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date: 24 April 2017

Communicating the Public Health Risks of Climate Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Effective public communication and engagement have played important roles in ameliorating and managing a wide range of public health problems, including tobacco and substance use, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, vaccine-preventable diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and automobile injuries and fatalities. Now, there is a rapidly growing need for the public health community to harness what has been learned about effective public communication, to alert and engage the public and policy makers about the health threats of climate change. The need is driven by three main factors.

First, people’s health is already being harmed by climate change, and the magnitude of this harm is almost certain to get much worse if effective actions are not soon taken to limit climate change and to help communities successfully adapt to unavoidable changes in their climate. Therefore, public health organizations and professionals have a responsibility to inform communities about these risks and how they can be averted.

Second, historically, climate change public engagement efforts have focused primarily on the environmental dimensions of the threat. These efforts have mobilized an important but still relatively narrow range of the public and policy makers. In contrast, the public health community holds the potential to engage a broader range of people, thereby enhancing climate change understanding and decision-making capacity among members of the public, the business community, and government officials.

Third, many of the actions that slow or prevent climate change, and that protect human health from the harms associated with climate change, also benefit health and well-being in ways unrelated to climate change. These “co-benefits” to societal action on climate change include reduced air and water pollution, increased physical activity and decreased obesity, reduced motor vehicle-related injuries and death, increased social capital in and connections across communities, and reduced levels of depression. Therefore, from a public health perspective, actions taken to address climate change are a “win-win” in that—in addition to responsibly addressing climate change—they can help improve public health and well-being in other ways as well.

Over the past half decade, U.S.-based researchers have been investigating the factors that shape public views about health risks associated with climate change, the communication strategies that motivate support for actions to reduce these risks, and the practical implications for public health organizations and professionals who seek to effectively engage individuals and their communities. This research serves as a model for similar work that can be conducted across country settings and international publics. Until recently, the voices of public health experts have been largely absent from the public dialogue on climate change, a dialogue that is often erroneously framed as an “economy vs. the environment” debate. Introducing the public health voice into the public dialogue can help communities see the issue in a new light, motivating and promoting more thoughtful decision making.