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June 12 — The Obama administration's emphasis on the public health benefits of its first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for existing power plants may help make climate change resonate with more Americans—which could build support for the controversial rule.
Communications research suggests that educating the public on the health impacts of climate change and the benefits of curbing greenhouse gas emissions could be key to convincing a wider range of Americans to support the power plant rule and other climate policies.
Climate change historically has been framed as an environmental problem, one that conjures images of melting glaciers, retreating sea ice and stranded polar bears.
“How many of us live on the shores of the Arctic Ocean or next to a melting glacier? Hardly anybody,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, told Bloomberg BNA. “That reinforces the problem that many Americans think of [climate change] as a distant problem, distant in time and distant in space.”
The climate change conversation also has been dominated by storylines focusing on science—whether it's real or not—and politics, he said.
“This health dimension of this issue is new to most Americans,” he said. “They've never heard this before. When they do, however, they get more engaged.”
The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule, announced June 2, seeks to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the existing power plant fleet 30 percent nationwide by 2030 from 2005 levels.
Public health is one of the few climate change storylines that engages different types of Americans.
Researchers from Yale and George Mason University have identified six distinct groups of Americans, which they call “Global Warming's Six Americas,” that range from the alarmed to the dismissive when it comes to their climate change-related beliefs, behaviors and policy preferences.
Information on the environmental aspects of climate change tends to have a polarizing effect for the Six Americas. When climate change is introduced as a human health issue, it can become more personally relevant and emotionally engaging among segments of the public that are disengaged or even dismissive of the issue, according to the research.
“In the battle for overall public opinion, I think it's a very strong argument,” Leiserowitz said.
The public health argument worked in California in 2010, when former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer and former Secretary of State George Shultz led an effort to defeat Proposition 23, an effort by oil companies to undercut the state's Global Warming Solutions Act (A.B. 32). The effort to defeat the proposition included advertisements with the president of the California chapter of the American Lung Association.
“So we've got real world experience, at least in California, that the health dimension” can have an impact among voters, Leiserowitz said. “Is it going to convince [Republican] Senator [James] Inhofe that climate change is real? No, that's highly unlikely.”
Focusing on the public health impacts of climate change could, however, affect other members of Congress who fall somewhere in the middle of the Six Americas spectrum.
Leiserowitz said health is “one of the universal things that we all value.”
“There is no lobby or special interest group in America that is anti-health,” he said.
The EPA estimates the proposed rule for existing power plants would lead to climate and health benefits worth $55 billion to $93 billion per year in 2030, including avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children.
Some of those benefits would come from reducing other air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
Opponents of the rule, including the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, have criticized the EPA for “double counting” health benefits from the reductions in other air pollutants.
Fundamentally, “the whole premise of the [EPA] regulation is a premise to protect our health,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, told Bloomberg BNA.
The agency's authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act comes from its 2009 finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public and the environment.
Greenhouse gas emissions lead to long-lasting changes in climate that are projected to harm human health in many ways, according to the recently released National Climate Assessment.
For example, as temperatures rise, so does ground-level ozone, which is associated with increased risk of premature death in adults and diminished lung function. Air quality also could be threatened by smoke as wildfires become more common and severe.
In addition, climate change is projected to increase the frequency of extreme heat events, which could lead to more hospital admissions for cardiovascular, respiratory and cerebrovascular diseases and deaths from heat stroke and other related conditions. Heavy rainfall and flooding, which can cause deaths from drowning and waterborne disease outbreaks, are likewise expected to happen more often.
The National Climate Assessment showed that some of these health impacts already are underway in the U.S., and they are projected to get worse over time.
This “very real reality of the health impacts on the ground” is likely another reason why the Obama administration is focusing on the issue, Maibach, who helped author the assessment's chapter on human health, said.
Despite these threats, most Americans cannot “connect the dots” between climate change and health impacts, according to a recent survey conducted by the George Mason center and the Yale project.
Survey respondents were asked to give their best estimates of the impacts of global warming on human health worldwide, now and 50 years from now. The results showed most Americans either have no idea people will die, be made ill or injured by climate change, or they underestimate how many people will be affected each year.
The idea that climate change is a health issue is certainly not new, said John Balbus, a senior advisor for public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Balbus, who has been working on the public health aspects of climate change for 20 years, said more attention has been paid to the issue of health after authoritative studies, including the National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest assessment, “made a strong statement” that observable effects are happening now.
“That changes the conversation, as opposed to a conversation that is more speculative about future impacts,” Balbus, a lead author for the National Climate Assessment, told Bloomberg BNA.
Some of these health impacts are easier for Americans to understand than others, he said.
“In the case of heat waves, people understand that severe heat is a threat to health,” Balbus said. Many cities, including St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati, already have suffered dramatic increases in death rates during recent heat waves, according to a White House report released June 6.
For other impacts, such as carbon pollution's interaction with other air pollutants, infectious diseases and pollens, it's harder to get the message across because the relationship not as straightforward, he said.
Leiserowitz called the EPA proposal a “teachable moment” for helping Americans connect the dots between climate change and health.
“In the end it's not about the president communicating it, it's not about environmental groups communicating it, it's not about climate scientists communicating it,” he said. “Americans want to hear about health impacts from a doctor.”
Several public health groups have stepped up to provide that education, including the American Lung Association, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Thoracic Society and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“We are trying to help the public understand better that carbon pollution does have public health implications,” Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association, told Bloomberg BNA.
The lung association plans to educate its volunteers on how the rule works and what it does for public health, so they can reach out to patients and talk to students in schools. Nolen said the association also will “encourage folks to come out in support of it” during the public comment process.
The American Medical Association also formally pledged its support for carbon pollution standards for power plants. During its annual meeting June 7-11, the association committed to provide public comments on the proposed rule “to underscore the need to keep the standards strong and protective of public health.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at firstname.lastname@example.org
The full text of EPA's proposed rule to limit carbon from power plants is available at http://1.usa.gov/1kAuOxU.
EPA's document providing estimates of the health benefits of the proposed rule is available at http://1.usa.gov/1nYLTaB.
The “Climate Change in the American Mind April 2014” survey by George Mason and Yale is available at http://bit.ly/1l2UQPd.
The White House report on “The Health Impacts of Climate Change on Americans” is available at http://1.usa.gov/1p32msQ.
The American Medical Association's commitment to provide public comments on the proposed rule is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=avio-9kzlce.
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