Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Winter 2021

Behavioral Medicine and Climate Change: What Can We Do?

Michael A. Diefenbach, PhD‚úČ; SBM Past-President


Climate change is the quintessential and existential challenge of our time. This year, 2021, was, even without the pandemic, a year of superlatives: the hottest year ever recorded, the most wildfires, floods, and hurricanes. In the face of this trend of unabating catastrophes, it is natural to feel anxious, depressed and discouraged about one’s own and one’s family’s future. As behavioral scientists we might even feel that we have little to contribute to the solution to our current problems. We are not engineers, climate scientists, mathematicians, or members of several other fields of perceived relevance to the solution to the climate crisis. But let’s not be defined by what we are not, but what we are and the knowledge we collectively represent! Our unique strength lies in the interdisciplinary nature of the work that we conduct. We work with scientists from the fields of psychology, sociology, epidemiology, anthropology, genetics, and communication science, to name a few; we closely collaborate with members of the health care field (i.e., physicians, nurse, therapists) and we are represented in various industries, such as health care, marketing, and software development. This gives us unprecedented access to the thinking and workings of other fields, as well as an opportunity to assert and disseminate our expertise.

What can each of us do on an individual and professional level to address climate change? I am not urging you to totally change your lifestyle and your habits, although a review of your climate impact might not be a bad idea. I am thinking about your professional impact to address climate change. I am certain that each of our members' expertise can be applied to the climate problem. Whether you are an expert in behavior change theory, a communications and message tailoring expert, whether you are optimizing interventions, or interested in behavioral informatics and technology, your expertise is crucial. Similarly, if you are interested in populations, such as the aged, women or children, or focus on health equity, various aspects of mental health or physical activity, there is need for your involvement in climate research. These are just a few examples that illustrate how we can contribute to climate change research and make a real difference to the future of our society and the planet.

The recent experience with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can serve as a blueprint of how crucially important our behavioral expertise has been. It has been pointed out more than once that the solution to the pandemic lies in the execution of simple behaviors: social distancing, mask wearing, hand hygiene, and accepting a lifesaving vaccine. And yet, we have been running into problems communicating evidence effectively, overcoming fear and mistrust, and mounting a coherent response to the pandemic. This situation might not be encouraging when thinking about climate change, but I am convinced that we will learn from our mistakes and develop a more cohesive response to solving climate change. For one, unlike with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been put on notice, and there is still time to engage, conduct impactful climate-relevant research, and disseminate our expertise. Second, there is no need, and it would be impossible, to do this work alone. There are quite a few sister organizations that are concerned with climate change and have been building task forces and working groups around this issue. SBM as an organization will continue to partner with other organizations to address climate change.

Of all the issues our members listed during the “Provocative Questions” initiative held 2 years ago, climate change and health was the most frequently mentioned topic. Based on this response, my colleague Kara Hall, PhD from the National Cancer Institutes and I chaired a presidential working group that brought together over 30 scientists from wide-ranging fields including experts in air quality, glaciology, health care delivery, cancer and cardiovascular health, communications science, advocacy, and the built environment. The members, both established and early-career scientists, were grouped into five different subgroups, investigating: 1) Climate Change, Behavior, and Health; 2) Health-related Behavior and Climate Change; 3) Health Inequity; 4) Communication; and 5) Policy and Advocacy. Members are finishing up their individual reports, which will be published in a special issue of Translational Behavioral Medicine in the spring of 2022.

I am often approached by members inquiring how they can become more involved in climate change research or advocacy. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Realizing that “the time is now.” The conference theme chosen by our current president, David Conroy, PhD, is “The Urgency of Adaptation,” and will focus on, among other things, climate change and health. For the first time in the history of SBM, climate-focused talks and research will be featured and will provide an excellent opportunity to network with other scientists.
  • Apply your research expertise to problems related to climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly our research was able to pivot to pandemic-related themes. The same can be done with climate change. Try to view your research through a climate lens.
  • Be attuned to climate-related developments in other contexts and in other organizations that you might belong to. Cross-organization collaborations are needed, and you will be surprised how often our expertise is in demand.
  • I am well aware that we are not all born advocates and policymakers, but the communication of our science is crucially important to become more impactful. That is particularly true for climate and health behavior science.
  • Advocate for climate-related funding to the NIH and other organizations.
  • Submit your climate work to SBM’s Annual Meeting.