“Numbers numb, stories sell.”
That was the message that Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, championed before a crowd of public health experts during the White House Public Health and Climate Change Summit Tuesday.
“We don’t deal well with numbers, it tends to suspend our sense of emotion, but we respond very, very well to stories,” Maibach continued. “Individual stories will almost always trump a litany of statistics.”
Maibach was trying to answer a difficult question posed to a panel of public health, business and climate communication experts: How do we use the vast amount of data and tools that already exist to get people to care about climate change?
The panel, which in addition to Maibach included Ruth Etzel of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lance Pierce of CDP North America, and Joe Romm of Climate Progress, explored various ways to strengthen the national conversation about climate change. The main takeaways, the panelists said time and time again, was to make the message as personal as possible.
“At the end of the day, it does come down to people. It does come down to being able to make that connection to the fact that it’s about, in many ways, the children, the people that are vulnerable, and the impact on them,” Pierce, whose organization works with businesses to combat climate change, said. “It’s a big challenge, just like there may be no one climate solution silver bullet, there may be no one messaging bullet either.”
Both Maibach and Etzel underscored the importance of using the lens of public health when communicating the potential impacts of climate change.
“We care deeply about our health, all Americans do. We care about our own health, or children’s health, our parents’ health,” Maibach said, noting that public health can help avoid the political polarization that often plagues conversations about climate change.
“Unlike the issue of climate change, which quite regrettably has become highly polarized in America, the issue of health is not polarized,” he said.
The panel’s discussion comes on the heels of two reports linking climate change to public health. The first, a comprehensive report published Monday from the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, said that “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” A different report, released Monday by the EPA, found that the United States could avoid 57,000 deaths in 2100 if the world limited global warming to 2°C.
Maibach called communicating climate change through public health issues “a huge opportunity.”
“My hope is that today is an important milestone in public health communication,” he said, “to help people understand that climate change is a major threat to our health and a major opportunity for us to build a better america and build a better world where we can all live more healthfully.”