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Safeguard Your Health: Save the Climate

A focus on public health could be a game-changer for climate change messaging

What will it take to get Americans to care – really care – about global climate change?

Kid and doctor Photo courtesy Anoto GroupPeople won’t make climate change a top priority in their lives until they see,
and feel, how weather disruptions are a clear and present danger to their
health and the health of their families.

Some version of that question has bedeviled environmentalists since NASA climatologist James Hansen first warned about the threat of global warming more than 20 years ago. The quest to crack the public apathy around climate change has been the subject of countless focus groups organized by environmental groups, endless strategy discussions in NGO offices and the eco blogosphere, and heated arguments at activist happy hour gatherings. For veteran climate campaigners, the issue has reached the hair-pulling, bang-your-head-against-concrete stage: When will Americans finally wake up and understand that this is deadly serious business?

The issue isn’t that Americans don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change, or that they aren’t concerned about the danger. Poll after poll after poll shows that a majority of people in this country accept the basic science of climate change and are worried about it. The problem is that when asked to rank where climate change lies in their overall priority list, global warming is far down on the ladder. A much-cited Gallup poll from July 2012 found that on a list of 12 issue areas, “dealing with environmental concerns, such as global warming” was respondents’ second-to-last priority. It’s all about intensity: Americans care about climate change … just not that much. Closing this Passion Gap will likely remain environmental organizations’ top chore for years to come.

Greens have tried all sorts of communication tactics to spark public enthusiasm for climate action. Some have worked better than others. At the risk of falling into the silver bullet/I’ve got the answer trap, I’d like to suggest the messaging frame that I believe has the best chance of accelerating and elevating Americans’ expressed concern about the climate: Public Health.

In short: People won’t make climate change a top priority in their lives until they see, and feel, how weather disruptions are a clear and present danger to their health and the health of their families.

Before I go any further, it’s worth taking a step back and reviewing the different messaging tacks environmentalists have tried so far. They fall into a couple of main categories.

Save the Polar Bears. I like to think of this as climate messaging 1.0. In the early aughts, as it became obvious that rising temperatures would hit the polar regions first and hardest, a number of green groups promoted the threatened polar bear as the poster child of global warming. This made good sense; the animal angle is a proven part of the eco playbook. People love animals, especially cuddly looking animals that appear in Coke commercials. But there was an inherent weakness in the polar bear messaging. What it boasted in breadth, it lacked in depth. A lot of people might like polar bears, but few folks are going lobby their Congress-critter to defend a creature that lives in the Arctic Circle. Polar bears were useful for getting climate change on the public’s radar, but they had little chance of moving the needle on the intensity meter.

The Science Says So. The consensus in the scientific community is overwhelming: 99 percent of peer-reviewed studies on the climate say that human activities are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that this is beginning to affect weather patterns. Just about every week there is some new study warning of faster Arctic ice melt, rising sea levels, and a higher probability of severe droughts and storms. It’s perfectly smart and strategic for greens to promote the evidence of climate change, especially given the well-funded attempts to discredit the science and the mainstream media’s gullibility when it comes to denialist nonsense. (It’s worth noting that climate change denialism is almost entirely an Anglophone phenomenon affecting the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia; most of the rest of the world accepts the scientific consensus.) There’s just one problem with this approach: Many people simply aren’t willing to accept the science. To accept a statement, you have to trust the communicator, and many people have come to distrust scientists. As journalist Chris Mooney has shown, existing beliefs and worldview will trump the latest findings in Science or Nature. “The science alone won’t win,” I heard Jeff Nesbit, head of Climate Nexus, say at a panel at this year’s South by Southwest-Eco. “If science alone could win, you wouldn’t see Agenda 21, a pretty innocuous concept, in the Republican Party platform.”

Global Warming Will Cost Us. If geophysical sciences won’t work, then go for the dismal science – economics. In their effort to seize the public’s attention, greens like to point to the estimates of how global warming will end up costing us billions of dollars. Just Google “Munich Re and climate change” to get some frightening figures on how climate change is likely to whack the economy. Or look at the Stern Review, the British government’s report warning that climate change could shave 5 percent off of global GDP every year from now on. Greens’ focus on climate change’s economic impacts is savvy and soundbite-friendly. It transforms climate into an issue that everyone should care about, if only because everyone says the strength of economy is a top priority. Just as important, the economics angle enlists powerful, influential people like Michael Bloomberg and Jeremy Grantham – smart people who know how to read numbers.

There’s a problem, however, with the science and economics messaging: Those communication strategies are too smart. Or, put another way, they’re too rational. They aim for the head when what’s needed are arguments that strike at the heart. Emotional appeals wrapped within story and narrative are far better than facts and figures at spurring people to action. Recognizing this, environmentalists are making their case in a few other different ways:

Good versus Evil. A growing chorus of environmentalists, joined by leaders of faith, are working to make the case that climate change is, above all, a test of our moral fiber. It is morally unacceptable, these voices say, to leave our children a planet that is less livable than the one we inherited. The most influential popularizer of this argument is writer-activist-Methodist Sunday school teacher Bill McKibben, who talks about “our moral duty, our ethical duty” to slash greenhouse gas emissions. The great virtue of this strategy is the way in which it creates a narrative of good and bad, of heroes and villains – the evildoer in this case being the fossil fuel industry. “We’re hoping that the thing that cracks the dam is going to be around the morality of what the fossil fuel companies are doing to our planet,” Daniel Kessler, a campaigner at McKibben’s, told me recently. There’s no question that this makes for a compelling storyline that holds the promise of moving people forward. And yet. That story is also bound to be polarizing. People who take pride in their gas guzzlers or who work for the coal industry are more likely to be turned off than turned on.

America – Fuck Yeah! Eager to avoid such polarization and hopeful of enlisting all Americans in the effort to stabilize the climate, some climate change activists have pushed to highlight the positives of de-carbonizing the economy. The basic idea is to tap into the spirit of American exceptionalism and enjoin citizens in a common cause to better the country. The emotional appeal is less gloom-and-doom, more “This Land Is Our Land.” Van Jones’ The Green Collar Economy, Gus Speth’s America the Possible, or the work of Betsy Taylor’s Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions all fit in this vein. I like this tack. It’s optimistic and it’s hopeful – essential assets for an issue that many people are despondent about solving. But this message’s main asset – its high-mindedness – can also be a liability. Few people, I think it’s fair to say, get fiery about windmill construction and infrastructure improvements.

The Weather Sucks. Climate campaigners’ newest rhetorical tactic focuses on the increasing incidence of extreme weather events. Environmentalists first used this message to great effect after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, noting that warmer ocean temperatures in the South Atlantic were strengthening hurricanes – “loading the dice” as it were. This argument has only gained in potency since then. Superstorm Sandy’s lashing of New York will, in hindsight, likely be as much of a climate consciousness tipping point as Katrina. Combine Sandy with the freak rash of tornadoes, the massive wildfires in the West, the Drought of 2012, and the increasingly warm temperature readings and suddenly people of all political persuasions have a hard time ignoring the sheer oddity of the weather. Here’s how climate change lightening rod Al Gore explained it recently: “I run into people all the time who are former deniers, former opponents of doing anything on climate who are saying, ‘Look, this is just getting too weird. It’s clear that this is going on, we’ve got to do something.’ Now, we’re not at the tipping point, but we’re much closer than we have been.”

I agree. The extreme weather argument works because, unlike so many of the other message tactics I have described, it’s visceral. People can actually feel the climate changing around them. They’ve suffered the heat waves and the out-of-season tornadoes, and they know that the weather today isn’t like the weather they grew up with.

To capitalize on the prevailing sense of unease, environmentalists need to fit extreme weather into a larger story. They have to offer an explanation of what extreme weather and rising temperatures will mean for ordinary people. The best way to do that, I think, is by illustrating how a destabilized climate jeopardizes our health.

I’d call this argument:

Global Warming Is Making Us Sick. In a smart essay published last Sunday in The New York Times, James Atlas, musing on our inability to grasp the threat of climate change, asked: “If we can’t imagine our own deaths, as Freud insisted, how can we be expected to imagine the death of a city?” This has always been the crux of the climate communication challenge. The threat is so big, its potential consequences so vast, that it boggles the mind. Even worse, it turns off the heart. This is what I have dubbed “the problem of ecological empathy.” Emotions depend on closeness. Yet the most worrisome environmental threat is planetary in scale. We simply don’t know where to begin feeling.

We can shrink that distance and bring some much-needed immediacy and intimacy to the climate threat by highlighting how weird weather endangers public health.

Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at NRDC, is busy trying to make that exact case. In a conservation we had earlier this fall, Knowlton (who has a doctorate in public health) said to me: “People want to know, ‘What is this climate change doing?’ Now is the time for health to drive these policy changes. Health is the lens through which people are potentially understanding climate change.”

Knowlton then rattled off a list of ways in which weather dislocations are already causing bodily harm. For starters, warmer air temperatures worsen ground level ozone, which exacerbates asthma and other respiratory ailments. The increase in wildfires creates air pollution for hundreds of miles and, in the process, harms people’s lungs. Although it may not be life-threatening, hotter seasons will make people’s allergies worse as pollen increases. Rising temperatures are spreading the range of mosquito-borne infectious diseases like West Nile Virus; recently there have been outbreaks of Dengue Fever in Florida and south Texas. Extreme rainstorms and associated floods cause death and injuries and raise the likelihood of water-borne diseases.

“Health could be the hook to get people to care about climate, because people want to preserve their health and their kids’ health,” Knowlton told me three weeks before Superstorm Sandy killed more than 100 people and raised the risk of a hypothermia outbreak as millions suffered without power.

It’s crucial to note that the health impacts Knowlton talks about aren’t predictions forecast by some computer climate model. As you can see from this handy NRDC map, these health dangers are happening – now.

Forget any kind of wooly-headed, John Rawls notion of enlightened self-interest. This is immediate self-interest: the health and wellbeing of you and your family. That’s a concern of people everywhere, of course, but it’s an especially potent topic here in the health-obsessed US, where about half of the network television news broadcasts seem to be dedicated to body, lifestyle, and nutrition information.  

In addition to being immediate and visceral, the health angle enjoys the advantage of analogy and metaphor – keys to any effective storytelling. Think of your yearly visit to the doctor. As Suzanne Shaw of the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it: “If 95 out of 100 doctors told you that your child needed immediate medical care, would you wait?” Of course you wouldn’t. Climate change skeptics like to argue that our uncertainty about the exact effects of global warming gives us an excuse to wait before taking action. But when it comes to your health or your kids’ health, uncertainty is cause for alarm – and action.  

Knowlton’s campaign to tie climate change to public health impacts reminded me of something the erstwhile enviro Michael Shellenberger said to me years ago: “People won’t start caring about climate change until it’s making their kids sick.”

Curious to know if Shellenberger still felt that way, I called him up and asked. His response was mixed. “Public health is definitely a better message,” the self-styled message maven said. He was quick to add, “The only thing is, for it to be politically powerful, it can’t be about climate change. It has to be about the pollutants that people are concerned about. If you make it about the climate, you make it less politically potent and you polarize people. … That’s a hard thing for enviros, who want to make everything about the climate.”

Actually, I’m not so sure that greens want “to make everything about the climate.” Quite the opposite, in fact. Which brings me to greens’ other favorite climate message …

Don’t Talk about the Climate at All. Since the failure of comprehensive climate legislation in the US Senate two years ago and the election of a climate denialist-dominated House of Representatives, many green groups have retreated from making climate the spear-point of their public messaging. The question of how best to approach climate has led to heated debates among environmental organizations. Groups like the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Earthjustice have made a calculated decision to play up threats from traditional pollutants (stuff that fouls the air and the water) while dialing back their talk about the climate. The upstarts at 350, meanwhile, are largely alone among national environmental groups in sticking to a loud and clear climate message.

The ambivalence about climate messaging can be seen on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign page, where the first line (“Coal is our country’s dirtiest energy source, from mining to burning to disposing of coal waste”) says nothing about CO2 or climate and the image is of a kid with an asthma inhaler. I heard similar mixed emotions from a staffer on the NRDC’s national media team who told me, off the record: “Maybe just using the term ‘climate change’ is a little bit, I don’t know, misleading.”

The media staffer went on to note that environmentalists were able to chalk up important wins on new fuel economy standards and new source rules for coal fired power plants without really talking about global warming. “It’s not climate change legislation,” this person said, “but it begins to deal with the problem.”

As far as Michael Shellenberger is concerned, this is wisdom personified. “To deal with climate, you have to not talk about the climate,” he said. “It was like that even before climate got so polarizing, but now it’s like 10 times worse.” He later said: “If you want real action on climate, you push harder on the door that’s already open. Green groups are going to go back to the bread and butter issues of enforcing our environmental laws.”

Or, in a nutshell: If you can shut down CO2-belching coal fired power plants by just talking about mercury pollution (admittedly a wildly successful strategy for the Sierra Club et. al.), does it really matter that you’ve ignored the climate threat?

Why, yes, it does. Because in order to tell a story, pick a fight, and then win that fight, you have to actually name the enemy. A short-term emphasis on other pollutants associated with greenhouse gas emission might put some points on the board, but it will prove insufficient in the long run.

Even those who are sympathetic to the public health message in the context of a clear climate change warning are dubious about its effectiveness. 350’s Daniel Kessler told me: “ “I think it’s a big cognitive step for people to take, for people to connect public health with climate change and the fossil fuel companies.”

I disagree. By way of proof, just remember the horrific heat wave that struck Europe in 2003, the hottest summer on record since 1540. At least 35,000 people died in that extreme weather event (some estimates go as high as 70,000 deaths). “That’s staggering,” says the NRDC’s Knowlton. “It made a huge difference in how Europeans think about climate.” It did indeed. You won’t find many people in Europe denying the basic science of climate change, and citizens there are much more willing to embrace government actions to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

Will it take some kind of similar horrendous climate change-related public health disaster in the United States to move the intensity meter here? I hope it won’t come to that. But, like other environmentalists, I know that we’re running out of time to figure what message, or combination of messages, will finally break through Americans’ apathy on this issue. As Daniel Kessler says: “We are losing time. The physics is moving faster than our focus groups.”

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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