Climate change is a major public health threat, already making existing problems like asthma, exposure to extreme heat, food poisoning, and infectious disease more severe, and posing new risks from climate change-related disasters, including death or injury.
Those were the alarming conclusions of a new scientific assessment report released by the Obama administration this week, drawing on input from eight federal agencies and more than 100 relevant experts.
“As far as history is concerned this is a new kind of threat that we are facing,” said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at a White House event. Pregnant women, children, low-income people and communities of color are among the most at risk.
Despite ever more urgent warnings of scientists, Americans still tend to view climate change as a scientific or environmental issue, but not as a problem that currently affects them personally, or one that connects to issues that they already perceive as important.
Yet research suggests that as federal agencies, experts, and societal leaders increasingly focus on the public health risks of climate change, this reframing may be able to overcome longstanding public indifference on the issue. The new communication strategy, however, faces several hurdles and uncertainties.
Putting a public health focus to the test
In a series of studies that I conducted with several colleagues in 2010 and 2011, we examined how Americans respond to information about climate change when the issue is reframed as a public health problem.
In line with the findings of the recent Obama administration report, the messages we tested with Americans stressed scientific findings that link climate change to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke and other health problems – risks that particularly impact children, the elderly and the poor.
We evaluated not only story lines that highlighted these risks, but also the presentations that focused on the benefits to public health if actions were taken to curb greenhouse emissions.
In an initial study, we conducted in-depth interviews with 70 respondents from 29 states, recruiting subjects from six previously defined audience segments. These segments ranged on a continuum from those individuals deeply alarmed by climate change to those who were deeply dismissive of the problem.
Across all six audience segments, when asked to read a short essay that framed climate change in terms of public health, individuals said that the information was both useful and compelling, particularly at the end of the essay when locally focused policy actions were presented with specific benefits to public health.
In a follow-up study, we conducted a nationally representative online survey. Respondents from each of the six audience segments were randomly assigned to three different experimental conditions in which they read brief essays about climate change discussed as either an environmental problem, a public health problem or a national security problem. This allowed us to evaluate their emotional reactions to strategically framed messages about the issue.
In comparison to messages that defined climate change in terms of either the environment or national security, talking about climate change as a public health problem generated greater feelings of hope among subjects. Research suggests that fostering a sense of hope, specifically a belief that actions to combat climate change will be successful, is likely to promote greater public involvement and participation on the issue.
Among subjects who tended to doubt or dismiss climate change as a problem, the public health focus also helped diffuse anger in reaction to information about the issue, creating the opportunity for opinion change.
A recent study by researchers at Cornell University built on our findings to examine how to effectively reframe the connections between climate change and ocean health.
In this study involving 500 subjects recruited from among passengers on a Seattle-area ferry boat, participants were randomly assigned to two frame conditions in which they read presentations that defined the impact of climate change on oceans.
For a first group of subjects, the consequences of climate change were framed in terms of their risks to marine species such as oysters. For the second group, climate change was framed in terms of risks to humans who may eat contaminated oysters.
The framing of ocean impacts in terms of risks to human health appeared to depoliticize perceptions. In this case, the human health framing condition had no discernible impact on the views of Democrats and independents, but it did influence the outlook of Republicans. Right-leaning people, when information emphasized the human health risks, were significantly more likely to support various proposed regulations of the fossil fuel industry.
In two other recent studies, the Cornell team of researchers have found that communications about climate change are more persuasive among political conservatives when framed in terms of localized, near-term impacts and if they feature compassion appeals for the victims of climate change disasters, such as drought.
Challenges to reframing climate change
To date, a common weakness in studies testing different framing approaches to climate change is that they do not evaluate the effects of the tested messages in the context of competing arguments.
In real life, most people hear about climate change by way of national news outlets, local TV news, conversations, social media and political advertisements. In these contexts, people are likely to also encounter arguments by those opposed to policy action who misleadingly emphasize scientific uncertainty or who exaggerate the economic costs of action.
Thus our studies and others may overestimate framing effects on attitude change, since they do not correspond to how most members of the public encounter information about climate change in the real world.
The two studies that have examined the effects of novel frames in the presence of competing messages have found mixed results. A third recent study finds no influence on attitudes when reframing action on climate change in terms of benefits to health or the economy, even in the absence of competing frames. In light of their findings, the authors recommend that communication efforts remain focused on emphasizing the environmental risks of inaction.
Communicating about climate change as a public health problem also faces barriers from how messages are shared and spread online, suggests another recent study.
In past research on Facebook sharing, messages that are perceived to be conventional are more likely to be passed on than those that are considered unconventional. Scholars theorize that this property of Facebook sharing relates closely to how cultures typically tend to reinforce status quo understandings of social problems and to marginalize unconventional perspectives.
In an experiment designed like a game of three-way telephone in which subjects were asked to select and pass on Facebook messages about climate change, the authors found that a conventional framing of climate change in terms of environmental risks was more likely to be shared, compared to less conventional messages emphasizing the public health and economic benefits to action.
In all, these results suggest that efforts to employ novel framing strategies on climate change that involve an emphasis on public health will require sustained, well-resourced, and highly coordinated activities in which such messages are repeated and emphasized by a diversity of trusted messengers and opinion leaders.
That’s why the new federal scientific assessment, which was promoted via the White House media and engagement offices, is so important. As these efforts continue, they will also need to be localized and tailored to specific regions, cities, or states and periodically evaluated to gauge success and refine strategy.