Health Matters: Is it time for a new climate change message?

Charlotte Beach dock. Photo by Lynn Monty.

Climate science is complicated. The language is arcane and foreign to most of us. It often deals with outcomes and events way in the future. Yet almost everyone agrees that the earth is warming at an accelerating rate, and the vast majority of climate scientists believe that human activity and our reliance on fossil fuels is partly, if not largely, responsible. Where scientists may disagree is mainly about the magnitude of these effects.

What’s startling is how much consensus and agreement there seems to be on climate change among members of the general population. Researchers at George Mason and Yale University have published a number of surveys on knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about climate change yearly since 2008. (See this website). The latest survey (2016) shows that 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening and that a majority, 53 percent, believe it’s the result of human activity.

Although two-thirds view it as a serious problem for future generations, only four in 10 people believe they will be personally threatened in their lifetimes. Now here was the shocker for me: When voters were asked prior to the 2016 election which issues were most important in making a decision on whom to vote for in the 2016 election, global warming ranked sixth among liberal Democrats, 13th among moderate/conservative Democrats, 21st among liberal/moderate Republicans, and 23rd among conservative Republicans. The economy was the highest priority for all four groups.

So while most Americans are “concerned” about global environmental change, for the most part they do not feel personally threatened in the near term. As far as their political priorities are concerned, global climate change appears to be well down the list. Should we be surprised therefore that the Trump administration feels it has license to abandon the Paris Accords, roll back air and water regulations and open up federal lands for oil and gas exploration?

Clearly the solutions, if there are any, are maddeningly complex. But they all begin with reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for transport, electricity production, heating and manufacturing. This has meant that we are instantly up against those who are dismissive of the fossil fuel–global warming link as well as the powerful corporations that are engaged in exploring for, extracting and transporting fossil fuels around the globe.

Reframing the debate
One way to gain additional traction in this debate is to reframe and refocus the messaging away from things that are too easily dismissed as “unproven” (for example, the fossil fuel–global warming link), too far away from our everyday lives (global rather than local) and too far into the future. Messages framed in these ways create a sense for many us of powerlessness and an inability to affect any sort of meaningful change. After all, how will my decision to replace all my incandescent bulbs with LEDs prevent the far into the future melting of the Greenland glacier or the splitting off of the Larsen further destrctruction of the ice shelf in far-away Antarctica? Taken together these factors facilitate apathy and denial and give license to the political and corporate interests promoting the continued consumption of fossil fuels.

The environmental and climate change advocacy communities have allowed the fossil fuel enablers to frame the debate in terms of jobs and the economy (today) for “imagined” benefits far in the future. There is no question that transitioning from a reliance on fossil fuels for our energy needs to an economy reliant on renewable energy sources will have serious short-term economic impacts. To deny it is silly. But what most people have failed to appreciate is that fossil fuel use and its collateral impacts are a proven health threat here and now.

The link between sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides on the one hand and asthma, bronchitis and pulmonary inflammation on the other are well established in the literature. However, most people are unaware that the small particles given off during combustion have now been shown to increase risk of acute cardiac events and cardiovascular disease mortality. These findings received widespread attention in June 2017 when both The Lancet in the U.K. and The New England Journal of Medicine published large-scale studies showing increased risks of premature death and disability from small-particle pollution, especially in the elderly. A 2010 study estimated that fine-particle pollution from coal plants alone in the U.S. resulted in 9,700 hospitalizations, 13,000 heart attacks and 20,000 premature deaths.

Most of these studies do not measure the impacts on children and infants who we know to be exquisitely vulnerable to these pollutants. Nor do the studies cited look at contamination of the air and water from mercury and other heavy metals that are both combustion products and associated with the mining, and extraction and transportation of fossil fuels. Finally, the transportation of fossil fuels, whether by pipeline, rail, truck or ship, carries with it additional risks. For example, as of last week, there had been 17 oil pipeline “spills” across the U.S. during 2017, four of which involved 50,000 gallons or more of oil and one of which involved two million gallons of oil and drilling chemicals.

These health threats are real. They are measurable. They affect people’s lives today. And as they say in all of the infomercials: “There’s more.”

Even in many of the most “climate-skeptical” red states policymakers have discovered that sound economic and public health arguments can be made for local communities to transition to greater use of renewable energy sources. A recent article in Newsweek reported that many in the Great Plains states, which are suffering from heat, drought and water shortages ascribed to climate change, are actively seeking alternative energy sources such as waste-to-energy and methane capture from landfills to help them manage energy costs in a sustainable way. No discussion of global climate change. They are doing it because it makes economic and public health sense. Existing climate models suggest that drought and deforestation in the Great Plains states may once again lead to conditions much like the dust bowl of the 1930s. If extreme conditions such as this materialize it is likely that the “climate-skeptics” may soon vanish from here.

I am not suggesting we turn away from global climate change advocacy or multilateral agreements. But we appear to have hit a political impasse in this country. as illustrated by the current administration in Washington. While polling shows that 60–70 percent of Americans are generally in favor of policies promoting renewable energy, a far smaller percentage feel threatened by global climate change. For many the daunting nature of the challenge and its distance in the future have facilitated apathy. Changing the discussion to focus on imminent, local threats to health and well-being and opportunities that exist today from continued reliance on fossil fuels may just be enough to change the political calculus and bring the U.S. back in line with the rest of the world. If we can do these things, the health and economic benefits will be felt locally anddomestically today. The ultimate beneficiary, however, will be the global environment.

Jim Hyde is associate professor emeritus at the Tufts University School of Medicine. He lives in Charlotte.