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Don’t be a fossil fool: How nurses can talk about climate and health
By Alex Hewish and Remy Shergill, Climate and Health Alliance
Source: APNA Primary Times Summer 2021 (Volume 21, Issue 2)
It will be no surprise to nurses that when it comes to public health, effective communication saves lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is that information be delivered clearly to ensure public safety.
It is no different when it comes to nurses talking about climate change, ‘the greatest health challenge this century’ according to the World Health Organization.1 Climate change is a health challenge, and nurses will be on the frontline for decades to come.
Climate change is making our planet warmer and weather events more extreme. Research and anecdotal evidence from nurses highlight the health impacts of climate change in Australia.
In a recent survey of 365 Australian nurses, 87% reported that climate change is already having an effect on public health in Australia generally and 78% said that climate change is already affecting their workplace.2 Nurses reported seeing increased numbers of heat-related illnesses, respiratory conditions, pollen-related allergies, and mental illness related to climate change.
However, the general public often doesn’t link climate change and their health in their minds. Nurses, and all health professionals, have an important role in educating the public on the link between climate and health.
So, are we talking about it? According to the same survey, not enough. The survey found that 7 out of 10 nurses do not talk to patients, clients or community members about the health impacts of climate change. The most commonly cited reason for this was that nurses did not feel sufficiently informed to do so, followed by a lack of organisational support.
The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) has launched a Communications Guide, aimed at health professionals to help them talk about health and climate change. CAHA has condensed a robust peer-reviewed evidence base to describe the current climate–health relationship and to explain why health professionals have an important role to play in tackling this challenge. The guide provides easy-to-follow tips and scenarios to help people do this work.
The biggest rule for climate change communication: Simple messages, repeated often, by trusted messengers, are most effective.
The good news is that nurses are the second most trusted profession in Australia.3 Therefore, nurses can use their communication skills and trustworthiness to help people perceive climate change as a health issue. This is particularly important as while climate change may not be a priority for everyone, health is a universal value across socioeconomic and political spectrums.
Here are three tips for nurses to talk about climate change and health:
- Keep it simple. Use language that is easy to understand and stick to the facts. Limit dramatic language, such as ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency’.
- Put patients first. Tailor the issue of climate change to your patients. Talk about how it will affect their friends and family. It may even be relevant to their current health conditions or personal experiences, such as extreme weather events due to climate change. Don’t frame it as a purely environmental problem – because it isn’t.
- Don’t get caught up in conversations that question climate science. It’s not up for debate. If conversation veers into ideology or politics, redirect it back to your professional expertise and evidence around the health effects of climate change. If a disagreement arises, listen respectfully to their perspective before responding with your professional opinion.
When we lead, others follow. By speaking up about the climate–health relationship, you can encourage your colleagues to do the same. With a united effort, nurses can play their part to raise awareness, encourage climate action and protect the health of our current and future patients.
The Climate and Health Alliance is Australia’s peak body on climate change and health. It has 70+ member organisations, including APNA.
1. World Health Organization, ‘Health and climate change’, 5 December 2018, accessed 22 October 2021. https://www.who.int
2. Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Real, urgent & now: insights from health professionals on climate and health in Australia, CAHA, Melbourne, 2021.
3. Reader’s Digest Editors, ‘The most trusted professions in Australia’, 2021, accessed 22 October 2021. https://www.readersdigest. Com.au