Discussing health implications of climate change: spin or public education?

     The journal Science devotes a recent issue to climate change

    The journal Science devotes a recent issue to climate change

    Does global warming need to be branded, spun or reframed? That was the implication of this Time.com piece about a push to get people to care about global warming by framing it as a public health issue.

    To most people, climate change means melting snowcaps and helpless polar bears sweltering under escalating temperatures. But most of the world’s populations aren’t likely to see an iceberg in their lifetimes, much less a stranded polar bear in the wild.

    Of course, many people will worry about where the melted snowcaps are going. Even if they don’t care about polar bears, some might worry about their shore houses.

    The Time.com piece links to a special climate change issue of the journal Science, which includes a paper authored by a collaboration of biologists, ecologists and veterinarians. It points out that climate change is becoming a public health threat, as changing climate is causing ecological change and in turn affecting the reach and scope of infectious diseases. There’s also a link to a paper authored by communication specialists, who made the case that global warming/climate change needs to be reframed as a public health issue in order to get people to take action.

    The Time.com piece focuses mostly on the paper by the communication experts, and the wording implies global warming is something that should be spun, as if it’s a political campaign. That’s very different from the message of the paper by the biologists and veterinarians, which points out that there are facets of global warming that are threatening public health, and it would be in the public best interest to get the word out.

    When doctors talk about the dangers of HIV, are they spinning the problem or making sure the public is aware of a serious infectious disease? Or when public health experts talk about obesity and the danger of type 2 diabetes, are they branding the problem or educating people about a known risk?

    In the case of climate change and public health, there’s no need for “reframing”, as much as a need to call attention to an underreported facet of the problem.

    The words people use matter – especially when naming the problem. Is it global warming or climate change? Which is more accurate and precise? On the one hand, the term global warming might mislead people into thinking that the world is supposed to get uniformly warmer everywhere. It isn’t. And global warming doesn’t capture the problem of altered rainfall patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events. But by losing the word global, climate change could be seen as a collection of disconnected local events rather than the consequences of a change in the composition of our planet’s atmosphere. So the term climate change is less specific, and therefore iess informative.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal