As researcher after researcher took the stage last week at the Climate & Health Summit organized by former Vice President Al Gore, the evidence mounted: climate change is not just bad for the planet. It’s bad for you.
We’re not talking some dystopian vision of an apocalyptic Earth 50 or 100 years from now. The fact is that right here, right now, climate change is harming our health in ways that most people have not yet stopped to consider.
“Almost no Americans can name a single way in which climate change harms our health,” said Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and a conference panelist.
In fact, our hotter, wetter climate is already unleashing a Pandora’s box of human misery here in America as well as worldwide. Ticks with Lyme disease are on the march, chowing down on more people in more places. The superheating of mosquitos’ metabolism is speeding the spread of Zika. Warmer waters are giving Vibrio a foothold far and wide, sickening seafood eaters and swimmers. Warmer weather is lengthening the allergy season and worsening smog, causing more asthma and heart attacks. And as our weather turns downright biblical, communities are experiencing – in addition to more frequent and intense natural disasters, with all the attendant health impacts – more frequent and more intense “heat events” that put the elderly and student athletes alike at especially high risk.
Move over polar bears. We’ve got a people problem. And that may hold the key to climate action.
“The frame in which Americans tend to see climate change is ‘plants, penguins and polar bears’ -- an environmental problem. Or a scientific problem. Or a political problem,” said Maibach, who is also working with a team of us here at Salter>Mitchell / Marketing for Change on a climate and health project for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Climate change is a human health problem. Climate change affects our children. It affects our parents. It affects all of us.”
The good news for the concerned climate scientists and public health professionals gathered at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week is that the health frame is one that nearly all Americans can relate to. The even better news is that many of the actions we can take to slow the warming of our planet are also good for our health.
Communities that increase the use of renewable energy reduce local air pollution, easing the impact on people with asthma and heart conditions. Active transportation -- cycling and walking to get where we need to go -- has the added benefit of inserting physical activity into our daily routines. Eating less meat and more vegetables is good for our waistlines as well as the planet. And planting trees and painting roofs to fight the urban “heat island” effect also reduces the intensity of extreme heat.
Through his research, Ed has identified six different commonly held attitudes on climate change -- what he calls the Six Americas. Until now, a big problem has been that the minority on the left (18%) that is alarmed by climate change spends much of its time publicly battling the smaller minority on the right (9%) that denies climate change is happening or that there’s anything we can do to stop it.
Changing the frame to a public health threat -- rather than an environmental threat, a hard-to-understand scientific issue, or a political battle -- is an opportunity to reach the vast majority of Americans in the middle who are worried, but until now have not had a compelling reason to act.
And yes, the Dismissives have a lock on Washington at the moment. But the public health impacts of climate change -- which will be felt most acutely at the local level -- give cities and states even more incentive to answer Vice President Gore’s call to “double down” on climate action.
“The health consequences of climate offer a way to communicate directly and connect with people that may be more powerful than any other framing of the issue,” the former vice president said as he concluded the conference. “And the health benefits of addressing the climate crisis are equally as powerful."
It’s time to change the frame.