Climate and health in the UK
The ways in which climate change can affect human health are many and varied. In the UK risks to human health are posed by heat stress and flooding, new and emerging pests and diseases, poor air quality, and reduced food security – with such impacts also increasing negative outcomes for mental health. But although the health and well being of vulnerable groups in the UK is a focus of public concern, the level of knowledge among the general population of the links between climate change and health is currently low.
Overcoming the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change – why images matter for communicating the health impacts of climate change
For a long time, one of the biggest barriers to public engagement with climate change was the so-called ‘psychological distance’ of the issue. With any number of more immediate concerns to focus on, it was easy for people in countries like the UK to perceive the risks of climate change as ‘not here, not now, and not likely to happen to me’.
Despite the sudden political salience of climate change, and daily news reports of a rapidly changing climate, the issue can still seem remote for people in countries like the UK where bushfires and hurricanes are not a familiar threat. Although climate change is getting ‘closer to home’, the UK public still tends to see major climate impacts as something for other people in other places to worry about.
As our Climate Visuals research has established, a more people-focused, relatable visual language for climate change can improve communication and engagement on this crucial issue. At the same time, many studies have pointed to the potential benefit of emphasising the health risks from climate impacts and the health benefits of low carbon policies. In recent years, health practitioners have played an increasingly central role in sounding the alarm about climate change, with initiatives like the Lancet Planetary Health Commission making clear that many of the impacts of climate change are experienced by individuals and communities as threats to their physical and mental health.
7 principles for visual climate change communication
So can images of the health impacts of climate change – and low carbon measures that can create health benefits – bring climate change home for UK citizens?
A survey of 1000 UK citizens
An online survey of just over 1000 UK citizens was conducted during 2019. Participants viewed a range of images showing different categories of UK climate impacts with direct health implications: flooding, heat-stress, infectious diseases and air pollution. Participants answered a series of questions about these images, and also viewed a smaller number of ‘solutions’ images (i.e. positive societal responses related to climate change health impacts).
“Air pollution affects us all, normal people in the western world. The picture clearly identifies with my thoughts on it.”
The survey tested a range of different research questions, and explored a number of different psychological variables – such as ‘perceived severity’ (how serious impacts are perceived to be), and ‘perceived susceptibility’ (how vulnerable people felt toward impacts). For a fuller description of the methods please refer to the appendix below.
“I am asthmatic, and already struggle to breathe right – pollution levels increasing would drastically affect me.”