Today, some free advice for readers:
Eat more vegetables, and less meat.
Instead of driving, ride a bike or walk.
Use wind, solar or nuclear power instead of coal-fired electricity.
Why, you may ask?
To slow down global warming? Or to live a healthier life?
And therein lies an opportunity.
Environmental advocates, politicians and companies could all gain by better understanding the connection between climate change, public health and personal health.
After all, we’ve heard lots of arguments from enviros and politicians who want Congress to enact climate change legislation. Some talk about saving the planet. Others tout the benefit of “green jobs.” Others talk national security, or energy independence. None seem to be working very well. (The Times today all but wrote an obit for a climate bill this year.)
One argument we haven’t heard nearly as much is that acting to curb the climate crisis will be good for our health. This could be a relevant, personal and powerful message.
What’s more, while the climate benefits of burning cleaner fuels, eating less meat or driving less won’t be felt for decades, the health benefits are immediate.
Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, put it this way last fall in The Lancet (reg. req’d), a British medical journal which has reported extensively on climate:
Most of the mitigation measures for climate change investigated (including cleaner household-energy sources, less dependence on automobile transport, and reduced consumption of animal products in developed countries) would bring public health benefits. In many cases, these benefits are substantial, and would help to address some of the largest and fastest growing global health challenges and the greatest drains on health-sector resources, such as acute respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes.
You see this clearly in poor countries, of course. Providing an efficient cooking stove to a family not only curbs carbon emissions; it cuts indoor air pollution, a serious health problem. But in rich countries, too, cutting back on the use of fossil fuels will deliver significant health benefits. The EPA has the authority to regulate CO2 because scientists have found that climate change is a public health hazard, and the Centers for Disease Control has created a Climate and Public Health program, saying:
CDC is using its prevention expertise to address climate change and is preparing for the possibility of health effects related to climate change in the same way it prepares for the possibilities of bioterrorism and pandemic influenza.
My friend Ed Maibach, the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, has thought a lot about the convergence of climate and health. Ed and his colleagues did a small study testing public attitudes towards health messaging around climate, and he is planning a bigger study. (You can download his preliminary findings here.)
In the first study, researchers read a series of messages about global warming and health to people and asked them to rate them as positive, negative or neutral. Some were “threat” statements like:
An increasing number of extreme heat waves, floods, storms fires and droughts caused by the changes in our climate will lead to more people being injured or killed.
Others were “benefit” statements like
Improving the design of our cities and towns in ways that make it easier and safer to get around on foot, by bike and one mass transit will reduce the number of cars on our roads and help people become more physically active and lose weight.
The “benefit” statements, in particular, had wide appeal, even to those with little interest in the climate change issue.
When I asked Ed to summarize what he’d learned, he replied via email:
Lots of previous research has shown that climate change is typically framed in the media as an environmental problem. As a result, not surprisingly, the vast majority of Americans — at least those who believe that climate change is happening — think of it as an environmental problem. Very few people think of climate change as a human problem.
We conducted our study to see if providing information about climate change as a human problem — rather than an environmental problem — was useful to people. And that’s exactly what we found: most people found information about the human health implications of climate change to be interesting and useful to them. Perhaps more importantly, nearly all of our research participants, even most who don’t believe in climate change, told us that the health of all Americans will benefit if the U.S. takes action to limit climate change. This was best typified by the thought that cleaning up our fuel supply will give us cleaner air and water, and as a result, we will all be healthier.
So what’s the opportunity for communicators?
Every American values good health. Because many policies intended to limit climate change will also improve our health, there is a strong basis to rally widespread public support for these policies. Moreover, this connection between climate and health provides a compelling rationale for health professionals to get involved in the issue. Health professionals are trusted and valued members of every community in America — engaging them in the issue is a promising way to further engage the public at large as well.
Imagine if doctors, nurses and health insurors could be enlisted to persuade people to eat less meat, walk and bike more or buy clean energy–or write their Congressman to urge action on climate.
If you believe that eventually, government policy will address the climate/health issue, smart companies should be ready to act. It’s easy to come up with examples of products and services that improve health and mitigate against global warming. Home builders like Pulte are building solar power-equipped homes, and home sales are brisk in a solar-powered community near Los Angeles. UK-based Quorn, which calls itself the “#1 retail brand of meat-free foods in the world,” is expanding in the U.S., to challenge Boca. I’m hoping that electric bikes will emerge as an alternative to cars for short commutes and errands–they are fun, fuel-efficient, good for your health and for the planet.
In the meantime, walk or bike to work someday soon, or substitute an all-veggie meal for beef. You’ll be doing yourself, your pocketbook and your wallet a favor.
Wind turbines: www.flickr.com/photos/stuartyeates/93821358/