I typically introduce myself in professional situations as a “public health professional, first, foremost and always.” I do this for many reasons. After college, I received formal training in public health, and I’ve spent my entire professional life working to solve important public health problems. Perhaps more importantly, because of the great work public health professionals do on behalf of the public, I’m truly proud to be a member of the public health community. And now that my work is focused on averting the threats associated with climate change, this introduction helps to make clear my motivations. Like all public health professionals, my motivation is to help civil society develop in ways that enable all people to live more healthfully.
Unlike other health professionals who diagnose and treat patients one at a time, we public health professionals work to prevent health harms for everyone in society. We do this through various means. My specific expertise involves communication – how to inform people about relevant health risks and help them make good decisions to reduce those risks. In the past, I’ve had the privilege to work on a wide range of health problems including teen smoking and other drug use, HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease, and vaccine preventable diseases.
In 2006, when I first came to understand climate change as a profound threat to human health and wellbeing, I resolved to refocus my work to help avert that risk. My plan was to create a climate change communication research center rooted in the philosophy of public health. I set out to find a host university – a university with broad and deep expertise in climate sciences – that recognized the need for such a research center. Mason’s President, Provost, two Deans (Science, and Humanities & Social Science), and the entire communication faculty stepped forward and said, in effect, “Mason is that university.”
Our doors opened in the fall of 2007, and good things immediately began to happen. Mason colleagues and students – and faculty and students from other universities around the country – stepped forward and got involved. We forged a defining partnership with the (newly forming) Yale Program on Climate Change Communication to create the Climate Change in the American Mind audience research project; our partnership continues to serve as a remarkable engine of innovation, and likely will well into the future. Other important organizations stepped forward to partner with us and/or support our work financially: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA, National Park Service, Climate Central, American Meteorological Society, Town Creek Foundation, Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, Energy Foundation, a range of America’s leading medical societies, and many more.
Regarding climate change, so much has changed in the world since we created the Center, some for the better, and some for the worse. On the positive side, the international community has concluded successful negotiations on a binding climate treaty to limit warming to less than 2 degrees (C), the economics of clean energy are improving at a dramatic rate, and many of the world’s largest corporations are leading the way to a clean energy future. On the negative side, evidence continues to mount that earth’s climate is changing more rapidly than the worst case scenarios previously predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and time is running short if the global aspiration of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees (C) is to be realized. Much is happening, but much remains to be done.
My colleagues and I at the Center are under no illusions about the magnitude of the societal changes necessary to limit climate change – and to avert the harms it may cause – but we are proud of the contributions we are making. Many organizations have credited our research as having provided them with important insights that improved their approaches to public outreach. Our own public engagement projects – most notably our work with TV weathercasters, conservative thought-leaders, and America’s medical community – have helped strengthen America’s response to changing climate. And our training programs – including our Masters and Doctoral degree programs, and our intern program with the National Park Service – are helping to train the next generation of professionals whose contributions are needed now, and will continue to be important over the decades to come.
Effective communication can be a powerful tool to enhance the public’s health and welfare, as myriad public health examples have demonstrated over the past several decades – like the dramatic decline in tobacco use, auto fatalities, vaccine preventable diseases, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Through our research, public engagement initiatives, and training programs, we aim to help enhance the effectiveness of communication about climate change so that all Americans, and all people of the world, can look forward to a better tomorrow.
With your help, I am confident that our most important contributions are yet to come.