The August 8, 2013 issue of Time Magazine challenges us to rethink the popular image of climate change: a polar bear floating forlornly on a melting bit of ice. Instead, what if climate change was about “an increase in childhood asthma, or a surge in infectious diseases, or even an influx of heat-induced heart attacks?” In other words, what if the U.S. population saw climate change as an environmental public health issue and not just an environmental issue?
Time references this recent special issue of Science on natural systems in changing climates, noting the “growing connection between global warming and infectious diseases.” Just as importantly, it reminds us of a study published in 2012 (to much fanfare: listen to this contemporaneous NPR story by Richard Harris) that evaluated whether framing climate change as an environmental, national security, or public health issue affected people’s reaction to the issue. Extrapolating from a nationally representative sample, the results showed that “the public health focus was the most likely to elicit emotional reactions consistent with support for climate change mitigation and adaptation.” The authors concluded that understanding climate change in terms of near-term impacts on human health not only made the study participants pay attention to the problem, but also left them hopeful about addressing it. Interestingly, the study noted that to “rebrand” climate change as a public health problem requires “congruence between the messenger and the frame.” (More on that in my next post.)