To the Editor:
Few these days can doubt that our climate is changing. As we quibble over what to do, how much of it is necessary, and how to pay for it, we mostly understand that climate change is creeping up on us, and we should act in order to preserve something resembling a normal life.
Yet we see climate change as a threat of tomorrow: something that might pose the end of civilization, but not today. Climate change is measured in years and decades. Such is human arrogance that we cannot fathom threats of years and decades, and we consider ourselves above threats of months and days. The events transpiring as I write this seem to confirm our conceit. Of course, I’m talking about pandemics.
Climate change is like the rising of the tides. Catastrophic, surely, but hardly perceptible from one moment to another. Climate change is predictable and can be out-smarted, and out-engineered. A pandemic is an earthquake. Instant, unimaginable misery, with aftershocks to boot. A pandemic is hardly predictable and refuses to be easily outplayed. Diseases are alive, after all, and life finds a way. When climate change counts in years, disease counts in days. Disease is an ever-present threat, always lurking and evolving under our noses, whether we pay it heed or not. The human toll of a pandemic might not match that of a decade of climate events, but both are equally terrifying. Yet the two are brothers in arms, as the long term hazard of climate change brings about dread and death in new and unexpected ways. Disease is one of them.
Right now we are in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic. America is straining under the weight of the crisis, while Western Europe is borderline hysteric. While ours may be a crisis exacerbated by our own missteps and failures, there is no such thing as a pandemic that isn’t serious. It is absolutely true that the coronavirus ravaging the world has no links to climate change. However, think of your own life and how it has been impacted by this disease. Out of school, maybe out of work, the economy in a tailspin. You can’t go outside or get together in groups, for fear that an often silent and invisible disease could make its way to you and your loved ones. It is not a world any of us want to live in. Even now, people are apocalyptic. A single outbreak can, as we have seen, cause chaos and havoc far beyond its actual effect on those who are sick. Dishearteningly, all the signs indicate that we need to be prepared for more of this in the future.
Covid-19 will pass, as epidemics of its like have. But like with climate change, the question is one of long-term risk. Disease is one risk associated with climate change that we rarely consider. By their very nature, diseases often lurk out of our sight, the microbes themselves literally being too small to perceive with our eyes. By the time we pay heed, the danger is already upon us. However, when the threat is here, as it is now, we are far more perceptive of future risks like it. At this critical juncture, I feel it is a good time to present the dangers posed by infectious disease and climate change, and what can be done about it.
Health experts agree that climate change is a risk when it comes to infectious disease. All the effects of climate change, in addition to their own harmful effects, come with the bonus of exposing us to more threats from infectious disease. Most of these threats come from the fact that the diseases that threaten us today are zoonotic: meaning that they originate in animals. The methods of disease transmission are called vectors. In this case, animals are our vectors, and the effects that climate change has on them will also affect the diseases they often carry, with the risks to us only increasing. The simplest factor to consider is the global rise in temperature. Certain animals thrive in warm weather, while others do not. As temperatures rise, warm weather animals expand their range, and as their range expands, so does that of the diseases for which they serve as vectors. Mosquitos are the classic example. Carrying a litany of deadly diseases including malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and West Nile virus, and killing over a million people per year, mosquitos are the most dangerous animal on the planet, and have been so for some time. Mosquito range is set to increase as climate change ramps up, bringing their deadly cocktail of malicious microbes straight to the door of the most developed countries (Hint: that includes the United States). The prediction of the experts? “It’s coming for you.” Mosquitos are estimated to have killed around 5% of all people who have ever lived, ever. We need to be on top of this. Unfortunately, we are not. As you can see simply by turning on the television, our government and others are light-years behind anything resembling preparedness. What we need is to get ahead of all of this. Governments worldwide need to start predicting outbreaks and getting ready for them before they happen. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck trying to play whack-a-mole at a rigged carnival, and there is far more than pocket money at stake.
And mosquitos are just the start. Diseases are extremely responsive to short-term climate events, which are becoming more extreme and frequent due to climate change. Consider the following example: extraordinarily heavy rains create an overabundance of fruit in some tropical country, leading to increased congregation of bats, who then transmit a previously unknown disease to the human population, who send it worldwide. In fact, such is the scenario gamed out by health professionals, and it is almost identical to the plot of Contagion. Human activity can also alter the environment in such a way as to be more hospitable to disease. The ocean’s warming leads to more hospitable environments for the feared “flesh-eating” bacteria. Deforestation and human habitation brings us and the animals who carry disease closer together, inevitably leading to more transmission, more outbreaks, and more death. Increased urbanization and density combined with lacking infrastructure increase the prevalence of diseases like cholera and dengue. In addition, the mass migrations that climate change will lead to uncountable opportunities for human-to-human spread. We are all facing a sicker world as climate change marches forward.
Disease is just one aspect of the monumental shift contained within climate change, and climate change is still only one component of disease. Despite the threat that climate changes pose to public health, these threats can be mitigated and prepared for. The first step is anticipation. Governments need to invest in further modeling to determine what areas are most vulnerable to outbreaks as a result of climate change. This knowledge must be put to use investing in areas most vulnerable to new outbreaks. This will require international outreach to aid countries whose healthcare systems are not able to withstand increased outbreak frequency. In addition, developed countries need to step up and realize that they are not above illness. This entails creating dedicated pandemic response teams within their governments to head off future public health threats. Furthermore, a globalized world requires global coordination. Nations need to start paying attention to the WHO and working together to benefit the entire global community. Disease doesn’t respect borders, and it doesn’t comprehend race, class, or ethnicity. Climate compounds existing healthcare problems. America needs a robust and capable healthcare system, with a government capable of decisive action. Public health can no longer fly under the radar in government and in the public conscience. Support leaders who care about your safety. As a scientist said, “These are not climate change time frames.” Epidemics and pandemics can appear overnight, but they can be anticipated and mitigated almost as quickly. We do not need to wait for the next disaster to arrive before we begin preparing. With enough gumption and a modicum of foresight, we can save countless lives today. Disease is hard to predict, but we can be ready, so we don’t have to mourn.
Luka Batljan, Age 18, Chatham High School