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Doctors and Medical Associations Join Effort to Engage Public on Climate Change

As I tracked with several colleagues in a 2009 paper, climate change-related health impacts such as extreme heat, disease, and respiratory problems, and more vivid threats such as hurricanes have received relatively limited news and public attention. According to our analysis, these types of health impacts historically have been mentioned in fewer than 5% and 10% of the climate change-related articles in national and regional papers, making public health a dramatically under-communicated dimension of climate change.

In our analysis, most stories that mentioned health threats were in reaction to naturally occurring events such as heat waves or storms; we found few examples of enterprise or explanatory reporting.  However, we did find evidence that basic news agenda-building strategies, especially when localized, do generate substantive reporting.  

These strategies included the release of regionally tailored studies; the sponsorship of regional meetings; and news conferences on the part of a public health-related coalition.  As we recommended in the paper, systematic investment in these strategies along with other recommended initiatives are likely to increase substantive news attention to various health threats associated with climate change, and thereby increase the capacity of communities to pursue mitigation and adaptation actions.

Ed Maibach and I highlighted and reviewed these strategies in a primer for heath professionals on climate change communication released earlier this spring.

This week, several news stories depict the increase in agenda status for climate change among major medical associations and health professionals, coinciding with the release of a new book by on climate change and health by Paul Epstein, a professor in the School of Public Health at Harvard University.

Here’s a feature appearing this week at from Green Wire’s Dina Fine Maron:

As scientists solidify the links between climate change and health issues like tropical ailments that infect Americans on the backs of whipping winds and warming ocean tides, top medical associations are becoming a high-profile lobbying force for climate regulations.

Prolonged allergy seasons, re-emerging illnesses and more extreme weather events are spurred on by climate change and will systematically affect human health, they argue.

Now, health advocates say physicians like Szema need to study up on the environment and bring conversations about the fingerprints of climate change right down to the doctor-patient level.

Most individual doctors remain reluctant to speak out on climate-health links. But top medical associations leapt into the fray this past year as U.S. EPA’s climate regulations became a target of GOP-led attacks in Congress.

Here’s another feature appearing at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media by Lisa Palmer:

As science points to the troubling health consequences of climate change, the American Medical Association and various public health organizations are bracing themselves. In April the AMA published an editorial warning that climate change is putting public health at risk. It stated:

Scientific evidence shows that the world’s climate is changing and that the results have public health consequences. The American Medical Association is working to ensure that physicians and others in health care understand the rise in climate-related illnesses and injuries so they can prepare and respond to them. The Association also is promoting environmentally responsible practices that would reduce waste and energy consumption.

To help doctors prepare for climate-related illnesses and injuries, AMA has held continuing medical education courses on climate change in three states, most recently in Florida. A fourth one is to take place in Illinois. The courses stem from a grant from the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The American medical community’s new advocacy measures arrive on the coattails of climate change policy statements made by other health organizations. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP, warned of negative health effects of climate change on children. In a statement, Dana Best, MD, MPH, and fellow of AAP said, “As the climate changes, environmental hazards will change and often increase, and children are likely to suffer disproportionately from these changes.”

See also:

Agents for Social Change: Conveying the Human Health Implications of Climate Change.

Study: Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

Climate Central: Changes in Public Perceptions of Climate Change, Q&A with Matthew Nisbet.

Further reading:

Maibach, E. & Nisbet, M.C. (2011, Spring).  The Health Community Should Reframe Climate Change as a Human Health Issue.  Environmental Health Policy Institute. Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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Akerlof, K. et al. (2010). Public Perceptions of Climate Change as a Human Health Risk: Surveys of the United States, Canada, and Malta. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 7 (6), 2559-2606. (Open Access)

Bruno, M. (2010, March 19). Why Aren’t Climate Scientists Talking about Health Care Reform. Grist magazine.

Frumkin, H. & McMichael AJ (2008). Climate change and public health: thinking, acting and communicating. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(5):403-410. (PubMed)

Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., and Leiserowitz, A. (2008). Communication and marketing as climate change intervention assets: A public health perspective. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(5), 488-500. (Link).

Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. (PDF)


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