Scientists and public officials need to do more to show the public how climate change affects diseases and physical well-being, according to researchers.

"Human health is largely neglected, if not entirely ignored, in debates about climate change," said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.

Speaking yesterday in a Web-based seminar, Chan said record floods in places like Pakistan put more people at risk for water-borne diseases like cholera, and record droughts in the horn of Africa are putting more people at risk for starvation while exacerbating existing medical conditions for close to 30 million people.

Anthony McMichael, a professor of population health at the Australian National University, said health impacts can come directly from the climate, like heat waves and extreme weather, or indirectly through famine and exposures to disease vectors like mosquitoes.

The most insidious human impacts, however, will come from conflicts over scarce resources as crop yields decline and people migrate, according to McMichael. As the planet's population ages, he said, the number of people facing potential health consequences from climate change will rise.

Despite these potential problems, many people, particularly Americans, don't link climate change and their physical well-being. "Most Americans think that climate change is a distant issue," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He was referring to the common notion that climate change is far off in the future and will only play out far away.

Because of this, surveys show that disease, injury and famine are not part of the equation when most people think of shifting weather patterns. "People do not connect the dots between climate change, which is in one part of the brain, and human health, which is in another part of the brain," Leiserowitz said.

Understanding local impacts helps
However, Leiserowitz said that once the link was explained, survey participants were more inclined to believe that climate change would affect human health. "Crucially, it helps to localize the issue," he said. He explained that people need to understand how a global change in the climate can manifest in ways they can see, whether it's increased respiratory problems from dust storms or disease-spreading ticks moving to new areas.

Communicating these risks to the public is critical to minimizing their impact, but doing so requires finesse. Christian Teriete, communications director for TckTckTck, a consortium of climate change activist groups, said there is no universal pitch or message for getting people to understand how climate change harms health.

Instead, he said, officials and activists need to tailor their messages for specific audiences, like professionals, students and policymakers. These messages must also account for geographic differences so people better understand risks to their own countries and neighborhoods.

In addition, campaigners should provide potential solutions and tactics to offset health problems from climate change, since an optimistic approach can keep people from tuning out. "We're not going to resolve this huge problem internationally if we don't have a huge shared understanding. We must make the argument that we can do this," said McMichael.

Fortunately, strategies for mitigating climate change also tend to help reduce its impact, according to Leiserowitz. "Many of these exact things we are doing to improve public health also tend to improve the climate. Likewise, the more ways we can move away from fossil-fuel-based energy sources, the more that helps our health at the same time," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500