Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reframing Global Climate Change: How the Public Health Community Can Influence Public Perception and Effect Real Behavioral Change – Kym Williams


It was not until the 1960’s that concern for the environment was galvanized into the publicly organized movement called environmentalism. Following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the public became more aware that humans were damaging the environment, their own health was at risk, and the problem could no longer be ignored (Reynolds, 2002). In response, concerned citizens and advocacy groups began grassroots efforts to increase public awareness of the health impacts of environmentally destructive human behavior. The federal government followed by initiating environmental regulation with the nation’s first Clean Air Act of 1962 and later in 1970 with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (Lewis, 1988).

Environmental policy efforts remained narrowly focused until the late 1970’s when the Middle East Oil Crisis forced the U.S. to rethink its national energy policy. This crisis quickly mobilized government, business and consumers to work together to modify consumption habits and encourage behavioral change. For the first time, government-imposed limits were set on gas purchases and tax incentives were given for the production and use of gas-efficient cars. Initially, this top-down policy created a change in individual behavior, investment increased in alternative energy sources and clear environmental benefits were realized. However, as the crisis abated, conservation incentives were minimized, policy priorities shifted, media messages changed and consumers reverted back to their old behaviors, as evidenced by society’s increasing dependency on fossil fuels for energy consumption (Bamberger, 2004).

With increased dependency on foreign oil once again dominating our public policy concerns, we have been forced to revaluate our domestic energy policy. This time, however, the scientific community is providing serious warnings about the direct environmental and health impacts of our energy consumption resulting in global warming. Increasingly, scientific evidence points to the clear impact of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the warming of the atmosphere and the temperature of the oceans. We now understand that the main contributors of greenhouse gases are power plants, manufacturing, and the burning by cars and trucks of fossil-fuels. Unlike the oil crisis of the 1970’s, this is recognized as an environmental crisis on a global scale with clear, significant health, economic and social implications for billions of earth’s inhabitants (Potter, 1995). We are already beginning to see the negative health consequences associated with global warming which include the wider spread of infectious disease, increased respiratory illnesses, more heat related death and illness, immune system suppression and various forms of cancer. Documented and quantifiable economic costs consist of greater crop and harvest losses, the spread of tropical diseases, greater soil erosion and less certainty in energy supplies. Anticipated social problems resulting from the need to relocate people and political implications of unstable governments caused by economic hardship further illuminate the problems (Parker, 2006). “Global environmental change constitutes a profound challenge to human health, both as a direct threat and as a promoter of political, economic and social risks,” (Schwartz, Parker, Glass and Hu, 2006).

A Call To Action: A Critical Roll For The Public Health Community

As the public debate grows about the appropriate actions to take to mitigate the adverse human impacts on the environment, the Public Health Community (PHC) is in a unique position to facilitate change. Traditionally, the PHC has been narrowly focused on improving targeted aspects of the health of populations. However, more recently, there has been a growing effort to frame public health as a social, cultural, economic and political issue. The PHC is in a key position to bridge the gap between various sectors of society and become advocates for behavior change at the individual and national level. In this effort, the PHC must begin by understanding the root causes of environmentally destructive human behavior. This includes addressing self-efficacy concerns and the widely held view that on a personal level individuals are unable to impact global warming. With a deeper understanding of human behavior, the PHC can then begin to influence public perception and affect behavioral change. This will lay the groundwork for an effective communication strategy that educates while recognizing core values, social norms, beliefs, and influences public policy and advocates for governmental infrastructure to support its efforts.

Understanding the Root Causes of Destructive Human Behavior

Individual human behavior is often guided by social norms and the behavior of the community around us (DeFleur, 1975). Much of the environmentally destructive behavior that has resulted in global warming is dominated by social norms rooted in consumerism (McMichael, 1993). Production and consumption of goods is at the basis of our capitalistic system in which the U.S. and the majority of the western world has based its economies. “An American lifestyle focused on conspicuous consumption and materialism is reinforced by advertisers, large corporations, tax policies and governments,” (Wuthnow, 1995). While representing only five percent of the world’s population, Americans’ consume more than 25 percent of the oil produced world wide (Bullard, 2000). It is the problem of consumption, imbedded in our social norms, life style and attitudes, that is difficult to change and poses a complex challenge to the PHC when developing effective programs to address the problems of global warming.

Furthering this point, it is ironic that while a majority of the American public understands the causes of global warming and the health impacts if behavior is not changed, many feel that it is a problem they individually can’t impact. Others feel that it is a problem that will not effect their generation or even that of their children. As a result, the problem is more difficult to conceptualize. While there is a wide understanding that pollution from energy conversion and industry is the prime cause of climate change, few people make the link between their own energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Although there is a high degree of awareness of the contributing factors, climate change is only of tertiary importance in people’s daily lives. Moreover, the health consequences are perceived as not near term. “Individuals tend to psychologically distance themselves from long-term issues, pushing them to other spaces and times” (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2005). Even with awareness of this basic cause and effect relationship, without the proper social support, infrastructure, modeling of alternative behavior, and positive reinforcement, an individual has difficulty modifying their behavior (DeFleur, 1989). Additionally, the context in which people live complicates the issue of intension and often dictates whether behavior can actual be modified. Context tends to be multi-factorial including socioeconomic indicators such as where they live, do they have control of many behaviors that contribute to climate change. Therefore, the PHC must recognize that individuals may not even have the resources to make changes to their behavior even if they want to make a change (Brown, 2006).

PHC Action Plan: Using a Social and Behavioral Science Framework

There are four areas of social and behavioral science that should be understood, used and then targeted by the PHC to influence public perception of the problems of global warming and to affect behavior change.

1. Recognize Core Values: A successful Public Health program must take into account the core values, social norms and beliefs of the individuals, groups and communities being targeted. This is critical for successful implementation because policies require a degree of buy-in and acceptance from those who will be most affected by them. For example, for a successful outcome, behavior change needs to be perceived as the norm of the group and ultimately voluntary. Additionally, an individual must be convinced that the perceived benefits of changing behavior outweigh the perceived costs. Adding to this challenge is the reality that individuals often make decisions based on several external factors including life circumstances, personal preferences, and personal risk factors and therefore behavior is not always reflective of intension. “The public health official must be able to offer a benefit that the audience appreciates and demands, to back this offer up with support, and to communicate an image of the product and its benefit that reinforces the most influential core values of the target audience” (Siegel and Doner, 2004).

2. Develop Social Marketing Programs: Educational programs that encourage a deeper understanding of core values can be the cornerstone to change regarding the environmental behavior of individuals, communities and organizations. Marketing interventions should appeal to the target groups values and beliefs, try to shape those values and beliefs, provide information and skills, elicit commitments, promote social norms and expectations, and create partnerships with the institutions that may influence the target population (McKenzie-Mohr and Smith, 1999). An approach, based on community education, the provision of group incentives, reputation, and peer pressure have seen success in other area of public health policy and should be utilized to address the issues of global warming (Dietz and Stern, 2001). Examples of effective social marketing programs that focus on decisions about what type of light bulbs to purchase, the size and site location of one’s housing, the purchase of motor vehicles, type, frequency and use, and the frequency of travel all have behavioral and policy implications.

3. Apply Communication Theory: the PHC must develop positive communication strategies that frame the problem global warming. Many public health campaigns such as smoking, AIDS prevention, obesity and teen pregnancy have taught us that negative communication strategies using scare tactics are not effective in changing long-term individual behavior (DeFleur, 1989). Recently, Sr. Nicholas Stern completed a 650 page report on the economics of global warming. While enlightening, this report has done little to guide and motivate individual behavior changes. Such reports if not put in a proper framework can create a feeling that the wheels are already in motion and no individual behavior will make an impact. “Unless we act now… these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible” (Stern Report, 2006). Communication theory based messages should target a group’s core values and beliefs. “The method used to communication the hazards of climate change should be situated in people’s locality, as a means of increasing saliency and enabling greater self-efficacy,” (Lorenzon & Pidgeon, 2005).

4. Use Political Institutions and Coercion: Independently, the PHC is unable to impact behavior. The top-down infrastructure provided by local, state and federal governmental policies provides a framework which to initiate effective bottom-up, community based programs and communication strategies. By leveraging this infrastructure, the PHC can better reinforce behaviors that will have long-term results. Coercion is also an effective means to encourage desired behavioral change. To date the most effective legislation has come from the state level in the form of regulations and permits to control behavior of private firms, other governmental agencies and individuals. Those who do not comply face specific tangible fines or sanctions. (Dietz and Stern, 2001). Voluntary change also happens at the local level with community based public health programs that use pear-pressure, local environmental impact statements and modeling of alternative behavior.

Best of Breeds: Learning from Successful Programs

Learning from successful programs that have influenced real behavior change can provide a framework for the PHC in which to develop successful initiatives. Working in concert, bottom-up grass-root programs and top-down initiatives can affect behavioral change.

Community activism can be the foundation of any effective public health program. In the rural community of Biddeford, Maine, several clergy have taken it upon themselves to increase awareness of global warming in their communities and provide ways for individuals to reduce their own greenhouse gasses. In Wyandotte, Michigan, one congregation in particular, talks about the issues of global warming and then arranges energy audits so people can learn how to reduce consumption without sacrificing comfort. Services include providing energy saving light bulbs, switches and surge protectors (Banerjee, 2006). A Unitarian Church in Waltham, Massachusetts has made the fight to stop global warming a core moral cause. Members are encouraged to purchase local produce, purchase compact fluorescent bulbs, keep the thermostat at 60 degrees in winter and shun air conditioning in summer unless to temperatures are extreme (MacDonald, 2006).

The state of Oregon has initiated several programs that have resulted in considerable energy reduction. These programs have included local government interventions that target whole communities with financial incentives, and free technical assistance to households to evaluate energy conservation alternatives and potential benefits. Sociological research in the communities prior to the project helped to develop a picture of community culture and social structure to use in the design of the programs offerings and marketing messages (Mufson, 2006). A variety of regional and local groups provide support. These services range from dissemination of official program information and word-of-mouth accounts of project successes to ongoing feedback about possible program improvements. Various mass media outlets and advertising strategies were used. The result was a 15 percent decrease in electricity consumption to the community’s 15,000 residents. “The most effective campaigns have focused on humanized informational videos using community role models and interactive, rather then one-way communication” (Ester & Winett, 1982).

In California, the use of mass media to influence energy consumption behavior was recently tested with the Flex Your Power Campaign in 2001 (Bender, 2003). One of the most visible components of the effort as a multi-million dollar radio, television and print mass media campaign aimed at getting consumers and businesses to take energy-savings actions during the California electricity crisis in 2001. Californian’s temporarily reduced their electricity needs but more importantly an infrastructure was created in which to deliver a credible, understandable message for future energy consumption programs.

The City of Boulder, Colorado passed a Climate Action Plan Tax on the November 2006 ballot. In passing this ballot initiative, it marks the first time a municipal government has imposed an energy tax on its residents to directly combat global warming. The Plan will act as a road map for the city, and was created by collaboration between EPA staff, energy experts in the community, businesses, local stakeholders and community leaders. The main strategies are to increase energy efficiency, promote renewable energy and alternative fuels, and reduce vehicle miles traveled (Van Pelt, 2006).

For the first time the Supreme Court recently heard a case on the issue of Global Warming. The case known as Massachusetts v. EPA argues that the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, has the authority and obligation to regulate CO2 as an air pollutant. A patchwork of state initiatives currently exists because of the lack of federal policy on the issue. Even top executives at many of the nation’s largest energy companies see federal regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable and they are working to change some company practices in anticipation of a tax on emissions of CO2 (Mufson and Eilperin, 2006).

An important step in evaluating environmentally significant consumption is to require the use of carbon and other environmental labeling of consumer products. Carbon foot printing evaluates each product and it’s environmental impact regarding land, water, energy and other natural resources used. This type of measurement makes it possible to empower individuals with knowledge and let them decide how to respond and make informed choices by linking the environmental impact such as energy and materials life-cycle impact of products and actions to individual choice (Stern & Brewer, 2005). Additionally, it is important to contextualize the relevant factors by looking at economic costs, properties of the build environment, and government policies. “The development of carbon-and other environmental labeling of consumer products is needed so individuals can make informed choices, and the rapid implementation of policies that provide tangible economic incentives for choosing environmentally sustainable products and services is critical to its success,” (Schwartz, Parker, Glass and Hu, 2006).


The PHC is in a unique position to reframe the problem of global warming, influence public perception, and affect true behavioral change. Critical to the success of their efforts is applying a four-pronged action plan which includes the social and behavioral science framework outline in this paper. Importantly, there are many successful programs at the local and state level that can be duplicated. These programs provide lessons learned on what works and more importantly what does not work. This combined with the existing community activism base and support of the PHC will begin to change destructive behavior so long-term benefits can be realized.

Changes in Government provided by the 2006 election have the potential to allow for greater cooperation at the national level for a more consistent approach in addressing global warming. A stronger infrastructure can only assist the PHC in implementing local, targeted programs. Moreover, the global warming message can be most effectively be communicated by reframing the issue, creating a positive message that targets the core values, social norms and beliefs of broad communities and individual. This will allow individuals to feel that their actions actually can make a difference.

Lastly, the work of Dubos, author of the popular maxim “Think globally, act locally,” has given us cause to be optimistic regarding behavior change. “Humans are capable of social evolution, which allows us to rethink our actions and make relatively rapid changes that could help to lead to stabilization of the global environment and human health risks” (Dubos, 1968). With a bit of self-sacrifice and the help of the public health community focusing on programs that target individual action we can begin to move forward in our goals to mitigate the environmental and health impacts destructive human behaviors.


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