The Health Community Should Reframe Climate Change as a Human Health Issue

by Edward Maibach, PhD MPH, Director, Mason Center for Climate Change Communication, and Matthew Nisbet, PhD, School of Communication, American University

The Health Community Should Reframe Climate Change as a Human Health Issue

Using communication to engage members of the public and policy makers in considering how best to respond to climate change is proving to be complicated. Public opinion research conducted by Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication in collaboration with the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has shown that that the climate is already changing in harmful ways. Yet, despite this rapidly mounting scientific evidence, a significant proportion of the American people are becoming less (not more) convinced of the evidence (1).

In the immortal words from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” We believe this failure is attributable, at least in part, to those who have—and have not—been communicating about climate change. Environmentalists, politicians, and, to a lesser extent, climate scientists have been communicating about climate science; health professionals, who are uniquely trusted in most American communities, have not.

The public health implications of climate change are already soberingly clear, at least to the small number of experts who have carefully studied the issue.(2, 3) Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, has concluded, “Climate change is one of the most serious health threats facing our nation.” Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, put it even more bluntly: “[H]umanity really is the most important species endangered by climate change.” The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, American College of Preventive Medicine, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other health associations have issued clear policy statements about the health risks associated with climate change.

Yet, the American people—and likely our elected and appointed representatives and many of our nation’s health professionals—are largely unaware of the health implications of climate change.(4) Most Americans view climate change as a distant threat: temporally (not now); geographically (not here); socially (not me and mine). With regard to the species they believe are likely to be seriously harmed, they name penguins, plants, and polar bears perhaps, but not people.(5)

Health professionals know that effective communication is one of the most powerful tools through which to protect and promote public health. Now is the time for members of the health community to use their collective voice to alert, inform, guide, and enable the American people to participate on the issue of climate change for  three compelling reasons:

  • Health professionals have a responsibility to inform communities about the health risks associated with climate change and how these harms can be averted.
  • Climate change public engagement efforts to date have focused primarily on the environmental consequences of the threat. These efforts have mobilized an important but relatively narrow range of Americans. Health professionals have the opportunity to convey the human consequences and implications of climate change and connect the issue to Americans’ deeply held health values. In doing so, research suggests they will engage a broader range of Americans on the issue, thereby enhancing climate change understanding and decision-making capacity among members of the public, the business community, and government officials.(6)
  • Many of the actions that help limit climate change and promote effective adaptation and can be taken by individuals, communities, states, regions, and nations also improve human health in important ways completely unrelated to climate change. These cobenefits include increased physical activity, decreased obesity, reduced motor vehicle-related injuries and death, reduced air and water pollution and reduced morbidity and mortality associated with it, increased social capital in and connections across communities, and reduced levels of depression. Therefore, actions taken to address climate change are a win-win in that they help us progress toward other high-priority public health goals. A broad cross-section of the American public (including many people who don’t believe climate change is real) find this to be a compelling reason to embrace a range of policy changes that can help address climate change.(6)
  • Research over the past several decades has shown that how people  mentally organize and discuss with others an issue’s central ideas greatly influences how they understand the nature of the problem, who or what they see as being responsible for the problem, and what they feel should be done to address the problem.(6) Health professionals can communicate in ways that reframe climate change as a human health problem, rather than as an environmental problem. By responsibly communicating the potential of global climate change to harm human health and conveying the potential to improve human health through actions that limit climate change, health professionals can enhance public understanding of the full scope of the problem, link that understanding to deeply held health values, and help enable appropriate responses by individuals and communities.

Moreover, by framing climate change as a public health issue, health professionals can

  • Reveal local angles of a global problem, moving the location of impacts close to home, and thereby making the problem more concrete.
  • Help focus the public and other decision-makers on health-related adaptation decisions (such as how to prevent heat deaths during extreme heat events), thereby further making the problem more local and more concrete.
  • Engage important new partners in the issue (such as community-based organizations, risk managers, the faith community) who, in turn, can help explain the issue to the public and decision-makers and can help develop and implement response plans.

Successfully reframing the climate debate in the United States from one based on environmental values to one based on health values, which are more widely held and cut across ideology and partisanship holds great promise to help American society better understand and appreciate the risks of climate change and draw upon science when weighing climate and energy policy choices.(7, 8)


  1. Maibach, E., A. Leiserowitz, C. Roser-Renouf, et al. (in press). Identifying Like-Minded Audiences for Global Warming Public Engagement Campaigns: An Audience Segmentation Analysis and Tool Development. PLoS ONE.
  2. Confalonieri, U., B. Menne, R. Akhtar, et al. (2007). Human Health. In Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, et al. (Eds.) Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K. pp. 391-431.
  3. Karl, T., J. Melillo, and T. Peterson (Eds.) (2009). Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.
  4. Akerlof, K., R. DeBono, P. Berry, 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: 2559-2606.
  5. Leiserowitz, A., E. Maibach, and C. Roser-Renouf (2009). Climate Change in the American Mind. Yale University Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Available at
  6. Maibach, E., M. Nisbet, P. Baldwin, et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299.
  7. Nisbet, M. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment 51(2): 12-23.
  8. Maibach, E., C. Roser-Renouf, and A. Leiserowitz (2008). Communication and Marketing as Climate Change Intervention Assets: A Public Health Perspective. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35: 488-500.