What if Climate Change was a Public Health Issue?

Posted on August 12, 2013

Traditionally, climate change creates images of melting icebergs and stranded polar bears in a faraway, isolated place. Arguing most people will never see an iceberg or a stranded polar bear, climate change experts believe these images do not resonate with the public and do not inspire them to act. What if, instead of melting icebergs, climate change was about increased childhood asthma, infectious diseases, or even heat-induced heart attacks?

Experts are hoping that by framing climate change as public health issue, not as an environmental or national security issue, action will be taken. According to a recent study, climate change as a public health issue produces the most emotional compelling response because it focuses on the immediate implications of how a warmer climate will have on people’s lives. Also it provides a sense of hope that the problems can be addressed and avoided further inspiring people to act.

The Obama administration is also framing climate change as a public health issue. In his energy speech at Georgetown University in June, President Obama called on policymakers to readdress global warming and implement new pollution standards. He emphasized that such action was necessary, not only to preserve the planet, but also our health, saying “Don’t tell folks that we have choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.”

Like the climate change experts, the Obama administration is hoping to bypass the political quagmire that has kept climate change initiatives from being implemented. Climate change experts believe that this repositioning will require the backing of medical professionals, who can serve as teachers for raising community awareness about how climate change affects our health.

Sabrina McCormick, an environmental documentary filmmaker and sociologist at George Washington University, agrees that doctors have a unique role that transcends political differences, saying “[Doctors] have a potential for an impact that scientists may not have.” A recent Gallup poll, supporting McCormick’s claim, reveals that the American public find nurses, pharmacists and medical doctors as the top 3 most honest professionals.

Many doctors, especially new physicians, are already joining the climate change conversation. The American Medical Association hosts courses on how climate change can affect health, educating doctors on how to prepare for and respond to climate-related illnesses and injuries.  By changing how and where the public hears about the effects of climate change, experts hope to change the relationship people have with climate change and prompt them to act.

What if instead of an infomercial about melting icebergs and stranded polar bears, we heard from our doctors that climate change can alter precipitation which may increase pollen production and thus create longer and more intense allergy seasons? How would you respond?

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