known for some time is that just providing people with more facts about an issue doesn’t always change their minds or cause them to act in an appropriate manner. In fact, how we say something may be as important as what we say.

Health-related behaviour can be determined by a number of factors including whether people think the problem is serious, feel they’re susceptible to it and are convinced they’re able to take effective action. While denial may result from apathy or self-interest, it may also be a way of actively avoiding something deeply worrying that we feel powerless to change.

Cognitive dissonance – the discomfort generated when there’s a discrepancy between beliefs or behaviours - occurs when we are presented with information that’s incompatible with our word views or firm beliefs, and we employ strategies to defend these. Denying the new information may be the easiest way to deal with the conflict.

Generating powerful emotions, such as fear or guilt, can create an “emotional dissonance” with people trying to avoid what is upsetting, leading to a different type of denial. So fear-based appeals, if not coupled with solutions, can actually reduce engagement. Our emotions and values are intricately tied up with how we respond to information and that‘s why framing of the issue is so important.

Smoke from bushfires can cause respiratory problems. AAP Image/Department of Environment and Conservation WA

Climate change can be seen as an environmental, moral, or economic issue. And it can be also framed as a health problem. One of the benefits of using the health frame is that it makes the issues more tangible – here and now and about people, not polar bears.

People are already familiar with health problems and accept their importance. While it can seem a somewhat nebulous concept when spoken of in its own terms, framing climate change in terms of heart disease, asthma, food safety and infectious disease can make it more “real” and personally relevant.

Issue frames that emphasise benefits rather than focusing on costs, and tailoring messages as much as possible to particular audiences, will achieve better responses. The health frame offers solutions and a positive vision of the future with multiple benefits.

The Climate Commission has recently started using the health frame to communicate about climate change. It has also recognised that health professionals are a source of trusted information for people.

In fact, there’s an emerging body of literature pointing to the health benefits of acting on climate change.

Even increasing the proportion of vegetables and reducing meat consumption is better for both health and the environment. SteveR-/Flickr

Policies that reduce greenhouse emissions can result in significant health improvements and contribute to tackling the epidemic of chronic diseases now facing modern societies. According to medical journal The Lancet, “the news is not all bad”.

Being less dependent on car use and more physically active - walking or cycling - can benefit people by reducing the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and promoting good mental health.

Reducing fossil fuel combustion from vehicle use and coal combustion can reduce air pollution, a significant cause of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and premature death. By designing our cities and transportation systems more efficiently, we can reduce emissions and help prevent a range of health impacts.

Even increasing the proportion of vegetables and reducing meat consumption in our diets can provide a win for both health and the environment. Such multi-sectoral policies and approaches to daily life also have the capacity to generate considerable economic savings.

Health professionals are well-placed to use the health frame for communicating the impact of climate change and illustrating the benefits mitigation strategies can have for health. Reframing climate change as a health issue helps people understand what climate change predictions mean for them and their loved ones, as well as to unite people across ideological divides and empower and motivate them to act.

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  1. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this.

    Framing it as a health issue is one thing, but there's a timeframe problem as encountered with teenage smoking and drinking: "It will kill you in a few decades' time" is not the easiest of messages to get across.

    1. Greg Staib

      Research Intern at CSIRO

      In reply to David Arthur

      I would agree that addressing an issue that is seemingly so far away from our everyday lives is extremely difficult. It is much easier to have an out of sight out of mind approach with climate change.

      I find that the image of the polar bear on a melting icecap is getting a bit tired and a change of approach may be better. I can see the merits in taking a health issue and on the importance of selling the benefits but these professionals will need to be well trained to ensure the facts and message are correct, clear and consistent. How it is delivered is very important since this would shift information towards a more lifestyle approach, and climate science still needs to be incorporated in the message otherwise the debate could very easily be hijacked by 'skeptics'.

    2. Ken Swanson


      In reply to David Arthur

      You are right, it is a long term campaign, but it is at least a little closer to home than the long term campaign about AGW being put forth now.
      The most recent ads which state that by giving up smoking now you will see a more immediate short term health benefit are much closer to the mark.
      It can be done.

  2. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see:

    "The Climate Commission has recently started using the health frame to communicate about climate change. It has also recognised that health professionals are a source of trusted information for people."

    What, climate scientists no longer trusted? Wonder why...

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      That's right Marc, they've not only fooled virtually all the world's serious scientific institutes, such as the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Science and so forth, but they've even managed to trick professional actuaries like the major re-insurance companies - oh, and more recently the World Economic Forum...

      Of course, in your alternative reality I presume these are all parts of a giant conspiracy to enslave us all under world government, undoubtedly lead by Prince Phillip and the other secret reptiles from Alpha Draconis.

      You're welcome to base your construction of reality on Nexus magazine, but I'd rather trust Nature magazine when it comes to real science.

    2. Leo Kerr


      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Apha Draconis has determined that the human species is an aberrant virus strain that consumes and destroys everything it touches (as Agent Smith explained to Morpheus during his 'interview') - Climate Change deniers are simply alien agents following orders to ensure the 'smart but not smart enough' species is taken out before it masters space travel technology and infects other regions of the universe. This is not conspiracy theory - this is fact as those who have been abducted by aliens will attest to.

    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Leo Kerr

      I knew it must somehow all make sense - thanks for the explanation Leo!

  3. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    Scientists have trashed their reputation and that of their discipline with outrageous futurist predictions based on extrapolation from questionable base lines.
    Now health professionals are being invited to follow a similar path.
    Will they be lemmings also?

    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      "Scientists have trashed their reputation and that of their discipline"

      Better put down that scientist-dependent technology and go live in a cave, Phillip. Have fun hunting your dinner - farmers consult soil scientists so you shouldn't trust anything they eat. Might be a bit chilly at night too - no sleeping bag for you, and nothing but good old-fashioned fire for heat and light.

    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Thanks for this Mr Dowling.

      In the comments after Ullrick Ecker & John Cook's "The Conversation" piece, "No one likes to change their mind, not even on climate" (, I clarified your misunderstanding on climate science.

      That you continue your ridiculous attempts to smear climate scientists with your own demonstrated failure to identify reality is both unsurprising and disappointing.

  4. Jim Corcoran

    logged in via Facebook

    Here are more health and environmental benefits!

    "As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease." Worldwatch Institute, "Is Meat Sustainable…

    Read more
  5. Danderson

    logged in via Twitter

    What kind of cognitive dissomathingy is this person suffering from?

    "One young woman broke down in tears as she asked whether people had a future, and if not, how long they had."

    That quote refers to the Climate Commission's community meeting in Western Sydney just last night. I've seen that reaction before on the ABC's Q&A from an audience member.

    While it's easy to poke fun at such people their only failing is to have exercised trust. TheConversations's recent Heretic piece suggested us humans could be at risk of climate induced extinction: So I guess we really should be crying and asking how long we've got?

    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Danderson

      To quote Carl Sagan: "A little greenhouse effect is a good thing. But Venus is an ominous reminder that in a world rather like the earth, things can go wrong. There is no guarantee that our planet will always be so hospitable."

      Sagan died in 1996 but, when it comes to understanding the dynamics of planetary atmospheres, he's probably the best mind this planet has ever produced.

      The worst case scenario may be little more likely than the feeble-minded faith that business as usual poses no risks, but we'd be fools to ignore the possibility.

      The extreme worst case would see surface temperatures exceed 200 celsius and no liquid water. That might be bad for business.

  6. Adrian Barnett

    Associate Professor of Public Health at Queensland University of Technology

    I agree that the health angle should be pushed more. Home insulation is another win-win. It delivers instant health benefits (reduced blood pressure, reduced days of work and school, better self-rated health) and reduces energy consumption. There are still many homes in Australia that have no insulation (despite the recent push). And despite our mild climate data from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne show large increases in cardiovascular and respiratory deaths during hot and cold weather. We estimate that 6,500 years of life are lost due to temperature in year in Brisbane:

  7. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate


    I agree with pretty much everything you say - personally I'm feeling the benefit of growing food and getting excercise while I travel - but I have my doubts about how successful the strategy will be, for the following reasons:

    1. the climate denial mob aren't going to change their stance, not for anything. If denying climate change means harming their own health, they'll go right ahead and do it. They will see excercise and gardening (so often the same thing) not as opportunities to…

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  8. Ken Swanson



    Excellent article, but only a starting point.

    All the health benefits you have mentioned are already well known and make a lot of sense. Also, most people, if educated and incentive to do so, would not have any problem changing their behaviour if it directly benefits them. Realistically most do not have a deeply held view about AGW, but if the outcome is the same who really cares.

    This type of direct action and tangible activity has more chance of changing public opinion than alarmist…

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  9. Yoron Hamber


    Perfectly true.

    We need to stop looking at the negative and bring forth the positive aspects of a sustainable living. People will find their motivation when they see the positive aspects of getting a better future for themselves and their kids.