Climate change is a complex problem but appears to many people as lacking immediate impact on their lives. Reconceptualising it as a health issue may allow for both better understanding of the issue and greater scope for changing behaviour.
Climate change is often perceived as affecting people far from us in both time and space. And what doctors, psychologists and other health professionals have known for some time is that just providing people with more facts about an issue doesn’t always change their minds or cause them to act in an appropriate manner. In fact, how we say something may be as important as what we say.
Health-related behaviour can be determined by a number of factors including whether people think the problem is serious, feel they’re susceptible to it and are convinced they’re able to take effective action. While denial may result from apathy or self-interest, it may also be a way of actively avoiding something deeply worrying that we feel powerless to change.
Cognitive dissonance – the discomfort generated when there’s a discrepancy between beliefs or behaviours – occurs when we are presented with information that’s incompatible with our word views or firm beliefs, and we employ strategies to defend these. Denying the new information may be the easiest way to deal with the conflict.
Generating powerful emotions, such as fear or guilt, can create an “emotional dissonance” with people trying to avoid what is upsetting, leading to a different type of denial. So fear-based appeals, if not coupled with solutions, can actually reduce engagement. Our emotions and values are intricately tied up with how we respond to information and that‘s why framing of the issue is so important.
Smoke from bushfires can cause respiratory problems. AAP Image/Department of Environment and Conservation WA
Climate change can be seen as an environmental, moral, or economic issue. And it can be also framed as a health problem. One of the benefits of using the health frame is that it makes the issues more tangible – here and now and about people, not polar bears.
People are already familiar with health problems and accept their importance. While it can seem a somewhat nebulous concept when spoken of in its own terms, framing climate change in terms of heart disease, asthma, food safety and infectious disease can make it more “real” and personally relevant.
Issue frames that emphasise benefits rather than focusing on costs, and tailoring messages as much as possible to particular audiences, will achieve better responses. The health frame offers solutions and a positive vision of the future with multiple benefits.
The Climate Commission has recently started using the health frame to communicate about climate change. It has also recognised that health professionals are a source of trusted information for people.
In fact, there’s an emerging body of literature pointing to the health benefits of acting on climate change.
Policies that reduce greenhouse emissions can result in significant health improvements and contribute to tackling the epidemic of chronic diseases now facing modern societies. According to medical journal The Lancet, “the news is not all bad”.
Being less dependent on car use and more physically active – walking or cycling – can benefit people by reducing the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and promoting good mental health.
Reducing fossil fuel combustion from vehicle use and coal combustion can reduce air pollution, a significant cause of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and premature death. By designing our cities and transportation systems more efficiently, we can reduce emissions and help prevent a range of health impacts.
Even increasing the proportion of vegetables and reducing meat consumption in our diets can provide a win for both health and the environment. Such multi-sectoral policies and approaches to daily life also have the capacity to generate considerable economic savings.
Health professionals are well-placed to use the health frame for communicating the impact of climate change and illustrating the benefits mitigation strategies can have for health. Reframing climate change as a health issue helps people understand what climate change predictions mean for them and their loved ones, as well as to unite people across ideological divides and empower and motivate them to act.
Marion Carey is VicHealth Senior Research Fellow at Monash University.