Why Climate Change Is A Public Health Issue

Some public health officials argue that the image associated with global warming shouldn’t be a polar bear surrounded by melting ice caps, but rather a child suffering from heat exhaustion.

Some social scientists believe that the issue of global warming could resonate with a larger segment of the general population if it is framed in terms of public health rather than the environment. The most obvious consequences of global warming that pose a threat to public health are deadly heat waves, such as the record-shattering temperatures this past summer that resulted in over 50 deaths. But epidemiologist George Luber told NPR that the Centers for Disease Control is focused on combating a broader set of climate-related issues that could pose a threat to Americans’ health:

Today, Luber’s job at the CDC is to deal with health issues related to climate change. And heat waves are just part of his portfolio.

Hot air causes more smog, which in turn causes more asthma. Also high on his list are deadly storms, which are likely to become more powerful as the world warms. Infectious diseases can also increase their ranges as the climate changes.

“This is a new topic for public health,” Luber says. “This is emerging largely as a result that the scientific evidence around climate change has evolved to the point that public health feels confident engaging the science; that this is a credible threat.”

Because climate change has become so politically contentious — with prominent elected officials, including Paul Ryan, continuing to doubt the scientific evidence behind it — health officials may be better messengers to communicate the disastrous effects of global warming because Americans consider them to be a neutral source. Researchers at American University have also found that framing global warming as a public health issue is the “most emotionally compelling” because it helps people see the issue as more personally relevant.


As global temperatures keep climbing — just today, the U.S. National Climate Data Center reported that 2012 has been the warmest year on record so far, and the past 15 months have all reached record-breaking temperatures — public health officials may not have a hard time making their case.