AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Climate change is often portrayed as a looming crisis for the environment - ice melting, seas rising. But framing it that way only appeals to a slice of the population. So, some social scientists are trying to re-cast climate change as a health issue - killer heat waves, deadly storms and more disease and allergies.
NPR's Richard Harris explains.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The current poster child for global warming is a polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg. Some health officials argue the poster child should instead be a child. George Luber at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says, the most obvious risk from a warming world is killer heat.
DR. GEORGE LUBER: I think the heat wave of 1995 in Chicago really got public health aware of the fact that this could be a disaster.
HARRIS: About 750 people died from the heat in Chicago.
LUBER: And that was amplified by the European heat wave of 2003, where we had over 70,000 excess deaths attributable to the heat wave.
HARRIS: Today, Dr. Luber's job at the CDC is to deal with health issues related to climate change. And heat waves are just part of his portfolio. Hot air causes more smog, which in turn causes more asthma. Also high on his list are deadly storms, which are more likely to become more powerful as the world warms. Infectious diseases can also increase their ranges as the climate changes.
LUBER: This is a new topic for public health, this is emerging, I think, largely as a result that the scientific evidence around climate change has matured to a place that public health feels confident in engaging the science; that this is a credible threat.
HARRIS: And health officials are messengers with special credibility. They're trusted far more than politicians, journalists, environmental activists and other widely heard voices on this topic. Dr. Luber and his colleagues may not wade into the contentious issue about the role that human beings play in warming up the planet...
LUBER: But when we show the evidence that a changing climate does affect their health, people become very concerned and believe it ought to be addressed.
HARRIS: In the past few years, social scientists have been exploring this issue. Matthew Nisbet at American University and colleagues have found that people who are indifferent or even hostile to climate change are more receptive to the issue when it's talked about as a health issue. It has far more appeal than when it's framed as an environmental issue, or as a matter of national security.
MATTHEW NISBET: Not only does it lead to emotionally engaging responses among a broad cross section of Americans, it also helps to localize the issue for people and to view the issue as more personally relevant.
HARRIS: It resonates in conservatives and liberals, even among a broad segment of the public that just doesn't think about climate change.
NISBET: They found that public health frame about climate change the most engaging and the most emotionally compelling.
HARRIS: Nisbet thinks these findings could define common ground, in an issue that has become deeply politicized and polarized.
NISBET: The idea of protecting people, the innocent especially, from harm and caring for the innocent is a value that's widely shared across the political spectrum.
HARRIS: But George Marshall, at the Climate Outreach Information Network in Oxford, has his doubts. His nonprofit has also been trying to figure out how to build public consensus on the issue.
GEORGE MARSHALL: The whole issue of climate change is now so intensely politicized and so intensely fought over. But if you put a foot wrong in any regards, you know, if you make a claim that can't stand up, it then becomes ammunition to use in this culture battle that we have.
HARRIS: For example, some people have been tempted to draw a connection between this year's big outbreak of West Nile disease and climate change. But the link isn't nearly as direct as, say, the link between smoking and cancer. Scientists will tell you that warmer conditions favor West Nile. But it's hard to pin a specific outbreak on changing climate, just as it's hard to blame climate change for any given storm. And, Marshall says, worries about disease won't necessarily motivate people to take action against climate change.
MARSHALL: There's a real danger for people to just hold their hands over their ears and say, I don't want to hear this. I don't want to hear that there's going to be more malaria, there's going to be more West Nile Virus, or there's going to be worse ozone, or there's going to be more asthma, or any connection you might be able to make for climate change.
HARRIS: He says people will respond to ideas that help them personally, help their families, and help their communities. And there's clearly a role for talking about health and climate change in that context.
MARSHALL: What we do know, though, is that if you go a step further and you say, hey, it's everybody's responsibility to give things up and cut down in the interests of saving the planet, then you're really in for trouble.
HARRIS: He says, look what happened during the Republican National Convention. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney turned climate change as a global environmental issue into a laugh line.
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GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans, and to heal the planet.
HARRIS: Obviously a deeply environmental message does not resonate with a large part of the American public. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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