Public health and climate change framings of fossil fuel use reduction

Nada Petrovic, Jaime Madrigano, Lisa Zaval

In the U.S., the public consistently ranks climate change as a low national priority even though over half of the population is convinced of the reality and seriousness of the problem.  These seemingly contradictory statements can be explained through a lack of personal engagement and a sense of spatial and temporal distance from the effects of climate change.  Yet, the chief method for climate change mitigation, the reduction of fossil fuel use, would also reduce air pollution, a cause of serious public health problems. Personal perception of risk is a strong motivator of behavioral change, and public health effects are closer in space and time.  This is the first study to examine how the framing the consequences of fossil fuel burning might influence pro-environmental behaviors. Across 3 studies, we explore whether framing fossil fuel emissions in terms of present-day public health-related impacts versus environmental impacts differentially affect beliefs and actions towards mitigation. A second aim was to understand what other characteristics (political, demographic, etc.) predict beliefs and actions.  Our overall goal is to examine whether communicating fossil fuel reduction policies as a public health, rather than climate change, benefit will increase public support in a population of US residents.


Major Findings

  • Health impacts are perceived as more certain, and temporally/spatially closer than climate change impacts. However, both are heavily impacted by political ideology.
  • Whether subjects find health or climate more compelling as a reason to reduce fossil fuel use is heavily influenced by political ideology.
  • Message framing had a minimal impact on beliefs about fossil fuel burning and no impact on willingness to take action to reduce fossil fuel burning when the term “fossil fuel” was used in both frames.
  • Among participants exposed to the term “fossil fuel”, conservatives were less likely to agree that air pollution is harmful compared with liberals. However, when participants are not exposed to the term fossil fuel, liberals and conservatives are equally likely to view air pollution as being harmful.
  • Most importantly, when the term “fossil fuel” was omitted from our framing manipulation, the health frame had a stronger effect on conservatives while the climate frame had a stronger effect on liberals. Specifically, we founds that conservatives were much more likely to agree to reduce air pollution and to agree that that pollution was harmful when pollution was framed in terms of Health impacts versus Environmental impacts.


Broader impacts

  • The broader impact of this project is the opportunity to tailor messages about fossil fuel reduction to an audience that is skeptical about climate change, but is concerned about public health.
  • This study can inform how informational materials on fossil fuels are framed depending on the audience.  This can be used to inform information campaigns that can lead to public discussion encompassing the health effects of mitigation; particularly how mitigation efforts will promote improved health.


CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

This research also received funding from The Earth Institute Cross-Cutting Initiative and The Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellows Program at Columbia University