A polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg seems to be the current poster child for global warming. But some health officials argue the symbol should, instead, be a child. Richard Harris reports for NPR.
Emerging work shows that people respond more favorably to climate change warnings when portrayed as a health issue – rather than an environmental problem.
And the most obvious risk from a warming world is deadly heat. About 750 people died from the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, and over 70,000 deaths were attributable to Europe’s heat wave of 2003.
Additionally, hot air causes more smog, which leads to more asthma. Killer storms are likely to become more powerful, and infectious diseases will increase their ranges.
"This is a new topic for public health," says George Luber at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is emerging largely as a result that the scientific evidence around climate change has evolved to the point that public health feels confident engaging the science -- that this is a credible threat."
And of course, health officials are messengers with special credibility. They're trusted far more than other widely heard voices on this topic, including politicians, journalists, and environmental activists.
A team of social scientists, led by Matthew Nisbet at American University American University, have found that people who are indifferent, or even hostile, to climate change are more receptive to the issue when it's talked about as a health issue.
When the issue is localized for people to view as personally relevant, climate change has far more appeal than when it's framed as an environmental issue or a matter of national security. It elicits emotionally engaging responses from across America, resonating with conservatives and liberals, and even those who just don’t think about climate change.
But other experts have doubts, especially if health claims don't stand up. For example, some people have been tempted to draw a connection between this year's outbreak of West Nile disease and climate change. While warmer conditions favor West Nile, it’s hard to pin a specific outbreak on changing climate.
And then again, disease might not necessarily motivate people to take action against climate change. According to George Marshall at the Climate Outreach Information Network: "There's a real danger people will just hold their hands over their ears and say, 'I don't want to hear this! I don't want to hear there's going to be more malaria, there's going to be more West Nile virus, or worse ozone or there's going to be more asthma,' or any connection you might be able to make for climate change."
He says people will respond to ideas that help them personally, help their families, and help their communities; and there's clearly a role for talking about health and climate change in that context.
Image: Scott Schliebe / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service