Climate Change Might Give Your Grandfather a Heart Attack: Changing Public Perception to Drive Action

December 22, 2017

CREDIT: Pixabay (CC)

I recently heard Dan Costa, the national program director for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program, refer to the word "climate change" as being like the word "stuff": it's an all-encompassing, somewhat opaque term that can potentially leave you feeling overwhelmed and misplaced in how to tackle it. He was speaking at the 2017 Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit as part of a panel about the impacts of climate change on public health, and I had the opportunity to meet with him earlier as part of a private lunch offered to student associates of Yale's Climate Change and Health Initiative.

In this more intimate setting, Costa alluded to some of the linguistic tactics he employs in communicating and deploying his research on the adverse effects of air pollution on human health, some of which includes looking at the shared causes and compounding effects of climate change. In equating "climate change" with the word "stuff," he was suggesting that it would be more effective to break up the issue into its various facets, such as air pollution, and target it more discretely, both as a way to rouse public awareness and engagement and avoid the political charge of the term. In other words, not only is "climate change" like a pile of stuff that we don’t know how to approach, it has become like a pile of toxic waste, politically and in some places socially. Therefore, Costa introduced the term "environmental futures" as another type of designator for man-made weather changes. While "environmental futures" may inoculate against some of the political radioactivity of the word "climate change," it certainly doesn’t solve the problem of obfuscation. Thankfully, he merely used it as an entry point into a more targeted discussion.

Climate Change is Already a Public Health Crisis

In many ways, air pollution and climate change are two sides of the same coin and as such they offer two potential entry points for moving toward a fossil fuel-free future. As Costa explained, they originate from the shared causes of combustion processes that emit greenhouse gases alongside air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Additionally, climate change-induced weather events and ecological changes further damage air quality—with increased particulate matter resulting from wildfires and dust storms, increased ozone pollution during summer months, and increased allergens due to longer growing seasons.

As Costa has written, long-term exposure to ambient particulate matter is associated with increased mortality and morbidity from cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, while increased allergens are correlated with a 10 percent increase in cardiovascular mortality. A key part of his research focuses on the inextricability of the cardiovascular and pulmonary system, and how preexisting cardiopulmonary disease may enhance susceptibility to air pollutants, particularly for the elderly. To give a sense of scale to the issue, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health published a report declaring pollution to be the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world—responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths in 2015. Air pollution is cited as the biggest contributor, leading to 6.5 million premature deaths in 2015.

When we think about global warming, we rarely think that our parents or grandparents may be more likely to have a heart attack. According to a 2014 report on a national survey conducted by Yale's Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), Public Perceptions of the Health Consequences of Global Warming, few Americans associated global warming with human health consequences, with seven in 10 people saying they had given the issue little or no thought. Part of this is because, as Anthony Leiserowitz of YPCCC has argued, the news media has perpetuated a notion of climate change as something occurring in a distant time and place and as being strictly an "environmental" story; the classic image we see representing climate change is that of the stranded polar bear. The consequences of this are that climate change doesn't resonate as something personal, local, and immediate for many Americans.

Alternatively, by coupling the issues of climate change and public health, specifically air pollution, we may find a more tangible, personal, and, perhaps, effective entry point to galvanize public awareness and concern and then mobilize government action. The flipside to air pollution and climate change having inextricable causes is that the strategies to mitigate either one of them will have dual benefits. As we have seen in China, this is already happening: the government has recently emerged as a leading voice on climate change, the mounting air pollution crisis serving as a trigger for a broader array of climate policies. Similarly, the UK and French governments have now pledged to ban petrol and diesel cars within decades, spurred by poor air quality and its impact on public health.

The Commodization of Climate Change

As air pollution issues rise into public consciousness, the public association with climate change requires further development, particularly in the United States, and the long-term mitigation strategies deployed by governments will take time to have effect. In the meantime, consumers have an ever-growing range of products to give them more control over their personal environments. Designers from the United Kingdom, China, and Sweden have introduced creative and lifestyle-friendly air pollution masks, while trend forecasters, such as Stylus, predict a continued rise in anti-pollution wear. But is this trend helpful?

Such personal protective devices, such as facemasks, could be been seen as a tacit sign of defeat and acceptance of our so-called "environmental futures," and they may only be available to the select few who can afford them. Furthermore, many of these companies, such as UK-based Freka, focus on the aesthetic appeal and personal benefits of the mask, omitting the economic and structural drivers of the issue. However, such products do give people a sense of agency and "self-efficacy" that is crucial in building public responsiveness to an issue, and could ultimately be used as platforms for educating the public—shining a targeted spotlight on the otherwise amorphous heap of "stuff" that is climate change. In addition to brands, medical professionals can serve as an important source of authority that provides linkages between cardiopulmonary health problems and climate change, prescribing broader political action, as opposed to just personal remediation.

Looking for a Positive Discourse

It is evident that climate change is no longer a question of science—we know it is happening. It is no longer a question of technology— we have the means to fix it. Rather, climate change is a question of collective and political will, which itself is a function of the stories we tell ourselves and the language we use to construct that narrative. Continually reframing the narrative, broadening the discourse beyond environmentalism to include public health, broadening the voices to include everyone from doctors to designers, are all necessary strategies to breaking our collective paralysis and catalyzing massive change.

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