Say it loud and clear: Climate change is a health problem

Participants at a Climate and Health Alliance workshop in Townsville stand outside and hold signs which read "our climate, our health" and also "prevention is better than cure."

Alex Hewish and Remy Shergill – Climate And Health Alliance

Climate change. The average Australian is aware that the world is warming up due to more greenhouse gases in our air, trapping heat. Yet many don’t know of the effects that climate change will have on our health – effects which Australian health professionals are already seeing.

In a recent survey of almost 900 health professionals, 87 per cent of respondents said that climate change is having an effect on Australians’ health, and 79 per cent stated that climate change is already affecting their work. They reported seeing a higher incidence of climate-related health problems, such as heat stress, pollen-related allergies, respiratory diseases and mental illnesses (like eco-anxiety, post traumatic stress, etc).

The evidence confirms that climate change is exacerbating existing health problems, and driving new ones. But are we talking about it? For most of us, no. Only a third of health professionals reported speaking to patients or clients about climate-health impacts.

Text says "every major public health victory of the last century has had effective communication at its heart." Quote attributed to Dr Ed Maibach, Director of the Centre for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University.

We need to be talking about climate and health, but most of us don’t know how. The survey found that the biggest barrier to talking about climate and health was “not feeling sufficiently informed.”

So how can you talk about climate change and health?

Health professionals are among the most trusted professions in Australia. This means they are well-placed to help people to perceive climate change as a health issue.

But effective communication is also essential for delivering public health messages. Luckily the Climate and Health Alliance has launched a new Communications Guide. It supports health professionals in talking about the health impacts of climate change.

Top tips

The guide summarises robust evidence on communication in a list of top tips.

  • Keep it simple. Use language which is easy to understand and stick to the facts. Limit dramatic language such as “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”. 
  • Put patients first. Tailor the issue of climate change to your patients. Talk about how it will affect their friends and family. Try to relate climate change to current health conditions they may be experiencing. Frame it as a health issue, not an environmental issue.
  • Stay on track. Avoid getting caught up in conversations questioning climate science, ideology or politics. If a disagreement arises, try to understand and respect their opinion. Then use your professional expertise and experiences as evidence.

The unique power of health professionals

Health professionals have a unique power – and responsibility – to advocate for climate action to protect our health. 

When we lead, others follow. Speak up about climate change and health. You may encourage your patients and colleagues to do the same. Conversation is a crucial seed in raising awareness and inspiring climate action. The health sector has a role in protecting the wellbeing of our current and future patients.

These tips come from the new Communications Guide for Health Professionals by the Climate and Health Alliance. For the full guide, click here.

The Climate and Health Alliance is Australia’s peak body on climate change and health. It has 55 member organisations, including the Public Health Association of Australia.

Image: Participants at a workshop in Townsville, organised by the Climate and Health Alliance.

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