Study Urges Media To Frame Global Warming As A ‘Public Health’ Problem

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A new study is urging activists and the media to talk less about how global warming will impact the environment and more about how it will negatively impact public health. Framing global warming as a public health issue, the study says, will convince people to support policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“When framed as an environmental problem, this interpretation likely distances many people from the issue and contributes to a lack of serious and sustained public engagement necessary to develop solutions,” reads a new study published in the journal Environmental Communication.

The study urges activists to use the legitimacy of the media to barrage the public with coverage on how global warming could make public health problems worse, like asthma and mosquito-born illnesses. Activists must keep the narrative alive in the media until the public believes it to be true, the study argues.

“It is our contention, then, that environmental and health advocates need to do what they can to foster the increased usage of public health frames in climate change news and also boost the total level of quality climate change reportage,” the study’s authors urge. “After all, the use of an engaging and effective news frame may not matter if the legitimacy of the issue is called into question by dwindling coverage.”

This new study basically lays out the same strategy the Obama administration has adopted when it comes to global warming. The White House has made great efforts to link global warming to personal afflictions, like asthma or heat strokes. The administration recently hosted a national summit with doctors, nurses and activists to urge medical professionals to tell patients about the alleged dangers of warming.

“We also need doctors, nurses and citizens, like all of you,” Obama said in a taped speech at last month’s summit, “to get to work to raise awareness and organize folks for real change.”

The White House summit came after the EPA released a major study claiming “climate change is projected to worsen air quality across large regions of the U.S.” which will exacerbate things like asthma problems, especially among children.

Another conveniently-timed study by the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change claimed man-made warming could undo half a century of progress of global health gains. The study claims warming will cause “increased heat stress, floods, drought, and increased frequency of intense storms, with the indirect threatening population health through adverse changes in air pollution, the spread of disease vectors, food insecurity and undernutrition, displacement, and mental ill health.”

But the push to tie global warming to ill health goes back to the beginnings of President Obama’s tenure. An internal EPA memo from 2009 advises agency officials to tie its environmental regulatory agenda to the “personal worries” of Americans.

“Most Americans will never see a polar ice cap, nor will most have the chance to see a polar bear in its natural habitat,” the internal memo reads. “Therefore, it is easy to detach from the seriousness of this issue. Unfortunately, climate change in the abstract is an increasingly — and consistently — unpersuasive argument to make.”

“However, if we shift from making this about the polar caps and about our neighbor with respiratory illness we can potentially bring this issue home to many Americans,” the memo contends. “There will be many opportunities to discuss climate-related efforts this year. As we do so, we must allow the human health argument to take center stage.”

The new study on communicating warming in terms of public health seems to add credence to this line of thinking.

“Specifically, recent research has found that a broad cross-section of Americans respond positively to the treatment of climate change as a health problem and the provision of information about the health benefits of proactive responses to climate change,” the study found.

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