Connecting climate, health and opportunity

Connecting climate, health and opportunity

The climate conversation is both changing and intensifying as some of the world’s biggest leaders raise the alarm about climate change from a moral and health perspective, to name a few.

Key moments have included back-to-back announcements from G7 leaders regarding the need to decarbonize the economy by 2085, the Pope’s encyclical delivering a moral call for action on climate, and this week’s release of the report in the leading global medical journal the Lancet on the health risks global warming presents and the White House climate health summit.

Whether to choose an economic, moral and/or health frame in climate communication is dependent on the audience you are trying to reach. However, in the same way that the pope’s appeal to shared values like equality and fairness resonated with people around the globe, our concern and aspirations for good health are equally universal. Thanks to the good work of Dr. Ed Maibach and other researchers, we know that the vast majority of Americans care about their health, the health of their families, communities, and of others around the world. We also know that medical professionals are trusted experts in their communities. This presents an opportunity to focus on health impacts as an entry point into climate conversations.

Making this connection, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. One of the challenges lies in the fact people often don’t connect climate disruption to health impacts. When it comes to impacts related to fossil fuels – including increased cancer risk in areas around petro-chemical facilities, the danger faced by coal miners, or lung damage due to air pollution from coal-fired power plants – many see these harms as necessary evils or an unavoidable sacrifice we must make due to our need for energy and jobs.

Take coal, for example. Most Americans support moving away from the use of coal number one for health reasons, and secondly because of global warming. This is important given the Obama Administration’s upcoming release of the Clean Power Plan, which would limit the carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants that account for about one-third of national emissions and create significant air pollution impacts at the community level. Yet, when you use tools like the new Yale Climate Opinion Maps to dig a little deeper into public opinion, it’s clear that support for regulating these emissions drops in counties that have been or still are dependent on coal.

For example, 63% of Americans support limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants yet in Vermillion County, Indiana support for regulation is only 38%. This isn’t surprising given this county has experienced the shut down of coal mines as well as the retiring of the coal-fired Vermillion Power Station in 2011. Similarly, support in Jefferson County, Ohio is at 41% where coal mining and steel production remains two of the leading industries. Both communities have seen their populations shrink as the coal industry struggles and new ones are yet to replace it.

During a recent webinar on climate and health framing, our colleagues at The Tree suggest weaving health, climate and economy together by focusing on “no regrets” climate actions that deliver multiple benefits. For instance, the transition away from coal that is underway will deliver health benefits such as cleaning up the air in communities that produce and burn coal; will cut the carbon emissions that are driving the disruptions to our weather patterns; and deliver economic benefits as we expand the use of more efficient and cost effective energy sources such as solar and wind.

In this context, a health frame is a critical piece of a larger narrative required to incentivize change. Like economics, it should articulate the health challenges and costs related to climate change before pivoting to tangible opportunities we have to address these problems. While climate change often feels abstract for many people, diseases like asthma and cancer do not. Public health professionals and other leaders have a key role to play in helping to bring the relevancy of climate risks to life and ensuring health considerations are incorporated into climate policies and plans.

Triangulating three frames into a single narrative may be the most effective approach to communicating with those who are facing serious challenges and trade-offs in the transition away from fossil fuels, such as residents of Jefferson and Vermillion Counties who could understandably be inclined to hold on to what is left of a known past with coal or oil despite health and environmental impacts when the promise of renewables seems very far away.

While there may be more Americans working in the renewable energy sector than in coal, most people remain concerned about those who risk losing a job even if they see coal jobs as being dangerous or unhealthy, and are unclear about who will have access to and benefit from the safe, good paying employment being promised. While a focus on health can help increase the relevancy of climate change, tying both issues to the need for and opportunity around economic revitalization through clean energy and low carbon solutions is key as long as the pathway for getting there is considered as well.


image via (cc) flickr 350 Vermont