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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Reframing climate change as a public health issue: an exploratory study of public reactions

Edward W Maibach1*, Matthew Nisbet12, Paula Baldwin1, Karen Akerlof1 and Guoqing Diao3

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Climate Change Communication, Department of Communication, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA

2 School of Communication, American University, Washington, DC, USA

3 Department of Statistics, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:299  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-299

Published: 1 June 2010

Abstract

Background

Climate change is taking a toll on human health, and some leaders in the public health community have urged their colleagues to give voice to its health implications. Previous research has shown that Americans are only dimly aware of the health implications of climate change, yet the literature on issue framing suggests that providing a novel frame - such as human health - may be potentially useful in enhancing public engagement. We conducted an exploratory study in the United States of people's reactions to a public health-framed short essay on climate change.

Methods

U.S. adult respondents (n = 70), stratified by six previously identified audience segments, read the essay and were asked to highlight in green or pink any portions of the essay they found "especially clear and helpful" or alternatively "especially confusing or unhelpful." Two dependent measures were created: a composite sentence-specific score based on reactions to all 18 sentences in the essay; and respondents' general reactions to the essay that were coded for valence (positive, neutral, or negative). We tested the hypothesis that five of the six audience segments would respond positively to the essay on both dependent measures.

Results

There was clear evidence that two of the five segments responded positively to the public health essay, and mixed evidence that two other responded positively. There was limited evidence that the fifth segment responded positively. Post-hoc analysis showed that five of the six segments responded more positively to information about the health benefits associated with mitigation-related policy actions than to information about the health risks of climate change.

Conclusions

Presentations about climate change that encourage people to consider its human health relevance appear likely to provide many Americans with a useful and engaging new frame of reference. Information about the potential health benefits of specific mitigation-related policy actions appears to be particularly compelling. We believe that the public health community has an important perspective to share about climate change, a perspective that makes the problem more personally relevant, significant, and understandable to members of the public.