Climate change and NCDs: Lessons in communication on the road to 2030

Juliette Wittich, Jack Fisher and Mats Junek, NCDFREE

Both climate change and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) share many underlying challenges – many interacting forces drive them; there is significant ambiguity and misinformation surrounding them; and the current economic climate does not favour good outcomes. As such, both will benefit from similar strategies that work towards sustainable solutions.

The first starts with clear and engaging communication.

Both climate change and NCDs are complex and multifactorial issues and we need to begin by clarifying the misconceptions that have been fostered around them, partly by parties with competing economic interests.

In the climate debate, this must surely commence with the rejection of any plausible doubt about the science, which has for decades told us that our planet is warming at an alarmingly rapid rate. In fact, let’s stop referring to it as ‘the climate debate’ altogether. Debate implies there are some credible scientific question marks surrounding the evidence base, which countless meta-analyses have debunked. Debate enables inaction and stunts our ability to act swiftly and decisively, in the best interests of our planet and its inhabitants.

In the NCD space, we struggle with many of health’s toughest anti-heroes: Big Food, Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol. Like climate change denial groups, they are accomplished at muddying the waters of scientific evidence to serve their own ends. They too use lobby groups and aggressive litigation to limit our capacity to intelligently address issues that are threatening the wellbeing of both humanity and our planet. They are also very good at hiding their part in this deliberate swarm of misinformation.

The extent of fossil fuel industry funding that the foremost climate denying think tank of the United States, the Heartland Institute, receives is unsurprising. In the same way, the medical world was not rocked when it was revealed the largest contributor to The Global Energy Balance Network, was the Coca Cola Foundation. Does this matter? Evidence suggests so. A recent meta-analysis of beverage studies in PLOS found those funded by industry, consistently found no link between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain.

We can undermine these efforts, but we need to become consistent in our methods for communicating complex ideas, in an engaging and motivating fashion. At NCDFREE we try to do this by giving young, concerned thinkers two things: the facts – about the health challenges surrounding non-communicable disease – and skills in advocacy, innovation and leadership. We deliver these together in our advocacy and innovation bootcamps, filled with inspiring speakers who deliver the skills we need to become effective advocates; communication challenges, global health short films and comedy.

We are not reinventing the wheel, as these workshops use well-established skills and build on existing knowledge. Unfortunately, the skills and knowledge are not bought together as much as they need to be, mainly because we are specialists who are not very good at creating partnerships. We do know, however, that doing the right thing for your planet or your health can be simple and fun. We are just not very good at delivering this message.

There is nothing wrong with simplicity. In fact, simplicity will be crucial in making the issues of NCDs and climate change part of our everyday conversation. Telling someone that climate and health are intrinsically linked through a number of complex causal pathways – and the world’s growing population needs to reduce their intake of things including ultra-processed foods, saturated fats from animals and eat more plant-based diets – is one thing. Telling people they can actively make an impact on their health and the health of their planet by growing their own food, cycling to work and eating less meat is another. Both rely on the same underlying principles, but one reframes them into everyday solutions, making them seem so much more personal and achievable.

One of the biggest threats to our capacity to achieve this change is from those with vested interests. They will continue to pay good money to confuse the message. We can fight them by refusing to be anything other than accessible, transparent and clear. We can fight them by uniting to advocate together. We can combat their attempts to trade in doubt, by actually believing our own school of thought that both climate change and global health can be addressed in this lifetime – but we have got to get moving.