By: Kate Harveston
The pollution that causes global warming also causes several health problems, and climate change’s impacts can have a damaging effect, too. As policy makers, scientists, environmental activists and others work to convey the importance of climate change, some are beginning to focus less on saving the polar bears and more on global warming’s effect on human health.
Doing this may enable organizations to garner more public support for their environmental initiatives.
Climate change and health
Climate change’s negative impact on human health isn’t something that only a few environmental activists have claimed. Several respected medical associations recently teamed up to form the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health. Their mission is to spread awareness of the impact of global warming on public health.
The health effects of climate change occur due to pollution and risks associated with high heat and extreme weather.
Most Americans live in a county with an unhealthy amount of contamination in the air, according to a list put together by the American Lung Association. These threats are serious. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that pollution could be linked to 7 million premature deaths in just one year and can lead to increased instances of heart disease, stroke, COPD, lung cancer and asthma.
Not only can the same pollution that causes global warming result in health problems, but the higher temperatures that occur as a result can also lead to increased levels of smog, creating a vicious cycle.
As global temperatures continue to increase, heat-related health risks will also continue to rise. Heat waves are already occurring more often and are leading to hospitalizations, heat strokes, wildfires and in some cases, death.
Public health and public support
The impacts of climate change on human health are certainly real, and focusing on them more when talking about environmental initiatives can make the need for that program feel more real to some people, too. The latest research suggests focusing on public health rather than environmental concerns is more useful for garnering public support.
This may be because talking about how the state of the environment impacts an individual makes the issue hit much closer to home. It’s easier to think about it in relation to your everyday health and the health of those you know and care about than in terms of the more abstract idea of the environment or planet. It encourages people to think about climate change’s impacts on where they live as opposed to a polar bear thousands of miles away.
For example, an activist working in manufacturing — might be interested in getting his management team on board with cleaner, safer standards of operation. In an attempt to convince the boss that it’s necessary, the activist may focus on the hazards that chemical waste causes to human health, as opposed to, say highlighting all the fish that die when a toxic spill is dumped into the ocean.
It may seem dark, but many businesses simply aren’t worried about the environment and being eco-friendly. Health impacts are more immediate than changes in the climate. Environmental changes take a long time to occur, and the people talking about climate change will not live to see most of the impacts they discuss.
Health risks are relevant today, so they feel more urgent and real. An incentive related to people all of a sudden becomes a company-wide healthy living initiative. It’s good for morale and shows that the company is concerned for the well-being of its employees.
How to talk about the environment and health
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that talking about impacts on the environment is not as effective as it needs to be, at least with some sects of the populations. Talking about environmental initiatives in a way that emphasizes specific and immediate impacts can change the way people respond.
When communicating about a new environmental initiative, tailor it as much as you can to the people you’re speaking to. Mention local health issues, landmarks, industries or ways of life that may be impacted because of global warming.
While you should keep it personal, be careful not to place blame on the people you’re speaking to, attempt to shame them into action or scare them with tales of doom and gloom. This will probably turn them off from what you’re trying to accomplish.
Instead, stay realistic, grounded and let people know how helping the environment can help them, too. This isn’t to say you should ignore the science, just make the issue as relatable as you can while sticking to the facts. If you do this, you might find you’ll get a much stronger response to your environmental initiatives, or as you could fittingly choose to call them, public health plans.
Kate Harveston is a political blogger and activist. She takes a special interest in anything related to the environment and policy reform. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.
Image credit: Jayel Aheram, Flickr