Communications Strategies to Improve Engagement With Climate Change

By: Lucy Walker, Policy Intern

Climate change and its associated air pollution, heat-borne illnesses, food insecurity, and extreme weather events present a significant threat to global public health. Decarbonizing, concurrently, presents promising health opportunities. A recent review from George Mason University emphasizes how social science research can improve public understanding of the links between climate change and human health, with key takeaways on high-yield communication to build public will for addressing the climate crisis as a health imperative.

As recently as 2014, 6 in 10 Americans had given “little to no thought” to how global warming might impact human health. However, from 2014 to 2020, awareness slowly increased. According to the review, research shows that presenting the health impacts of climate change can increase engagement with this issue, and emphasizing the associated health benefits of climate policy increases public will for mobilization. The review highlights that:

  • Messaging on the health and equity harms of air pollution and climate change is an effective way to improve public concern and engagement
  • Presenting the health benefits of clean energy and resilient community design is the most compelling communication on the health benefits of climate solutions
  • Providing calls to action emphasizing that many others are already taking action (social norms) strengthens the effectiveness of advocacy messages
  • Framing the issue to include information about the role of fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel CEOs increases public mobilization and bolsters policy support

Further, trusted sources and effective communicators are often the most successful in transforming public opinion. As the review notes, in April 2022, 69% of U.S. voters said they trusted their primary care doctor as a source on climate change. Republicans were especially likely to trust their primary care doctor as a source of information on climate, compared to other sources. Health providers, then, have an especially powerful role to play in changing and influencing public opinion on climate change and policy.

Still, while many health professionals want to act as climate advocates, there are some barriers to their involvement. Time constraints, support from leaders, and access to resources are just some of those barriers.

As the report states: “Some ways to address these barriers include continuing professional education and communication training; providing resources such as patient education materials and policy statements; demonstrating how to make healthcare workplaces climate-friendly; promoting workplace policies and professional cultures that are supportive of advocacy; and highlighting successful advocacy efforts and outcomes.”

Future research could explore how to best support health officials and medical professionals in their advocacy efforts and refine strategies to create the lasting political will needed for policies that promote healthy environments.