Rampant Disease — A Dangerous Side Effect of Climate Change
By Emily Gonyou
The COVID pandemic has upended the lives of nearly everyone around the world. Even the most secluded nation in the world, North Korea, has become infected with this disease. The world has seen so much devastation due to the severity of this virus and a wide variety of responses to it. As society scrambled to right itself, some scientists began to speculate on whether the course of this virus has been impacted by climate change.
This question is likely impossible to answer with regard to COVID-19. However, it is known that climate change will lead to more frequent instances of infectious disease outbreaks and the resurfacing of illnesses that had been buried long ago.
There are several ways that diseases can be transmitted. They can be airborne, waterborne, passed among humans, and passed from animals or insects. It could be a bacteria, virus, or fungus. Due to changing warming patterns, disease-carrying insects have longer life seasons in which to spread diseases. The transformation of ecosystems, due to human impacts and side effects of global warming and biogeochemical cycles, have forced unusual movements of animals and changes in their habitats, allowing diseases to spread to new areas.
Numerous reports on climate from sources like the IPCC warn of the danger of increased natural disasters, which bring with them the risk of flooding and thus the spread of contaminants and growth of toxic mold. Melting glaciers and permafrost can release currently irradicated diseases like smallpox and anthrax (although this is still debated). These are just some of the ways that climate change can influence disease outbreaks. Although we cannot predict when these things will happen, we can be certain that they will.
The COVID pandemic has shown us that despite the best global efforts to contain the virus and promote immunity through vaccines, millions of people have lost their lives and millions more have suffered long-term effects of the virus. So, what can we do to prepare for more frequent instances of infectious disease outbreaks? The most obvious solution is to mitigate the climate crisis as best as we can.
This means limiting how we impact biogeochemical cycles, like introducing excess nitrogen with fertilizers. It means curbing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible with new technologies and alternative fuels. It means stopping the devastating practices, like deforestation, that are destroying the world’s carbon sinks. Mitigation is not the only technique that we can use to decrease the risk of infectious disease.
We will also have to adapt and transform, in part by promoting social and economic equality so that all people have the same ability to fight outbreaks and create and distribute vaccines. Increased disease prevalence is a scary reality, but one that we will have to work to overcome as we face the climate crisis.