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Want action on Climate Change? Push public health, not polar bears

Ed Maibach, professor and Director at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, was recently on CBC's The Current speaking to Priya Chattopadyay, following an interview with Ryan Meili, to discuss the relationships between Climate Change and Public Health in Canada.

Piya Chattopadhyay: According to our next guest, one of the consequences of climate change affecting our health could be that it gets more people thinking about climate change and taking it seriously. Edward Maibach is the director of the center for climate change communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. 

So pick up where we left off here — we have a frontline doctor saying more poepl are coming into my office with health effects linked to a changing climate. Why does climate change still not resonate with people?

Edward Maibach: There's been a lot of research done on this question. The answer fundamentally is that the average North American sees climate change as a very distant problem. Distant in space - they see it happening somewhere else; distant in time - they see it happening in the future; and distant in species - we see it happening to plants, penguins and polar bears. We just don’t get the fact that its happening to people, too. 

Piya Chattopadhyay: And yet, people are feeling this — they are feeling the effects of this. How important is framing of the message particularly with an issue like climate change? 

Edward Maibach: Most people don't yet understand that they're feeling the effects. As I said before, they understand that Climate is changing. Only about half of North Americans understand that human action is causing climate change, but when we ask them in surveys what do they think is being effected by climate change — their own health, or the health of their family and loved ones, or the health of their community members — people aren't yet making that connection. And that's precisely why Dr. Meili was so on the money when he said it's really important for us to start telling those stories. Because while most Canadians, most Americans do cares about Plants penguins and polar bears, we care about our own health more, so it's extremely important that we begin to make those connections between the changing global climate and how it's affecting our health here and now.

Piya Chattopadhyay: You talk about polls and other research — what evidence is there to show how people respond differently when this issue is framed in a public health context? 

Edward Maibach: This issue has become fairly politically polarized in North America and it typically conservatives tend to be less likely to believe that the climate is changing, whereas liberals tend to be more likely to believe. When we have shown people across the political spectrum health information about the health consequences of climate change, and information about the health benefits of responding to climate change, what we see is that people across the political spectrum tell us that's really interesting information — I didn't know that. Even people who don't believe that the climate is changing will say - this information about the way in which our health will improve if we respond to climate change - that makes sense to me even though I don't believe hat climate is changing. 

Piya Chattopadhyay: In one of your studies you found that linking climate change to public health made people hopeful, rather than angry. Explain.

Edward Maibach: We asked people how they responded to information and we had them indicate how hopeful or angry the information made them feel. Anger and hope are the two more salient emotions of politics today in NA, and each plays a role in encouraging people to engage in an issue. So what we found is that a message about the public health consequences of climate change and the public health benefits of responding to climate change made people across the political spectrum feel more hopeful. Particularly among conservatives the public health message didn't provoke feelings of anger – that’s particularly important because one of the things we need to do in order to move our society forward is to move beyond the political polarization and move into serious dialogue about how we want to address the issues. So de-escalating the polarization and de-escalating the anger that has been baked into this issue is the first step in bringing people back to the table and talking seriously about what we want to do. 

Piya Chattopadhyay: Politics aside, how difficult is it to get people to see that connection between public health and climate change? How do you convince someone that Dengue fever or West Nile equals climate change? 

Edward Maibach: So the maps are pretty clear — I've seen the maps of the march of Lyme disease north into Canada. Here in the mid US, it's been endemic for at least a decade now. Almost every family here that I know in my area has a Lyme disease story. As that condition — and it's a very serious problem — has marched northward into Canada. The map that shows the progression is a very graphic, highly visual way of telling that story. So I don't think these are difficult stories to tell, and as Dr. Meili was suggesting... he feels that they're just not yet being told, and I would agree with him on that. 

Piya Chattopadhyay: It's one thing to hear stories, and quite another to take action. If you think of other public health issues — smoking, obesity — we know we should quit smoking, we know we should do more exercise, eat better, many of us don't do either of those things. So what makes you think that people will respond differently when it comes to the public health issue of climate change? 

Edward Maibach: We need to differentiate two things here. One is the action that individuals can take to benefit themselves, and the other is the action that our governments, our elected officials — whether those are in our town, our provinces, or our Nation — can take to protect us. So in terms of preventing human health problems from climate change and in terms of protecting our health from climate change, individuals can take actions, but those actions are very much secondary in impact to the actions that our elected officials can take on our behalf. 

Piya Chattopadhyay: We've seen leaders including president Obama speak about climate change as a public health crisis. Does that suggest to you in any way that we may be at that turning point that you seem to suggest we need in terms of how the public thinks about climate change? 

Edward Maibach: There has been so many helpful developments over the past couple of months in terms of beginning to make clear that climate change isn't just a threat to plants, penguins and polar bears, but that it affects people too. So our white house, for example, hosted a summit about 3 weeks ago, featuring our surgeon general and others making this exact point. Making clear that this is in fact a public health crisis, and making clear the various ways that both our administration and other important actors in American society are beginning to roll up their sleeves and engage. 

Piya Chattopadhyay: What about us in the media, we are often criticized, and I suppose sometimes complimented, on how we cover issues such as climate change. What do you think about the way the media frames this issue now? 

Edward Maibach: I don't have any current data, but I've got to give you some bad news about previous data that I've been involved in collecting. Some colleagues and I looked at the entire news whole related to climate change over about an eight-year period of time. The news coverage of climate change shrunk dramatically after the IPCC released their 4th report in 2007, and particularly the amount of coverage related to the health consequences of climate change has always been small, and remains small. It's about 1% of total coverage, so if in fact, people develop their understanding about how the world works around them at least in part based on news coverage, your colleagues aren't really as serious as we need them to be in terms of telling these stories. 

 

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Edward Maibach is the Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He was in Fairfax, Virginia at the time of interview.

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