Thursday, January 17, 2008

Me, myself and I: Bringing global warming down to size

How do we get people to care about climate change and global warming? The answer may be simpler than you might think. Here’s a clue: What do Americans care deeply about?

Sure, this month Americans are telling the pollsters that they care deeply about the economy, and they do. But Americans consistently tell the pollsters (and any of the rest of us who care to ask) — year in and year out — that they care even more deeply about their health. And they REALLY care about their children’s health, their grandchildren’s health, and the health of anyone and everyone else that they love or care about. Americans care about health, period.

And yet what comes to mind when people think about global warming? Hint: It’s not our health.

Anthony Leiserowitz — one of the nation’s leading experts on this topic has published the answer. His data show that when most Americans think about global warming, what first comes to mind are environmental images — like melting glaciers, endangered polar bears or shrinking polar ice caps. People’s mental imagery of global warming is of inanimate objects and wild animals that, for the most part, exist or live far, far away from us. Some of us care deeply about these far away creatures and landscapes, but most of us don’t.
We care deeply about people. And we care deeply about health. But most of us haven’t yet made the connection between global warming and people, and the connection between global warming and human health. So it should be no mystery as to why most of us don’t yet care deeply about global warming.

Our job as public health professionals is to help people make that connection. We need to help people see that global warming is indeed a threat to our health, and even more so to our children’s and grandchildren’s health. And we need to help people see that global warming is even more of a threat to the health and well-being of the poorest people in this country, and in this world, because they have the fewest defenses to protect themselves from the threat.

Global warming is about us. If we can tell that story through National Public Health Week and the World Health Organization’s Global Health Day, we will be helping Americans to care deeply about this profound threat to the public’s health.

- Edward Maibach, PhD, MPH2008 National Public Health Week Advisory Committee member and director of George Mason University’s Center of Excellence in Climate Change Communication Research

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