Reframing the Climate Crisis after Kyoto

When it became clear that the push for the Kyoto treaty unwittingly created a mental framework that failed to move or motivate most Americans, PSR, like many other U.S. environmental groups, went back to basics in public education and grassroots organizing. In the subsequent years, putting climate work in terms of health has changed the approach to climate and organizing by PSR and national-level groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Environmental Defense. As detailed in this book, there's a lot to learn from this process.

At PSR, we began, with help from a number of leading foundations, by carrying out state-by-state reports and grassroots organizing campaigns in eighteen states over the years 1998 to 2001. Called Death by Degrees (and later changed to Degrees of Danger out of respect and sensitivity after the September 11, 2001, terrorists attacks), the reports were the first to link climate change and human health effects to a domestic, American audience in local settings.

Why the emphasis on local settings? Yes, the global health effects of unchecked climate change will be devastating. According to Sir John Houghton, chair of the International Panel on Climate Change Scientific Working Group, some 45 to 60 percent of the world's population could live in malaria-endemic zones by the latter half of the twenty-first century. Most recently, in sum, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that global climate disruption is already causing an estimated 150,000 deaths worldwide each year.1 These mind-numbing consequences of the climate crisis are too often far from the average American's concern. Therefore, as we built a growing network in the United States of concerned physicians and other health professionals and their citizen allies, our organizing around the Death by Degrees series was designed to localize the effects of climate. Our work also drew on the political premise that even though the worst effects of global climate change were likely to occur outside the United States, progress on the global front would necessarily involve changing American attitudes and policy about climate change at home. Our strategic and interrelated use of framing, resource mobilization, and political mobilization was deliberate and an important part of our approach.

We began in New Hampshire during the presidential primary season of 2000. PSR created and mobilized local advisory committees of doctors, nurses, health scientists, and other experts and released its reports at media events at state capitols. We coordinated with the Sierra Club, Ozone Action, and various local groups. Together, we aimed at state legislatures and the anti-Kyoto efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others as well as the general public. These kickoff events were followed by educational events and lectures at medical schools and grand rounds, hospitals, universities, and civic gatherings. The focus for this effort was twofold. Climate change, with some state and regional variations, will create serious negative effects from sea level rise, flooding, wetland destruction, and the spread of waterborne and vectorborne diseases. In addition, almost all areas of the United States will suffer from increased heat.

For example, we developed materials based on a study we did with Ozone Action that showed that the number of heat stress days around the country had doubled since 1950 and the number of four-day heat waves had tripled. The predicted result was a doubling of U.S. deaths from heat by 2050 when, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, heat deaths already count for more deaths annually than any other natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding combined.2 We taught our colleagues in the field that increased particulate air pollution (soot) from sulfur dioxide and ozone (smog) from volatile organic compounds are closely related to rising temperatures. Death and disease from dirty air, which is directly related to and exacerbated by global warming, currently account for more than fifty thousand deaths annually in the United States, with the bulk coming from vehicles and power plants. It is this connection between global climate change, dirty air, and death and illness in the United States that has proved the most powerful and effective link in organizing, especially when trying to involve more and more health professionals and American constituencies other than pure environmentalists.

Here's an example of how this frame, via resource mobilization, led to political success. During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new, tougher national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) that were based on up-to-date health studies and analysis required by the Clean Air Act. Quickly, energy producers and their congressional allies began to mobilize against these standards. Faced with yet another huge, conservative backlash against standards that would save fifteen thousand lives a year, PSR was central to a huge political battle.

We joined with NET, the American Lung Association, and others in a classic grassroots campaign to save the NAAQS standards from being overturned by Congress. Featuring a fifteen-foot high, theatrical-size tombstone resembling Ebenezer Scrooge's worst nightmare, NET and PSR traveled to key districts, joined with local coalitions, asthma sufferers, pulmonologists, and moms, and gained massive publicity and effect on legislators at the grassroots level. A defining moment of this effort came when a new medical study indicated a correlation between sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and particulate air pollution. A hastily called national press conference with environmentalists, physicians, and organized mothers who had lost babies to the mysterious and dreaded SIDS was perhaps the final blow. Congress backed off trying to repeal the new NAAQS standards, and many American lives were saved.

Continue reading here: Pathways Forward for the New Climate Movement

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