Community Climate Change Project Shines Light on Public Perceptions

Submitted By

Richard Hicks
Columbus Public Health, Ohio
September 19, 2014

A collaborative project between Columbus Public Health (CPH) and The Ohio State University (OSU) is providing city leaders with information on what residents know and believe about climate change, and what actions they would support to address the problem. Organizers hope the information can help develop policies that will better protect both health and the environment. The project, a partnership between the health department’s Environmental Health Division and the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, was developed with two main goals: to provide Columbus residents with information on the best available science around climate change, and to gather information on how community members perceive the issue and what they’re willing to support when it comes to individual and community action.

Initial conversations about the project began more than a year ago, spurred by a desire to determine why the public’s level of concern about climate change – an emerging public health issue – seemed low. Staff wondered whether public concern could be impacted by how people talk about the issue. Project partners felt that an important piece in the puzzle could be reframing climate change as a health issue, rather than solely an environmental problem. The project survey and community presentation were ultimately designed with this in mind. This meant talking about climate change in the context of more extreme heat events, worsening air quality, more frequent and powerful storms, and the increased risk of infectious disease from insects.

The project has three components. First, project staff administered an online survey to 450 residents and used those responses to gather baseline information on what people already knew and believed about climate change. Staff then hosted 19 community meetings across Columbus, where they delivered an interactive presentation that not only provided audience members with the latest climate change information, but gave them an opportunity – using computer polling software – to answer questions about climate change and see their responses in real time.

Health department staff, OSU faculty and student personnel worked collaboratively to develop survey questions and the community presentation. CPH staff and OSU faculty administered the presentations together with community volunteers who were recruited to assist. Students provided administrative assistance and technical assistance in scheduling and delivering the presentations.

The final component (yet to be completed) will be three and six-month follow-up surveys, given to a small sample of audience members to see if their beliefs about the issue changed as a result of the presentation. The completed baseline surveys are currently being reviewed by Ohio State University faculty, but have so far yielded interesting initial findings.

Surveys show that people overwhelmingly believe (71%) that climate change is happening and that we’re experiencing negative consequences (58%) as a result. However, there’s a significant disconnect among survey respondents concerning climate change’s primary cause. In addition, many respondents mistakenly think there’s significant scientific disagreement around the issue. Over a third (38%) believe there’s of lot of scientific disagreement about whether climate change is happening; almost half (48%) believe there’s substantial scientific disagreement about whether climate change is caused by humans.

There’s also confusion about the actions that contribute to climate change, and those that can reduce it. This confusion could perhaps be related to a lack of personalization with the issue; people reported feeling that the effects of climate change won’t be significant personally, and that they don’t feel particularly vulnerable to them, either. And, though most recognized that climate change will negatively impact health, significantly less are worried about the health impacts.

There is also a measure of pessimism: Most respondents are not hopeful that efforts to reduce climate change can be successful. However, people generally believe the city can do more than they can on their own to impact the rate of climate change and reduce vulnerability in its health impacts. Respondents also indicate support for a range of climate change actions to conserve energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to climate change impacts.

The survey data will ultimately be compared with data from the community presentations, to see what impact these educational sessions had on people’s climate change knowledge and beliefs. Anecdotal feedback indicates re-framing the issue makes a difference. Project staff members have heard from community members who said before the presentations they didn’t realize climate change was a health issue, and that talking about it as a health problem – and how it can specifically impact them, their families, and people in their community – makes the issue more real. Using the interactive polling software also helped engage audiences and made the presentation more interesting to participants. Health department staff are eager to see where the project leads. Responses from the baseline survey indicate there’s an opportunity – and a need – for local officials to pursue the health effects of climate change in their programming and education. Perhaps most importantly, the survey offers numerous suggestions about how local health departments (LHDs) can engage the community around this issue, and does so from the perspective of the LHDs’ target audience.

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