Leaders across the world have been focused on climate change for many years, with some more invested in it than others. But unfortunately, we haven’t made the progress necessary to slow the warming of the earth. According to the Boston Globe, in 2019, the United Nations admitted that “there has been no real change in the global emissions pathway in the last decade.” Further, a new report from the World Meteorological Organization states that greenhouse gas emissions have reached new record highs, with no slowdown in sight.

Reframing climate change as a public health issue

So, what are we to do? I recently read a Wall Street Journal article that suggested reframing climate change as a public health issue, which reminded me of two articles my colleague Ann Somers Hogg wrote about abortion and gun deaths. In these pieces, she proposes that to make progress on the issues, we need to reframe the problems. She explains how the polarization around abortion and gun deaths is an example of an innovation problem often described by late Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen: “When we encounter a seemingly unsolvable problem, we’ve likely gotten the categories wrong.” This also applies to climate change, and in order to make progress on reducing its impact, we need to recategorize the problem as a public health issue rather than a political one.

Since at least 2000, climate change has been categorized as a political issue, and over the last decade, according to the Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans have only grown further apart in their beliefs around it. 

Figure 1. Graph of Americans’ view of climate change from 2009 to 2022.

Source: Pew Research Center.

Additionally, a 2023 survey by PRRI found that 87% of Democrats believe climate change is a crisis or major problem, while only 29% of Republicans believe the same. This polarization is bad for our health.

Climate change is dire for our health

If climate change isn’t adequately addressed, it will lead to dire health conditions for everyone in the near future. For example, it has been reported that climate change could (1) increase respiratory diseases, (2) increase air pollution and allergens, (3) increase heat stroke, kidney disease, and heart disease, and (4) even increase death. Additionally, hunger and malnutrition may worsen because hotter, drier conditions are predicted to reduce the quality of food products in the coming decades, leading to more food insecurity and food with reduced nutritional value.

Said differently, if we don’t address climate change now, it may very well kill us. If it doesn’t, it will definitely make us sicker. This is the framing we need behind climate change policies, and recent research supports why this is the case. 

Reducing carbon emissions can increase the length of lives

There is a cost to our carbon footprint and it’s “not just in dollars, but in lives”. A 2020 study looked at health benefits of policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK. The study found that decarbonising electricity production in the UK would improve health because it would reduce concentrations of harmful air pollutants like fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and black carbon. The researchers determined that if the UK could reduce its emissions by 80%, 500,000 to 1.1 million life years would be saved by 2154. 

Transportation is another major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world (and the #1 contributor in the US), and another area of our lives where we can leverage a public health framing to reduce climate change impact and improve health outcomes. The same 2020 study notes that active travel may bring great health benefits due to increased physical activity. Researchers estimated that if a quarter of the UK population cycled regularly and used electric bikes, all-cause mortality could fall by 11%. That’s not a small impact.

According to a survey by Statista Consumer Insights, only 11% of Americans commute to work using a bike. By incorporating biking (or other alternative modes of transportation that don’t rely on fossil fuels) into our lifestyles in lieu of driving, individuals can improve both their own health and that of the population. This doesn’t have to be a full-scale swap. Even small changes add up to make a difference. And failure to make change leads to lost lives. For example, one scholar estimates that lifetime carbon emissions generated by three and a half Americans, beyond 2020 levels, would lead to a heat-related death for one person.

There are ways to prevent climate change from getting worse, but we need everyone on the same page to make progress towards reducing and offsetting carbon emissions for better health outcomes. Political framing isn’t working. But using a public health framing that focuses on the dire and near-term health consequences of climate change just might get us there.


  • Emmanuelle Verdieu
    Emmanuelle Verdieu

    My research looks into the role of business model innovation in child well-being, including how to transform the child welfare system into a child well-being system. Also, I’m interested in research regarding disruption in health care; specifically, evaluating pathways to improve it using the theories created and co-created by Clayton Christensen.