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Health reporting and climate change

An out-patient clinic at a public hospital in Bengaluru, India. There are health risks that are particularly sensitive to climate change, such as heat-related illnesses, respiratory problems worsens because of air pollution. Photo: Mahima Jain


How newsrooms can use health reporting to make readers care about climate change

People care about their well-being and that of their loved-ones. Communicating about personal and public health issues constructively can keep them engaged. 

By Mahima Jain
In collaboration with Kristian Elster, Tais Gadea Lara & Liam Mannix

Newsrooms and reporters are slowly connecting the dots between climate change impacts and health. However, without nuance and a forward-thinking approach, repeated coverage of worsening threats to personal and public health can be alarmist and push readers away.  

The Lancet Countdown Indicator tracks coverage of health and climate change in 66 newspapers in 36 countries. It found that individual engagement with health and climate change remained low in 2022. Only 0.03% of the clicks that led to health-related articles came from climate change-related articles; and only 0.36% of clickviews that led to climate change-related articles came from health-related articles. 

Climate change affects human health in multiple ways. The most important risks are heat-related illnesses, respiratory problems that worsen because of air pollution, mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue that are influenced by temperature and precipitation patterns, and mental health issues stemming from climate-related disasters. The World Health Organisation notes that the direct damage costs to health (excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation) is estimated to be between $2-4 billion per year by 2030.

Journalists need to not only help audiences understand the urgency of addressing both environmental and public health challenges, but also help them transition and adapt to a different, climate-affected reality. Here are some practical ways to improve the coverage of health and the health sector from a constructive climate lens: 

Opt for context, evidence and advice; not alarmism

Most readers care about their health and want their families and friends to be healthy. This is a great way to engage news consumers. As novel diseases spread and old ones resurface due to climate change, provide context and evidence instead of alarmism. Elaborate on the scientific consensus, discuss relevant data, and historical trends to support your reporting. For example, this article from Mongabay India explains the origins and rapid spread of the Kyasanur Forest Disease in Western India, and its links to drought and intense heat. 

Sometimes, make it personal

From sudden downpours to extreme heat waves, climate change affects daily life in several parts of the world. Readers will be interested in practical tips, resources, and guidance. The Australian Broadcast Corporation focuses on telling health stories about heat that is the biggest natural killer. James Purtill, climate reporter from ABC, noted that climate reporting has been seen as environmental for too long, when actually health and consumer affairs can draw readers in. While countries in the global south are (by far) the most affected by climate change related health impacts, Western countries experience them as well. Moreover, media brands in the global north often feature extensive travel sections. This is one more reason why it is important to sensitize audiences on potential health impacts when traveling.

Empower readers to take actions

Stories can motivate readers to protect their health–such as by including information on heatwaves and disease outbreak preparedness, air quality monitoring, sustainable lifestyle choices and nutrition. At a time when climate change has a direct impact on our food systems, readers can be updated on how their plates are changing. For instance, wheat and rice will be less nutritious as crops are affected by climate change. People want their families to be healthy; cooking and food preparation in many cultures is a joyful, community-building experience. If the food supply is threatened or bears health risks, people might feel the need to act.

Here’s an example of a story that could explains science as a process.

Cross-sectoral research and collaborations

Healthcare has many stakeholders–from health surveillance systems to frontline workers in communities. It is essential to cultivate sources in diverse fields (epidemiology, pharmacology, vaccinology, public health, medicine), healthcare professionals (doctors, surgeons, nurses, frontline health workers), policymakers, community leaders, and affected individuals. Speak to experts from specific fields to build trust with the readers–a surgeon should not be quoted for vaccine efficacy, for instance.

As part of the Constructive Climate Explorer project, we also worked on guidelines for scientists who want to communicate climate change. Editors and reporters can share this with their expert sources.

One health, a new lens

Covering health requires reporters to engage with different sectors. Among others it involves stakeholders in the environment, agriculture, water, energy or urban planning departments. Journalists can report on plans and policies that adopt the One Health–which is an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals and ecosystems–approach and systemic response when tackling climate change-related health outbreaks. Experts in this commentary on Nepal’s climate change and health plans explain why this is important.

Journalists can also profile and report on public health initiatives such as heatwave early warning systems, air quality improvement programs, vector control measures, and climate-sensitive disease surveillance and so on. Media coverage can also focus on the financial challenges that healthcare systems face due to climate change. One example is how small island nations fund healthcare in response to increasing cyclone threats.

A story that works is this interview by Indian publication that explores why India’s heat action plans are falling short.  

Covering mental health

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report notes that “climate-related illnesses, premature deaths, malnutrition in all its forms, and threats to mental health and well-being are increasing.” But the coverage of mental health varies widely. Reports on “eco-anxiety” often focus on the problems of privileged populations who feel anxious or fatigued because of the barrage of climate news. However, the issue goes far beyond this. For example, people impacted by floods or intense droughts can also face severe mental health impacts for years to come. Impacts on stakeholders–from firefighters to healthcare workers–is another area that will require investigations.

The People’s Archive of Rural India has some great stories that work. In this story, the reporter investigates how the mental health of frontline health workers is affected by climate impacts. North American publication Cal Matters also reported on the trauma faced by the fire fighters of California, who are putting out more fires due to climate change.

Climate action in healthcare

The healthcare sector contributes over 4% of the global net greenhouse gas emissions–more than shipping or aviation. If the global health care sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, research published in 2019. Given that all sectors–including healthcare–need to reduce emissions in order to meet the global and local commitments to climate action, it is pertinent to hold the sector accountable.  Journalists can investigate supply chains to examine indirect emissions from the healthcare sector–including production, transportation, and disposal of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, vaccines, and other healthcare products. Direct emissions include the significant amounts of energy the sector consumes. Moreover, it also contributes to other planetary crises of pollution. Untreated or improperly incinerated chemical, biomedical, plastic and other forms of waste can end up in landfills, particularly in countries that have less robust waste management protocols in place. Some stories that work are The Straits Times’ coverage of medical centre that aims to decarbonise healthcare and prepare for climate-related health woes and Indian publication Down To Earth‘s story on how 1 of every 10 Indian hospitals could fully or partially shut down by century-end unless deep emission cuts happen.

To avoid polarising your audience, move beyond politics

Evidence suggests that we are quoting politicians and business-people in climate stories more than we quote climate scientists – and more than we quote ordinary people, who will bear the brunt of climate change. The more we only quote politicians, the more the climate crisis becomes political (and polarising), and the less it becomes about saving humanity. We need to hear more from scientists when working on climate stories.

Climate-resilient healthcare infrastructure

Just like cities and towns, healthcare infrastructure too will be threatened by climate-related hazards. Health desks need to lead a constructive dialogue to foster adaptation. They can focus on the investments (or lack thereof) in climate-resilient infrastructures such as designing hospitals and healthcare facilities which withstand extreme weather events, feature reliable power sources and emergency response plans for climate-related disasters. This will be particularly important in vulnerable countries across Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania. Moreover, stories of a changing health system response will include new ways in which people seek help. These stories can be about new delivery models such as providing services and monitoring patients–and population’s–health during extreme weather events. Journalists can investigate, for instance, heatwave response protocols for vulnerable populations or climate-related health education into medical training and practice. The Conversation‘s story on why African countries want to build climate-resilient health systems is a good example of this. 

Include vulnerable audiences

Constructive journalism can help shed light on how climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, low-income communities, and those living in developing countries. By highlighting the unequal burden of climate-related health risks, journalists can advocate for policies and interventions that prioritize the health and well-being of these groups.