We recently spoke with Dr. Ed Maibach, a George Mason University Professor and the Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at GMU. Dr. Maibach shared why he’s encouraged by the shifting climate narrative — and offered suggestions for effective actions we can all take.
What has struck you about how the media portrays climate change during this pandemic? Has the narrative changed significantly?
As an avid climate news consumer, I’m happy to say there seems to have been a big surge in climate reporting over the past year in both quantity and quality. Obviously, the pandemic is THE news story of 2020, but I’ve been impressed by how many news organizations have continued to report on climate change throughout.
Data released in May by Max Boykoff’s media observatory at University of Colorado suggested an important shift is occurring in the climate narrative. For the first time, human health is becoming a major focus of the story. I’m encouraged by that. While most people are fond of polar bears, all people care deeply about their own health and the health of their loved ones — perhaps especially their children and grandchildren.
Earlier this year, I co-authored a Call to Action by Health Professionals, arguing that the Paris Climate Agreement is the world’s most important public health initiative, and that health professionals worldwide must engage as advocates to defend and strengthen its goal. This paper outlines a strategy for health professionals across the spectrum to demand sweeping action.
An important part of the climate/health story that I hope journalists will increasingly focus on is the under-appreciated fact that, for the most part, climate solutions are health solutions. The sooner that communities transition to clean energy, the sooner they will enjoy clean air, clean water, and better health. The benefits are nearly instantaneous — no need to wait — and they are local. This is a powerful good news story that has not yet been adequately told.
A lot has changed in just a few months. If we rallied around the climate the way we have around Covid-19, what do you think we could accomplish?
Most importantly, the pandemic has taught us to listen to the experts, and to take full advantage of windows of opportunity — because when we fail to listen to the experts and fail to take advantage of windows of opportunity, people die.
The leaders of the world need to dramatically increase their commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement — because this is our last best window of opportunity to avert climate catastrophe and create a more sustainable world for our children and grandchildren. We need world leaders to come to COP26, the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, ready to increase their commitments.
The fact that COP26 has been delayed due to the pandemic creates a major opportunity for all people of conscience to start lobbying their nation’s leaders to do the right thing at COP26. The pandemic has given us extra time to focus and escalate our lobbying on behalf of the Paris Agreement.
Carbon output has seen its biggest drop in history. That’s great, but we know it’s not enough, and a global pandemic isn’t a sustainable solution for the climate. Instead, what climate-healthy personal, political, or structural changes from this moment would you like to see carried forward?
The clean energy revolution is well underway, and a global clean energy economy is inevitable — because it’s better than a fossil fuel economy in every way. But if climate catastrophe is to be averted, that transition must happen very quickly. Fossil fuel companies will do everything possible to delay the transition, and their influence on politicians is profound. Our best shot at creating the future we need is to convince politicians that we’re serious — if they fail to respond to climate change as the crisis that it is, we must be willing to vote them out of office.
What socially distant actions can we take to help?
The pandemic has created a golden opportunity to deluge politicians — office holders and candidates — with letters, phone calls, and emails demanding climate leadership. We should all be doing that.
And we should all be using our social media accounts — and old school approaches like telephone conversations — to ask our friends, family members, and colleagues to do the same. We can’t win alone, but we can win together.
Lastly, how have you been staying busy during this crisis?
I have been turning up the heat on my elected officials, and candidates who want my vote, in every way possible — including and especially by engaging with my fellow health professionals so that our collective voice issues a loud, clear, and compelling call for climate action.
You can find out more about the Center for Climate Change Communication at their website, read A Call to Action by Health Professionals here, and find Dr. Ed Maibach on Twitter @MaibachEd.