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As governments around the world debate strategies to reduce emissions and accelerate the global transition to clean energy, many people and organisations want to know how to build and sustain public and political will to address climate change. A growing body of evidence suggests that effectively communicating about the health harms of climate change—and the solutions to address them—can help generate the public demand for climate action necessary to increase political will among government leaders.
Multiple scientific assessments have outlined the varied and significant effects of climate change on human health and well-being. For example, rising temperatures increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts, harming both physical and mental health. Shifting climate patterns are also leading to poorer air quality, increased geographic range of vector-borne diseases, reductions in crop yields and nutritional values and more food- and water-borne illness.
Despite these risks, previous research suggests many members of the public are not aware of the myriad ways in which climate change harms our health. For example, while many Americans (64%) indicated in 2014 that they think climate change is harmful to human health, few (27%) could accurately name a specific type of harm.
A large body of evidence suggests that actions to mitigate climate change can dramatically improve public health.
A large body of evidence suggests that actions to mitigate climate change can dramatically improve public health. Although individual actions have a role to play in mitigation, such efforts need to be complemented by greater systemic emissions reductions that can only be brought about through policy change. Increasing citizen advocacy is one means to cultivate the political will necessary for such policy change.
In a recent study, we set out to examine three categories of evidence-based climate information in terms of their potential to motivate people to engage in political advocacy for climate solutions. These categories included information about the health consequences of climate change, the health benefits of climate solutions, and calls-to-action designed to prompt advocacy behaviour.
To do this, we surveyed a large, demographically-diverse group of American adults (n=7,596) and asked them to engage in a message evaluation exercise. Their responses allowed us to determine the effectiveness of each information category, as well as the specific types of information within each category.
We found that each of these categories—consequences, solutions and a call-to-action—enhanced the overall motivational value of the message, with solution information being the most influential.
We found that each of these categories—consequences, solutions and a call-to-action—enhanced the overall motivational value of the message, with solution information being the most influential. Of the 360 message variations we tested, the most compelling first described the negative impacts of climate change on air quality, then explained how transitioning to clean energy will benefit people’s health, and ended by explaining that most Americans support this solution, and many are taking action to advocate for it.
Importantly, we found little variation in terms of how participants evaluated the different types of information across racial and political party identification. This is consistent with prior research that suggests communicating about the health effects of climate change and air pollution from burning fossil fuels can reduce political polarisation around the issue.
A guiding principle of effective public communication involves the use of simple, clear messages that can be delivered—with compassion and kindness—by a variety of trusted sources. Health professionals and health organisations are the ideal messengers to be delivering this information, because doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals are among the most trusted members of every community.
Thankfully, many health professionals around the world already recognise that climate change poses a serious threat to health and feel a strong responsibility to educate the public and policymakers about the issue. Organisations can strengthen support for health professionals interested in public engagement and policy advocacy by providing a variety of resources, such as continuing professional education on climate and health, communication training, patient education materials, policy statements, and action alerts on when and how to advocate with policymakers.
Working together across national boundaries, health professionals and health organisations have a tremendous opportunity to shape our collective response to one of the greatest global health challenges of this century. This evidence-based public and policymaker engagement strategy offers an important asset that health professionals can use to influence the world's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The OECD Forum Virtual Event Climate & Health will take place on Thursday, 17 February from 14:00–15:15 CET—register now!