Pegeen Walsh is the Executive Director for the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA). In 2017, TAF provided the OPHA with a grant to develop a communications strategy focused on the health benefits of strong climate action, with the goal of increasing public support for such action.
Over a decade ago, the World Health Organization identified climate change as “the defining issue for public health during this century.”
This prediction has become reality; in recent years, public health professionals have been tracking troubling climate-related effects on Ontarians’ health. These include increases in:
- heart and respiratory diseases, allergies, and asthma among children due to changes in air quality;
- infectious diseases, natural hazards and risk of injury, illness and loss of life due to extreme weather events such as flooding and fires;
- temperature-related morbidity and mortality from heart attacks, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion from extreme heat, and increases in hypothermia and deaths from extreme cold; and
- vector-borne diseases such as West Nile and Lyme Disease.
These health impacts are starting to garner more attention in mainstream media outlets, with a flurry of recent articles linking climate change to “allergy explosions”, Lyme disease and acute respiratory illnesses caused by increasing wildfires.
Recent press coverage regarding the link between climate change and public health may help to foster greater public acceptance of the risks related to climate change, as well as the need for strong action to reduce these risks. Research has shown that framing climate change as a public health issue produces a more emotionally compelling response among people than framing it as an environmental or national security issue. This is because the health frame focuses on the more immediate effects of climate change on people’s lives, and reinforces that the first impacts can be avoided through early action.
While it is encouraging to see recent articles linking health risks to climate change, public support for strong climate action continues to lag behind other political priorities. More work needs to be done to strengthen public awareness of the link between climate change and health, and to urge action that addresses immediate health concerns and minimizes the longer-range health impacts related to climate change.
That is why the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) is excited to be leading a collaboration with nine other environmental and health organizations – including Asthma Canada, the Ontario Lung Association, and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario – to build public support for climate action by highlighting the important links between climate change and human health.
TAF’s seed funding has allowed the OPHA to draw on the communications expertise of Argyle Public Relationships to create a compelling communications strategy designed to spur Ontarians to action. Together with Argyle and our partners, we have developed a strategy that will engage more people in the climate conversation by appealing to their concern for their own health and that of their loved ones. Communications will focus on how people can protect their health from climate-related risks such as Lyme disease, asthma exacerbations and heat-related illness, as well how their health can benefit from supportive climate actions such as investment in transit and active transportation. Key lessons from our strategy development process can be found here.
Our initiative aims to clearly demonstrate the connection between climate change and health that our audiences can see and feel, understand and act on. It aims to appeal to audiences who are concerned about health but are not currently engaged in climate conversations. Our “health first” messaging frames climate change as a health rather than an environmental issue, specifically targeting the health impacts on children and other vulnerable populations.
It’s been inspiring working with our colleagues and pooling our expertise, networks and resources to build a new path for effecting change. OPHA is now seeking funding support to effectively deliver the strategy we’ve developed. We’re looking forward to getting our initiative underway and welcoming others to join us on this journey. With the health of loved ones, communities and the planet at stake, we can’t afford to wait.