Coaching Public Health Communicators on Climate Change

Posted: August 30, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: August 27, 2010 at 3:06 pm

By Devon Madison

Edward Maibach. Creative Services photo

Before becoming an expert on climate change communication, Ed Maibach went through a change of his own.

Back in 2005, Maibach and his wife joined some family members on an educational walking trip through the Dolomites in Italy. Members of the trip spent the mornings listening to leading climate scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the afternoons climbing mountains.

There, they became familiar with climate change basics. The dramatically rising level of CO2 in our atmosphere is rapidly destabilizing our climate. The world’s population — more than 6.5 billion people — is growing and modernizing rapidly, leading to greater use of fossil fuels and deforestation.

These events, in turn, accelerate climate destabilization and reduce the earth’s capacity to produce the food and fresh water needed to sustain the current human population, much less our rapidly expanding population of tomorrow. Soon, countless people around the world may lose access to the environmental conditions that sustain their existence.

These lectures served as the catalyst that put Maibach on a new career path.

“After listening to these lectures four mornings in a row, the epiphany struck,” says Maibach. “I finally made the connection between global warming and public health — “global warming is likely this century’s most profound threat to public health and well-being. When that epiphany struck, I realized exactly what I had to spend the rest of my life working on.”

Meeting a Pressing Need

With 25 years’ experience as a public-health communication and social marketing professional, Maibach immersed himself in learning everything he could about climate change. In the process, he learned that there was a pressing need to apply communication sciences to the issue.

“Climate scientists have been warning us about climate change for 30 years, and yet it’s clear that large portions of the public and many of our elected leaders fundamentally don’t understand the magnitude of the threat or the challenges inherent in responding to it,” says Maibach.

In fall 2007, after joining Mason’s Department of Communication, Maibach founded the Center for Climate Change Communication and became its director. The center is the first behavioral science research center in the United States dedicated solely to improving climate change public engagement methods.

Many voices are speaking out about climate change, and Maibach’s center, through its research and technical assistance, acts as a communications coach for these organizations so they can become more effective in their efforts.

The center’s premise is that, in American society today, many voices are speaking out about climate change — nonprofits, businesses, government agencies — and Maibach’s center, through its research and technical assistance, acts as a communications coach for these organizations so they can become more effective in their efforts.

Starting with the community he knew best, Maibach planned his first study, which was conducted in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, to be a national survey of public health department directors. The research team was surprised to find that nearly 60 percent of local public health department directors nationwide reported that they were already seeing harmful health effects of climate change in their jurisdictions, yet few felt they had the capacity to respond.

These findings played an important role in catalyzing subsequent climate change prevention and adaptation efforts in the public health community, including helping to shape National Public Health Week 2008, which focused on climate change and health.

Since then, the Association of State Health Directors and several states, including California, Oregon and New York, have used the center’s survey instrument to better assess climate-change-related health needs within their communities.

The next important step was to get to know the American people’s views on climate change. To do this, Maibach and his colleagues, along with researchers from Yale University, conducted an extensive national study to understand more about the audiences with whom climate change professionals wish to communicate.

This study culminated in a series of major reports, including “Climate Change in the American Mind” and “Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009.” The latter study identifies six segments of American society, each demonstrating a distinct response to the issue of climate change. The Mason and Yale research team is currently planning additional studies.

Improving the Public Dialogue

In 2008, Maibach and a colleague at American University won a prestigious Health Policy Investigator Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This award funds their research intended to help health professionals more effectively communicate the health implications of climate change.

More recently, several of the center’s researchers were awarded a Climate Change Education Grant from the National Science Foundation to study the role TV meteorologists can play in educating the public on the local effects of climate change.

Center researchers have been actively sharing the fruits of their labor. Numerous organizations — from the local to the global — have sought their guidance, including Virginia state and local governments, environmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, federal agencies and even foreign embassies.

Last fall, Maibach was invited to Hollywood to brief several dozen writers, directors and producers on how to engage their audiences more effectively on climate change.

Maibach is encouraged by the positive reception his center has received in the relatively short time it has been in operation.

“There is just so much opportunity right now to improve the way the public dialogue is unfolding,” says Maibach. “And we believe our research can play an important role in helping that public dialogue unfold in the most productive way possible.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2010.

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