• Naseem Miller, senior health editor, The Journalist's Resource (moderator)
  • Susan Clayton, professor of psychology, The College of Wooster
  • Jen Christensen, CNN Health and Climate Unit  
  • Naomi Beyeler, UCSF Institute for Global Health Sciences
  • Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., M.A.C.P., Executive Director, American Public Health Association

By Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

While climate stories are typically covered by environmental reporters, health reporters should see their vital role in communicating the multiple connections between climate, mental health, and chronic disease because it’s going to be everybody’s beat going forward.

That was one of the messages from American Public Health Association executive director Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., M.A.C.P. He explained how the burning of fossil fuels creates greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat, leading to climate changes that “fundamentally change the ecosystem,” as well as the relationships between plants, animals, and people. He emphasized that the climate burden is very much a health equity issue.  

“The story is right in front of you; it’s a connecting the dots story,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin and other panelists discussed “Climate Changes Health: Risks to Health in a Turbulent Ecosystem,” at a Saturday morning panel discussion during the annual conference in St. Louis.

Susan Clayton, professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, described increases in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sleep disorders, and suicides - all related to climate-related disruptions in life and stress. She recognized the importance of journalists describing ways to maintain mental health through emotion- focused coping strategies, such as spending time in nature.

She added that articles should feature problem-focused coping skills, such as taking meaningful collective action. “It’s important to give people reasons for optimism,” she said, adding that renewable energy is on the rise as awareness about climate change increases.

Naomi Beyeler, of the UC San Francisco Institute for Global Health Sciences and co-lead author on the Lancet journal’s Countdown on Health and Climate Change, tracks progress in health and climate change around four key areas: air quality, infectious disease, heat-related illness and mental health.  All are related to economic and educational systems, with communities of color and low income the most vulnerable and susceptible, she said.

As a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, “the U.S. has an obligation to be a leader,” she said. One key policy recommendation: the U.S. should stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, which it does currently at more than $20 billion per year.

Christensen and others offered helpful tips for covering climate science with unique story angles and elements such as:

  • Include an element of surprise - describe unexpected consequences and solutions
  • Talk about the impact on children
  • Interview people working on medical front lines, such as ER docs
  • Talk with people disproportionately affected, such as farm workers, those working in underserved rural communities and the disabled
  • Give readers tips on how they can make a difference.

Jen Christensen, a producer and reporter with CNN’s Health and Climate Unit, emphasized the need for health reporters to cover climate stories because “climate change affects all of us, right now.”

Melinda Hemmelgarn is a registered dietitian and host of nationally syndicated (Pacifica) “Food Sleuth Radio,” which connects the dots between food, health and agriculture.