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How Americans respond to information about global warming’s health impacts

Many people in the United States tend to see global warming as a distant threat even though it poses significant risks to public health.

Trump-coal  How Americans respond to information about global warming’s health impacts Trump e1490910011708

With coal miners gathered around him, Trump signed an Executive Order rolling back a temporary ban on mining coal and a stream protection rule imposed by the Obama administration

In a study, the Centre for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, found that informing people about the health implications of global warming can increase public engagement with the issue and reduce differences in opinion across political lines.

The study also found that people view certain health impacts from global warming differently from others. Notably, participants viewed information about illnesses from contaminated food and water, and disease‐carrying organisms as more worrisome and novel compared to other types of health impacts from global warming.

The findings, according to the Centre, provide the most definitive evidence to date about the importance of raising awareness about the health impacts of global warming.

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The researchers called for a more effective outreach about the entire range of health risks, against the backdrop of the seeming widespread lack of awareness about the public health implications of climate change among Americans.

Public health officials were urged to strengthen public engagement specifically about illnesses caused by contaminated food and water, and by disease-carrying pests.

“We hope the results of this study will help to mobilise the public health community and catalyse additional research to figure out how to optimally target and tailor this information for a wide variety of audiences in order to reduce our collective vulnerability to the wide-ranging health threats from climate change,” says the Centre.

In the light of the fact that a small body of previous research suggests that information about the health implications of global warming may enhance public engagement with the issue, the Centre sought to extend those findings with a longitudinal study that examined how Americans react to information about eight specific categories of health impacts from global warming.

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In winter 2017, the Centre conducted a two‐wave survey experiment using a quota sample of American adults (n=2254). Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment group which read eight brief essays about different categories of health impacts from global warming, or to a control group that received no information.

Participants answered questions before reading the essays, immediately after reading each essay and at the conclusion of all essays (treatment participants only), and two to three weeks later.

“Reading the information had small‐ to medium‐sized effects on multiple indicators of participants’ cognitive and affective engagement with global warming, especially among people who are politically moderate and somewhat conservative; some of these changes persisted two to three weeks later.

“Some impacts were seen as more novel and worrisome, including illnesses from contaminated food, water, and disease‐carrying organisms. Our findings provide the most definitive evidence to date about the importance of raising awareness about the health impacts of global warming. While participants believed all of the essays as offered valuable information, educational efforts might most productively focus on impacts that are relatively less familiar, and more emotionally engaging, such as food‐, water‐, and vector‐borne illnesses,” adds the Centre.

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