San Luis Obispo Initiates First Climate Change and Health Communications Campaign in California

Submitted By

Kathleen Karle
San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department, California
October 16, 2014

San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department (SLOCPHD) is on a mission to educate its community about the public health effects of climate change. To that end, we just initiated the first climate change and health communications campaign in the state of California. Launched in mid-August, the campaign was co-developed with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), is supported by a wide array of community partners, and has already gained national media attention for its efforts.

The OutsideIn SLO: We Take Health and Climate Change Personally campaign grew out of a CDPH workshop featuring Edward Maibach, Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, held in Los Angeles several years ago. Maibach said that public health professionals have many opportunities to convey the human consequences of climate change, and by doing so, “can engage a broader range of Americans in the issue, thereby enhancing climate change understanding and decision-making capacity among members of the public, the business community, and government officials.*”

It was a message that resonated with me. I had always been a believer in climate change, but I didn’t necessarily see a connection between it and my job. That presentation changed things, though. Maibach encouraged attendees to share the message, so I began doing presentations in the community and at a local university. Meanwhile at the state level, CDPH continued looking at communicating climate change as a public health issue. After conducting a series of focus groups on this topic, Kathy Dervin, Senior Climate and Health Specialist at the CDPH Office of Health Equity, approached me and said, “We have this idea to take climate change to the next level, but first of all, I don’t have much money or resources to support a local project. Would SLOCPHD partner with us?”

It was a challenge right from the start, but we knew that public health departments were already providing education on related subjects—eating healthy local foods, increasing physical activity levels, discussing transportation options—and we thought, couldn’t we just incorporate climate change into what we were already doing?

CDPH used a small contract to hire a marketing firm to develop campaign marketing materials such as fact sheets, brochures, and stickers, all with the purpose of communicating the public health effects of climate change. To begin the campaign of “re-branding” climate change in earnest, SLOCPHD established an advisory committee consisting of public health and governmental bodies such as our obesity prevention coalition (HEAL-SLO), the Air Pollution Control District (APCD), the regional transportation planning agency, and the planning department. We also engaged a number of local community partners, including a bike coalition, a homeless assistance nonprofit, and the food bank, among others. Additionally, planned outreach events are currently in place in area schools, a local library, and farmers markets, and we’re scheduling meetings with chambers of commerce and Kiwanis clubs.

OutsideIn SLO developed from those initial planning meetings; we officially launched the campaign on August 13 at the HEAL-SLO quarterly coalition meeting where we encouraged community partners and members to write down the reasons why they cared about climate change s so we could share them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. With a partner from APCD, I participated in a radio interview with a local station, and interviews with several local papers are pending. We’ve worked hard to make sure our message is out in the community.

OutsideIn SLO will run for 6 months and then we will stop and assess what sort of impact our efforts are really having, and whether we’ve achieved any of the goals established at the outset. However, we have already seen one particularly exciting result of the campaign through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. WIC participants are required to attend educational classes, and a local program manager who is especially enthusiastic about OutsideIn SLO added a climate change class to that required list. Because WIC clients are disproportionately affected by climate change—for instance, the California drought will likely lead to increased food prices, a particular financial burden for clients—it’s important they understand the ins and outs of the issue. Additionally, we’ll be collaborating with APCD to provide climate change information in elementary school classrooms. This campaign also represents an important partnership between the state and local health departments, as CDPH hopes the lessons learned here can be used at the state level as well.

The success we’ve already had with the campaign, even in its fledgling state, has been great. Public health in general has been devastated by economic cuts as a result of the recession, and to be able to integrate this type of work into existing projects without overburdening anyone is an achievement in and of itself. To be able to strengthen the connections between climate change and health promotion is immensely important, and any local health departments who want to do the same should make sure to find the champion within their staff. There will be plenty of people who say, “Yes, climate change is a great idea,” but finding the people who have then enthusiasm to run with it is key. The San Luis Obispo community is not large: there are only about 280,000 people in the county, and less than 200 people working in the health department. If we can do this with limited resources, then any jurisdiction can. Just find your partners, and find your champion.

*Maibach E., Nisbet M., and Weathers M. (2011) Conveying the Human Implications of Climate Change: A Climate Change Communication Primer for Public Health Professionals. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

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