Grist: Connecting Climate Change and Health Care Reform

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Last week I did an extended Q & A interview with Grist magazine about strategies for connecting climate change to the ongoing health care debate. Below is just one of several exchanges likely of interest to readers. My views are informed in part by research I am currently doing in collaboration with Edward Maibach at George Mason University and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Health Policy Investigators' program.

The one thing that I would add to the transcript featured is that any communication about the health impacts of climate change needs to be consistent with the scientific research in the area. To claim direct connections between climate change and cancer, for example, goes beyond the existing literature that I am familiar with and risks public trust.

Q. You write about "framing" the scientific discussion, putting scientific findings in a more understandable and personally relevant context. If you were a paid media consultant advising the climate science community, how would you suggest they take advantage of the current attention on healthcare reform to re-frame the debate and advance their cause for action on climate change? Who should they be talking to? What should they be saying? And how should they be saying it?

A. Right now there isn't an easy answer. There hasn't been enough specific work done on connecting climate change to public health or healthcare reform. The first recommendation is that accomplishing that goal will take a lot of resources, because there's so much competing noise around the healthcare debate and around climate change generally. Resources first need to be spent on careful audience research and message development around climate change and public health. [Nisbet is studying just that.]

Some of the general principles would be to first understand the segment of the public who are very concerned about healthcare reform but also ambivalent about climate change. That could be a number of different groups: it could be non-college educated suburban mothers who are concerned about health insurance for their families; it could be minority mothers living in urban areas, who are concerned about health access for their kids and also asthma, allergies and respiratory problems that their kids face; it could be people primarily concerned about the long-term cost of health insurance -- male independents, who have more of a fiscal conservative orientation, who haven't dismissed climate change but don't see it as a leading priority.

Then the strategy would be to come up with a message design that connects the dots for those groups who are already sensitive to the healthcare debate, but not necessarily concerned about climate change. [You'd want] to push this group of people into the coalition of groups around climate change by way of the health insurance debate. The key there is to identify the information sources they use (news outlets, entertainment media, etc.), and design a message that isn't too focused on climate change as a problem, but rather the actions on climate change need to be talked about in terms of their clear, tangible benefits to health and healthcare cost.

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One area that can possibly be used to link climate change and health reform are the costs of insurance for those with asthma and COPD. With findings that both of these conditions can be affected by abnormally warm humid air, cool air, air from thunderstorms and air pollution, climate change means that those with these two conditions face additional difficulties that can lead to increased needs for medical treatment and thus increased health insurance costs unless health reform is enacted.