Communicating Climate Change Health Impacts

Contributor(s): 
March 21, 2015

There is overwhelming agreement from the scientific community regarding causes and impacts of climate change, while large segments of the US public still regard climate change as affecting the next generation and of low priority. Climate messaging that has focused on future increases in temperature and impacts such as rising sea levels could be aided by inclusion of direct health impacts and learn from targeted public health campaign strategies. Effectively communicating the health impacts of climate change and health co-benefits of adaptation strategies could lead to a shift in public perceptions towards climate change and influence public action. In the article by Patz et al., 2014 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association the authors present over 20 years of evidence linking adverse health outcomes to climate change and propose how clinicians can play a key role in communicating the health impacts of climate change and inform public policy.

A wide variety of health impacts were identified as being related to climate change such as: “heat-related disorders, such as heat stress; respiratory disorders, including those exacerbated by air pollution and aero allergens, such as asthma; infectious diseases, including vector borne diseases and water borne diseases, such as childhood gastro intestinal diseases; food insecurity, including reduced crop yields and an increase in plant diseases; and mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, that are associated with natural disasters.”. This list of health impacts are very similar to other environmental health risks that health professionals are familiar with and could provide unique insight and new resource for pathways for communication.

Public health campaign successes on a wide range of issues such as smoking and lead in gasoline and paint suggest how much climate change communication can benefit from the history and practice of public health care communication. Several principles of effective climate communication already resemble those used in public health campaigns, such as “Two-way communication; gearing messages to the audience; limiting use of fear-based messages; issuing simple lucid messages repeated often from trusted sources; and making health promoting choices easy and appealing.” The authors propose that adaptation strategies to reduce impacts of increased heat in urban areas are a particular area to better communicate linkages between health impacts and climate change.  Increasing vegetative cover and albedo surface by painting roof tops white can provide an avenue for linking climate change to immediate health improvement by reducing the impacts of heat-stress and other environmental stressors. However, as the authors point out, high quality research will need to continue and should also include a focus on strategies to reduce the impacts of climate change on human health.

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Citation: Patz JA, Frumkin H, Holloway T, Vimont DJ, Haine A. Climate Change Challenges and Opportunities for Global Health. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2014, Vol 312, No. 15.

Link to Article: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1909928

If you liked this article and topic, I recommend:

The George Mason University Center for climate change communication. There is a lot of good information regarding public perception of climate change and strategies for improving public communication. http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/

Sarfaty M,A bouzaid S. The physician’s response to climate change. Family Medicine. 2009;41(5): 358-363.