Back Close
World Environment Day 2022 Blog

Climate Change and Vaccines: What have we learned to tackle misinformation?

#OnlyOneEarth is the campaign for World Environment Day 2022. It calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale to celebrate, protect and restore our planet.

For decades, scientists have studied climate change and its impact on the health of humans and other forms of life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress alone between 2030 and 2050. By 2030, the direct damages to health will be equivalent to US$2-4 billion per year.

One of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is that people and nature are closely interconnected. Failing to protect natural systems from threats like climate change can have devastating results.

There is currently enough scientific evidence to link a warming climate, increasing carbon emissions and habitat loss to various health conditions that put human lives and societies’ wellbeing at high risk. However, information and opinions contradicting science (i.e., misinformation) are widespread on social media and other channels, misleading public opinion and policies and undermining climate action.

Misinformation is not unique to climate change. We are currently experiencing exposure to high levels of unverified and/or incorrect information on COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccination, which can negatively influence vaccination acceptance, globally.

studying Science denialsm

Rupali Limaye, PhD, MPH, and Alexandra Michel, MPH, of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health investigated what lessons from climate change denialism we can apply to create more robust strategies to enhance vaccine acceptance which they share below.

What climate change communication frameworks could be applicable to vaccine acceptance?

Researchers who have been focusing on climate change communication have been studying science denial and misinformation for decades, and there’s a great opportunity to learn from this work and adopt climate change communication approaches to inform vaccine hesitancy communication initiatives. One of the really huge challenges for vaccine communication right now is how to respond to misinformation, particularly misinformation spread on social media.

Obviously, this has been a huge issue for climate change researchers for a long time, too. One exciting framework that has come out of climate change communications research that shows a lot of promise for countering vaccine misinformation is called “pre-bunking.”

In pre-bunking, individuals learn to identify the misleading strategies used to spread false information before misinformation has a chance to “stick.” Pre-bunking is an approach that has roots in a social psychology theory called inoculation theory, which has been around for over 50 years. Several studies using pre-bunking and inoculation theory have found that this approach can be very effective at helping people learn to correctly identify false information they might encounter out in the world.

Cognitive theories are another area where climate change researchers have identified some key strategies, such as the crucial importance of heuristics and framing for effective messaging. This area of climate change communication research really shows the importance of addressing how people process information, not just what information or facts to share.

Lastly, research on both climate change and vaccine communication has found that perceptions of scientific consensus can also be a really powerful tool for dispelling misinformation.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen that providing accurate information is insufficient for combating science denial. What are some ways your research suggests combatting science denial in the vaccine and climate change spaces?

The field of behavioral science has been so important for understanding that it’s not just what information you have available, but also how people perceive and process that information is very important for actually understanding behavior. For example, highlighting social norms when you’re talking to someone about getting vaccinated.

One way people assess the risk of a behavior is noting what everyone else around them is doing “what’s normal.” This could look like, “Did you know the majority of children at school have gotten vaccinated. When are you planning on taking your child for their vaccination appointment?”  

Another technique we have found to be effective is motivational interviewing, which includes asking open ended questions, using affirmative language, practicing reflective listening and recapping the conversation. Basically, motivational interviewing allows someone to reflect on their own values and reasons for engaging in a new behavior.

Lastly, the use of tailoring, which includes promotion of the action or norm, addressing the specific concerns of the other person and tailoring the response to address these concerns. These three techniques have been shown to be effective guides for conversations with others who may not see eye to eye with you on various scientific public health topics.

As we know, direct and indirect impacts of climate change and vaccine-preventable diseases disproportionately threaten people in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). What are some methods to tailor messages for populations that are disproportionately impacted? 

We recently conducted a cross-sectional survey across five different LMICs (India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and Ukraine) where there have been issues with vaccine hesitancy to determine which types of messages and messengers can be most effective in promoting vaccination. In this study, we looked at several different permutations of core messages — why someone might be motivated or benefit from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — paired with different messengers — either a peer or a healthcare provider.

We found that overall, both messenger types worked well across all countries, but there was still an important component of audience segmentation: the same message won’t always work for every group of people. It’s important to think about exactly who you’re focusing on: are they pregnant/nursing, older, what kind of social media platforms are they using? Tailoring messaging to the specific concerns and contexts of a specific population is likely just as important for climate change communication as it is for vaccination programs.  

Conversely, as we navigate the third year of the pandemic, what are some lessons from COVID-19 misinformation that can shape strategies to combat climate change?

We know that simply providing accurate information is going to be totally insufficient for combating science denial, and we’ve really seen that over the last two years with the pandemic.  

One area where pandemic vaccine responses to misinformation may provide some inspiration for future climate change work is a focus on communications collaboration with people outside of science, policy or media.

For example, there have been quite a few successful COVID-19 vaccine campaigns that have not only engaged the obvious “trusted messengers” like Hollywood stars and athletes, but really worked with people who are trusted in their own communities to answer questions. I think there’s a lot of promise in working to develop more robust research agendas around peer communication as a really critical tool.  I’ve worked with pastors and faith leaders throughout the pandemic to help answer people’s questions and concerns about vaccines. One thing we should all have learned from the past two years is that regardless of our scientific discipline or focus we as scientists really need to prioritize building and maintaining trust with the public.

 The pandemic has also really highlighted the critical issue of inequity and how historically many communities –particularly communities of color in the U.S., for example – have been betrayed by scientific and public health institutions. We must prioritize doing better, earning trust and prioritizing approaches and methodologies that include an equity lens.

Learn more from Rupali Limaye in her VARN2022 presentation. Visit our VARN2022 page for the full conference report and session recordings.

Related Resources