Climate communication and public health

OR: In (partial) defense of Matt Nisbet

I’m not going to rehash old complaints, but suffice it to say that I’ve had my disagreements with Matthew Nisbet in the past.

In the Atlantic [via], David Ropeik zeroes in on some recent polling data on climate change that may explain why the general public isn’t more involved in demanding action:

Those categories in italics (my emphasis) identify how few people worry that climate change will affect them—about one person in ten. Nearly five times as many people in the United States are more worried that climate change will affect polar bears and plants than are worried about themselves. Small wonder, then, that the study found more support for generic ways of dealing with climate change, like funding renewable energy research, and less support for ideas that suggest concrete personal costs, like increasing the gasoline tax by 25 cents.

Setting aside the issue of whether or not voters do support slight increases in energy costs for cleaner energy (I’m pretty sure they do), there’s certainly something to this. I caught part of a recent forum (hosted by American University) on NPR that has some bearing on this issue. The full video can be seen on Nisbet’s blog. Nisbet made the point that people are generally very concerned with environmental issues that are framed in terms not of far off catastrophe but of immediate public health. No matter what your opinion of his past “framing” arguments may be, Nisbet may be on to something here.

There seems to be an enormous amount of low hanging fruit to be picked in terms of public persuasion, should more emphasis be put on both the public health consequences of climate change and perhaps even more importantly on the health benefits of using clean energy. Prestigious medical journals like The Lancet (e.g. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions) and JAMA (e.g. Expansion of Renewable Energy Industries and Implications for Occupational Health) and governmental organizations like the CDC and WHO have been and continue to highlight this important aspect of the climate issue.

Sea level rise and dangers to charismatic megafauna are not themselves trivial issues, and should certainly not be ignored when discussing the threat of climate change. And it’s true that the public is not always as swayed by evidence-based medicine as it could be. That said, I think that a health-based climate communication campaign has a lot of potential, and I’m interested to see if Nisbet or any one else follows up on this.

[UPDATE: John Mashey, in the comments:

I wish the following would get more play, especially since it slices the problem in the US both by sector and by region: http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts

2 responses to “Climate communication and public health

  1. I wish the following would get more play, especially since it slices the problem in the US both by sector and by region:
    http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts

  2. FWIW, the WaPo, which has given over vast tracts of its op-ed space to George Will’s and Sarah Palin’s denialist rants, actually had an editorial on Friday promoting a gas tax:
    Raising the gas tax might be the only way to wean Americans off oil.
    Here’s a random comment to that:
    “All it takes to increase domestic energy production is to get the government out of the way. There are vast oil resources off shore, in the oil shale, and in the tar sands. There are cheap alternative energy sources in nuclear and coal. One dollar gas is available if the government stops restricting access. We don’t need exotic energy sources. We don’t need high prices. We need fewer dumb politicians in Washington.”

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