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"It would be a major victory if slightly more often people would talk about the health effects, or at least try to imagine, the health-related risks involved with climate change," says Sean Valles. (Credit: iStockphoto)

climate change

Save the polar bears? Save the humans

Climate change is about more than melting ice caps and images of the Earth on fire, says Sean Valles, assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Lyman Briggs College and philosophy department.

He believes bioethicists could help reframe current conversation about climate change.

“When we talk about climate change, we can’t just be talking about money and jobs and polar bears,” he says. “Why do we focus on polar bears? Why not kids? Climate change isn’t just people hurting polar bears. It’s people hurting people.”

Heat waves, damaged crops, and asthma in children are among the ways climate change could affect public health, according to Valles.

A seat at the table

The public has become fairly apathetic to climate change, he says. But moving away from “save the environment” messages could help people focus on the serious health risks of climate change, even if they’re skeptical.

A prime example: antibiotic resistance.

People understand “superbugs” are dangerous, thanks in part to bioethicists’ efforts, Valles says. By working with other scientists and contributing to policy discussions, bioethicists have helped to successfully communicate the dangers of “superbugs,” which have evolved to resist penicillin and other antibiotics.

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The same thing could happen with climate change if bioethicists have a seat at the table. They could aid communication efforts by doing what bioethicists do best: public advocacy and interdisciplinary collaboration, he says. And they’re experts in the analysis and communication of medical risk.

In addition, ethics will increasingly come into play as the climate change debate continues. Bioethicists could help mitigate tensions between skeptics and experts when dealing with complex socioeconomic issues, as they relate to climate change.

“It would be a major victory if slightly more often people would talk about the health effects, or at least try to imagine, the health-related risks involved with climate change,” Valles says. “There are some important justice issues at stake because the most vulnerable populations will feel the effects of climate change first.”

The study appears in the journal Bioethics.

Source: Michigan State University

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