Behaviour change is key to climate action - health experts

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 17 November 2013 08:00 GMT

People wear face masks while waiting at a traffic junction in haze-hit Dumai, in Indonesia's Riau province, June 21, 2013. Hospitals in Dumai and Bengkalis in Indonesia's Riau province recorded increases in cases of asthma, lung, eye and skin problems due to smoke from plantation fires, said health official Arifin Zainal. REUTERS/Beawiharta

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Health and climate problems share many similarities – and both require a shake-up in thinking to solve

WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Setting a Millennium Development Goal to reduce malaria has led deaths from the disease to drop by a quarter since the year 2000. Could setting a similar goal to reduce “motorised commuting” lead to reductions in asthma – and in greenhouse gases?

Attacking health and climate change problems together makes sense, experts said Saturday at a climate and health summit on the sidelines of the U.N. climate negotiations in Warsaw.

“Human health and environmental health are really two sides of the same coin,” said Dr. Alessandro Demaio, a global health fellow at Harvard Medical School. If cities make good public transport available and encourage walking, for instance, they can cut carbon emissions as well as lung diseases and diabetes, he said.

But changing behaviour that causes global warming can be just as difficult as changing behaviour that leads to health problem, doctors at the summit admitted.

The problem is that talking about terrible threats – whether from heart attacks caused by eating fast food or extreme storms fuelled by climate change – “is not very motivating”, said Dr. John Balbus, a senior public health advisor to the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Instead, campaigners on both health and climate issues need to find ways of talking about the genuine benefits of taking action, experts said.

“After decades of trying to scare people and politicians into action, it is becoming clearer and clearer that ‘hell doesn’t sell,’” said Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, a Swedish doctor and head of GreeNudge, an environmental organisation that tries to “nudge” people into better choices.

“We have to paint the picture of the world we want,” and take smart action, through things as simple as replacing carbon-intensive red meat with chicken on hotel buffets or using smaller plates to cut food waste, she said.


Moving toward action on climate and health issues is crucial, speakers at the summit said, because climate change threatens a range of worsening problems for health - from the geographical spread of diseases like malaria and dengue, to growing heat stress, food shortages and psychological pressures.

The number of people at risk each year from mosquito-borne diseases like malaria is expected to grow to 170 million in Africa by 2030, and urban air pollution in places like China is already directly responsible for 1.2 million deaths a year. 

Increasingly hot weather in Australia and India, for example, particularly threatens people whose jobs require them to work outside. “We can’t push everyone into air-conditioned environments,” warned Dr. Liz Hanna, an expert on climatic disasters and heat at Australian National University.

With climate change fast bringing more severe hazards – from worsening bushfires in Australia to more powerful hurricanes and typhoons – “we are in the critical decade for action on climate change,” Hanna said. A planet hotter by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius – for which the world is currently on track, scientists warn – “is not compatible with human flourishing”, she said.

So what motivates people to change their behaviour? Doctors and climate activists should take a lesson from marketing experts, and spend more time studying what people want and how they make choices, Stordalen said.

She pointed to an experiment at the Google corporate headquarters canteen, where bottles of water were moved to eye level and soda relegated to the bottom shelf in display cabinets. Employees quickly began consuming 27 percent more water, she said.

And school cafeterias have seen similar success in getting children to eat vegetables simply by displaying them more attractively.

The biggest opportunities for reducing climate change come in changing how people live, how they move around and what they eat and drink, Stordalen said. But changing food systems is perhaps the quickest option since “we make new meals every day”.


Harvard Medical School’s Demaio noted that trying to spur action on climate change shares some of the same problems as trying to tackle the non-communicable diseases he works on, including cancer, diabetes and lung disease.

Talking about either ends up being too jargon-laden for most people to understand, and they are surrounded by myths – not least that nothing much realistically can be done to address them, he said.

But in the main, solving most non-communicable disease problems – like addressing climate change –“is a political issue, not a technical one”, he said. With sufficient will and lifestyle changes 80 percent of heart disease and diabetes, and a third of cancers could be averted, he said.

“We have to turn communication around this upside down,” he said. We should start creating global social movements around the problems, use simple and engaging language to talk about them, and focus on the opportunities, not just the threats, he added.

Dr. Robin Stott, a retired British physician and co-chair of the Climate and Health Council, pointed out that information alone isn’t enough to drive action – something clearly evident at this week’s climate talks.

 “We have to use information in a much more nimble way,” he said. Talking about health threats - or climate change risks - “doesn’t set the pulse of decision makers racing.”

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