Scientist and Yale communications researcher Anthony Leiserowitz recently lamented that when it comes to climate change “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.”

Why? It’s hard for anybody to get worked up about a threat that feels abstract, far away in space and time, and too big for an individual to grapple with.

So what to do? We’ve often heard that the best communications strategies drive home how climate change impacts—as well as the co-benefits of smart energy solutions—are local, concrete, and personal. Well, what is more local, concrete, and personal than our bodies and the bodies of our friends and family?

Indeed, those who view climate change as being harmful to people are significantly more likely to support climate policy responses. And the fact is that climate change will harm people in every community in North America.

A recent study by Matthew Nisbet, Edward Maibach, and colleagues compared the effectiveness of three different frames for stirring audiences to support climate solutions—the standard “environmental consequences” frame, a national security frame, and a public health frame. They found that of the three, a public health frame was “most likely to elicit emotional reactions consistent with support for climate change mitigation and action.”

In other words, by framing climate change as a public health threat and presenting climate and energy solutions as opportunities to keep ourselves and our families healthy and safe, we can make strides—including with many new, “outside-the-choir” audiences—toward overcoming the myriad stubborn psychological barriers to engagement on the issue.

More specifically, across audience segments, the health implications of climate change appear to be “both useful and compelling, particularly when mitigation-related actions were paired with specific benefits to health”—cleaner air to breathe, healthier food to eat, and more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.

It makes sense; health is a powerful shared value that is close to home and far more relevant to our day-to-day lives than polar bears (sorry, bears). Plus, most everybody understands the basic science of both pollution and disease—including the types of disease likely to get worse with a warming climate, like asthma or viruses and illnesses carried by mosquitoes or in water—better than they understand the science of climate change itself.

And, as Nisbet puts it, a public health frame connects on a more personal level, localizing the impacts of climate change. “And you put a human face on the problem,” he says. “That way, advocates can start to convey a sense of moral responsibility, especially in terms of protecting the innocent and the vulnerable. Many people see protecting the environment as a value, but not a plurality of Americans. But moral responsibility to protect the health of kids or the elderly is a more widely held value.”

The research gives us compelling reasons to why we should include a public health frame in our climate change communications and we recommend checking out the primer, Conveying the Human Implications of Climate Change: A Climate Change Communication Primer for Public Health Professionals. Here’s our quick guide:

Put a Face on Climate Change

Messengers matter. People trust doctors, nurses, and public health officials.

Reinforce the basics. “We are seeing serious impacts from human-caused climate change. Our health will suffer if we don’t act. And there’s a lot we can do.”

Localize it. “From harsh weather to disease, climate change threatens every part of the country. But solutions can keep our communities healthy and strong.”

Show health-climate win-wins. “Global warming is serious. So are asthma, heart disease, and obesity. Solutions are good for our health and the climate, from better food and clean air, to easy ways to get around by foot, bike, and transit.”

Here’s what a public health frame can do to engage disengaged audiences in climate solutions:

  • First and foremost, it’s an opportunity to enlist new, trusted messengers: doctors, nurses, and public health officials.
  • It puts the focus on people, not penguins. Talking about community health risks connects climate change to local, personal concerns—the health and well-being of our bodies, our children, and our communities.
  • Pairing messages about climate solutions and the health benefits that come with them is an opportunity to present a “vision for a better, healthier future,” not just averted disaster or fancy clean energy technology. Whether you’re talking about affordable, convenient, accessible transit or energy conservation in homes and buildings or carbon pollution taxes, the health frame connects policy solutions to positive steps toward resilient communities and improved quality of life. And this can be more empowering than simply stating the risks. As Nisbet puts it, “They see it as something within their realm of control, something that can make their lives better.”
  • It helps champions of climate and energy policy build partnerships with a wider range of officials, organizations, and individuals to help spread the word, share resources, and build support among varied constituencies. For instance the AARP, many labor unions, NAACP chapters, and PTAs care deeply about the kinds of public health risks that are likely to increase because of climate change.

There’s reason to hope that where the information deficit model has consistently failed, a public health approach may succeed. Please share this with local leaders in public health, as well as physicians and nurses you know.


Mark Feldman is a writer and communications consultant who works with environmental nonprofits, public agencies, and green businesses. As a principal of Writing Works he helps organizations and businesses communicate effectively and creatively.

May 28, 2013