The Art of Climate Change Communication

Gina McCarthy, Photo: Josh Levine / Harvard Chan

Why has the public health angle largely been left out of the conversation about climate change, and how can scientists help laypeople make the connection? Four Harvard Chan–affiliated researchers offer their perspectives.

Gina McCarthy
Former administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
2017 Harvard Chan Commencement speaker
Richard L. and Ronay A. Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow, Harvard Chan School

Scientists need to be able to speak to the science but do it in a way that makes it more understandable than a research paper. Rather than talking about probabilities and uncertainties, they should explain what climate science means when it applies to people’s lives. I think scientists are remarkable human beings—they have an ability to make connections that save lives and increase our understanding of the world. But they have to get comfortable outside their academic ivory towers. Scientists have to speak clearly and articulately as citizens on whom Americans can depend for accurate information on which they can then act.

Ashish Jha
Director, Harvard Global Health Institute
K.T. Li Professor of International Health
Senior Associate Dean, Research Translation and Global Strategy

Until recently, the messaging around climate change was too often about sea level rises and temperature changes. While those are important, it’s hard for most people to connect with that and understand why it should matter to them. We need to help people realize that the biggest effects of climate change will be on our health: It may result in more cases of asthma and heart disease, a negative impact on our food supply, and new disease outbreaks. These problems will affect not just those of us who live on the coasts, but all Americans—and really, all people around the globe. It is our job as public health professionals to help people connect those dots.

Doug Dockery
John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Environmental Epidemiology

One of the main lessons of the Six Cities study of the 1970s and ’80s was expressing health outcomes in ways that people could understand in terms of their own lives. If we talk about reducing the PM2.5 level by five micrograms per cubic meter—that means nothing. But if we talk about reducing your life expectancy from air pollution by a year or so, people understand.

In the same way, how do you convince somebody that a one-degree increase in the earth’s surface temperature has meaning to them? You say: This is reducing your life expectancy by so many months or years, or this is increasing the number of asthma attacks in your community, or this raises the probability of your having a heart attack.

Sam Myers
Senior research scientist, Department of Environmental Health

Talking about climate change and health is not some sort of Machiavellian strategy—as if what we really care about are environmental issues, but if we put them in this Trojan horse of public health, then people will start to care. It’s to the contrary: an urgent recognition that we’re seeing a public health crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. The crisis has been invisible because we’ve been focused on separate parts: cardiorespiratory disease going up in Southeast Asia, iron and zinc deficiency spreading in lower-income countries, malaria cases expanding in certain parts of the world, rising numbers of displaced persons.

We’ve been focusing on each one of those problems from a separate disciplinary silo, not recognizing that they’re all manifestations of the same thing: an accelerating disruption of our planet’s natural systems. Planetary health is a frame that brings all of these trends into perspective as part of the same fundamental problem: human disruption of Earth’s natural systems, leading to a growing share of the global burden of disease.