I’ve been called a polar bear hater before. It’s because I’m known to plead with climate communicators to please stop talking about them. I don’t hate them. But polar bears are way down on my list of concerns. And I know I’m not alone. Except for a small slice of the population (you know who you are), polar bears aren’t likely to stir most of us to action on climate change.

Now, some health officials and communications experts are saying the symbol for climate impacts should be a child, not a polar bear. As NPR reported earlier this week, epidemiologist George Luber at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most obvious risk from a warming world is killer heat—and children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations are most at risk.

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  • Climate change is abstract and distant-seeming for most people. To engage emotionally and not just intellectually, we need to see what it means personally and locally—and in concrete terms. Communications experts contend that health messages about climate impacts may work more broadly because, unlike the images and stories about polar bears and ice caps, they paint a picture that people can see themselves in—especially in the face of recent heat waves.

    In 1995, about 750 people died from heat in Chicago. Luber says that 70,000 excess deaths were attributable to the European heat wave of 2003. But heat waves are just one climate impact on public health. “Hot air causes more smog, which in turn causes more asthma. Also high on his list are deadly storms, which are likely to become more powerful as the world warms. Infectious diseases can also increase their ranges as the climate changes.”

    Social scientists like Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor in the School of Communication at American University, and his colleagues have found that people who are indifferent, or even hostile, to climate change information are more receptive to the issue when it’s talked about as a health issue.

    “Not only does it lead to emotionally engaging responses among a broad cross section of Americans, it also helps to localize the issue for people and to view the issue as more personally relevant,” Nisbet says.

    It resonates with conservatives and liberals, and even among the broad segment of the public that just doesn’t think about climate change.

    The so-called disengaged segment of the population “found the public health frame about climate change the most engaging and the most emotionally compelling,” Nisbet says.

    In addition, research shows that health officials are messengers with “special credibility.” They enjoy far more public trust than politicians, journalists, and environmentalists.

    But George Marshall, at the Climate Outreach Information Network in Oxford, England, while cautioning against making overblown claims (about climate change being the cause of a particular West Nile outbreak, for instance), says “people will respond to ideas that help them personally, help their families, and help their communities.” He notes that there’s clearly a role for talking about health and climate change in that context.