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How can Climate Change Affect Disease?

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Overview:

     In recent years, climate change has been a widely discussed issue that is well known to have a plethora of adverse effects on the planet and its inhabitants. Today, climate change is having profound affects on the way food or water-borne, zoonotic, and vector based diseases are able to pervade into human life.

     Climate change has manifested itself in many diverse and urgent ways, many of which affect extreme weather events(cyclones, tsunamis, etc.), the ocean, and the cryosphere. In polar regions, we see ice loss that is unprecedented for at least a millennium(IPCC). Consequently, we see effects such as the warming of the worlds oceans due to the arctic’s unique role in manipulating and regulating ocean temperatures, and the loss of marine biology due to said warming in addition to habitat destruction(IPCC). In costal regions, we see rising sea levels due to glacier and ice sheet contributions, which comes with its own set of consequences for costal residents, such as the increased frequency of extreme sea level events like the hundred-year flood. However, in all regions, climate change can affect one specific entity that is increasingly prevalent as of quite recently. That entity is disease.

What You Need to Know:

Unfortunately, the roots of this problem are woven tight into the fabric of our society.  Many of the things that we rely heavily on every day are contributing to climate change, including electricity(or more specifically the production of that electricity) and most cars.  Due to its relative ease of use, fossil fuels have pervaded in the energy industry despite many alternatives, such as solar, which was first made operational in 1860, being potentially usable(ProCon).  Furthermore, scientists have been warning the general public about the affects of climate change and pollution since before the 70s(New York Times), so it’s not as if there was no reason to explore these options in the last 50 years or so.  

The biggest factor in staying with fossil fuels rather than exploring more renewable or at least sustainable options: Money. Because of fossil fuels’ early start, they were quickly incorporated into a plethora of tasks, including transportation, iron production techniques, and eventually electricity production, to name a few(ProCon).  Plus, as is exemplified by people like John D. Rockefeller, the industry was extremely lucrative, and many fossil fuels were quite abundant. Consequently, fossil fuels became the base of many important developments. The automobile, for example, was only made possible due to its utilization of an internal combustion engine(I.C.E.), as electric motors and batteries of the time were nowhere near powerful enough to power something that heavy.  However, even if they were, the electricity that would power those cars would come from the burning of fossil fuels. Furthermore, because of the increasing demand throughout history, even relatively large renewable developments wouldn’t be able to topple fossil fuels(York).  

“Graphic: The Greenhouse Effect.” Climate.nasa.org, 2019, climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/188/graphic-the-greenhouse-effect/.

As a result of the burning of these fossil fuels, we are experiencing what is known as the greenhouse effect, which is essentially when gases, which are classified as greenhouse gases, trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere(Shaftel).  The warming caused by the greenhouse effect is quite potent and can have a profusion of adverse effects. In addition to those listed above, climate change can greatly affect the way food/water-borne, zoonotic, and vector-based diseases can move throughout our society.  The way it achieves this is through alterations to the environment that favor the spread or development of certain diseases. For example, with milder winters, many viruses have an increased possibility to survive year round, and with warmer summers, the development time of many viruses will be decreased.  Furthermore, under similar circumstances, many vectors, such as ticks, will be able to invade areas that they previously were unable to(Wilke). Evidence of these types of situations have appeared recently, with various outbreaks happening in historically safe areas, and as a result, various scientists quantified the relative risk of death in 2030 from various climate affected diseases based on 26 risk factors and using 3 different scenarios: (1) unchanged greenhouse gas emissions, (2) some reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and (3) drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In scenario 1, the western Pacific region saw an increase of up to 83% in malaria cases, with other areas also increasing by various amounts (Gilbreath).  

“Impact of Climate Change on Human Health.” Cdc.gov, www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/default.htm.

In addition to general trends, like those detailed above, extreme weather events, which climate change also has a distinct effect on, can greatly influence the way diseases spread.  One great example of this is the El Niño Southern Oscillation(ENSO) event, which is an event in which the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean’s sea surface temperatures rise, which causes various other effects.  ENSO is an extremely important event, as it is a strong short-term driving force of climate in many regions around the world, and it has profound effects on many diseases in nearby regions. In East Africa, the ENSO event caused severe flooding, which caused a Rift Valley Fever epidemic, because it allowed the mosquitoes’ eggs, which are placed on the top of grasses, were given ample water to develop.  In addition, historical analyses have shown that both cholera and malaria outbreaks are closely tied to ENSO.  

Byrne, Kevin. “El Niño Shapes the Weather.” Accuweather.com, www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/what-is-el-nino/346937.

However, the US is unfortunately not doing much to help this cause.  In fact, the president is widely known to not believe in climate change, or at least not in the same way as scientists.  “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming. That wasn’t working. Then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss,” he said in interview last year(Ross).  He has also shown his views with actions such as pulling out of the Paris accords. Even so, many young activists have stepped up to try and combat these issues. For example, the ever-famous Greta Thunberg, who started the Fridays for the Future movement, or someone like Jamie Margolin, who is a writer and activist(check out an interesting article by her here).  

For Now:

In order to combat these effects, there are a number of actions that one can take

On an individual level, one important thing to try and do is reduce one’s carbon footprint.  This can take many forms, such as small things like walking and taking public transport, or it can be bigger things like getting solar panels installed on one’s house.  Below is an infographic detailing some potential actions one could take

Tomboc, Kai. “Do You Know Your Carbon Footprint? A Case Study & Infographics.” Easelly.com, 2019, www.easel.ly/blog/do-you-know-your-carbon-footprint-a-case-study-infographics/.

In addition, one could help by joining something like the Fridays for the Future movement(which is extremely easy right now due to social distancing; check it out here).

On a much larger scale, I fear that nothing will happen until the current administration ends.  Unfortunately, as stated earlier, our president doesn’t believe in climate change. However if he did, and was willing to help, then I would suggest a few things:

  1. Divert funds to clean energy research and development
    1. Many people argue that we don’t have very good clean energy options, with solar and wind being too reliant on other factors, and nuclear power generating toxic waste, but Japanese and Chinese researchers have recently been able to devise strategies using a High-Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor that have proven to greatly reduce nuclear waste(Liu, Ueta).  This proves the importance of research and testing for our next big energy source.
  2. Finance renewable energy products
    1. Although the next big source may be up for debate, it is certain that renewables such as solar and wind are extremely useful on a smaller scale.  This is exemplified by various projects that the Chinese government, which is second to the US in terms of economy, has financed in places like Argentina, Scotland, and Kenya(Campbell; read more about these three projects here).
  3. Put restrictions on fossil fuels that progressively get stricter
    1. Unfortunately, many of the renewable developments in recent years have added to the greater pool rather than replacing fossil fuels(York).  As a result, we need more incentive to develop clean energy sources at a fast enough rate to start replacing fossil fuels. By restricting fossil fuels at an increasing rate, we can reign in fossil fuels and, by adding financial penalties for breaking the guidelines, shave away some of the incentive of fossil fuels.

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Works Cited or Consulted

Thank you very much for clicking on my project and reading through.  If you feel inclined, please leave a quick comment outlining what you enjoyed or disliked about my project, or consider answering one of the following questions:

  1. Were you aware of these effects before stumbling upon this project?
  2. Do you feel that this is an urgent issue?
  3. Are there any more solutions that you’d like to suggest?

Although these questions are here, remember that all feedback is welcome.

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COMMENTS: 3
  1. April 24, 2020 by Hollis

    Hey Dylan,
    Your presentation was really interesting. Before reading through your web page I knew that climate change helped the spread of disease but I didn’t know how. Many of the activities included in the infographic on how to reduce your carbon footprint truly surprised me. I agree with you when you stated that change will only start when the current administration ends.

  2. April 25, 2020 by Winston

    Awesome web page Dylan!
    I knew quite a bit about climate change before reading your webpage, but I didn’t know how many ramifications climate change had on the spreading of disease. I think this is the most urgent issue facing humans right now, and I am thrilled your webpage brought this information to more people. Great job!

  3. April 27, 2020 by Carl Thiermann

    Dylan–This was an excellent topic for an important research project: by focusing on a subset issue that has a powerful and lasting impact on global health, you bring new insights to bear on the latest research. It is an effective method and I found the presentation compelling. While I was aware of the significant contributions of meat-consumption to global warming I did not realize just how significant a factor it is. Nor had I been aware of the warming’s effect on virus and insect carriers—and this has given me serious pause. I don’t think you could have chosen a more significant and timely topic and we’ll need research–just like this project— to continue and guide public policy. Enjoyed your clear and cogent introduction as well. Very impressive work.

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