The spread of COVID-19 is destabilising entire nations across the world. The media coverage on the novel coronavirus has been incessant throughout the last few months, reaching levels which are almost unthinkable for issues relating to climate change. Nonetheless, science informs us that climate change can have devastating health consequences too.
The pervasive news coverage on COVID-19 issue is justified, of course. Rather, it is the lack of similar levels of coverage for the issue of climate change that is worrying. While governments across world’s regions are now relying on the information provided to them by scientists and medics on how to tackle the coronavirus issue, this is barely the case for climate change, as science repeatedly fails to get across to governments and the wider public.
The data are indisputable: we need to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees celsius (compared to pre-industrial levels) by 20301 if we want to mitigate the catastrophic consequences and threats posed by anthropogenic climate change. Extreme weather events, including heavy rainfalls with severe flooding, and prolonged droughts, are amongst the most highlighted threats by scientists. Crucially, such events can also have serious implications for human health, especially in the poorer regions of the world which are also the least responsible for climate change.
For instance, heavy precipitation can contribute to the spread of malaria (which already kills over one million people every year) as mosquitoes thrive in wet environments2. In fact, the spread and mortality of water-borne diseases in general will be likely to increase1. Heavy rain falls can also stir up sediments in water, which may lead to the accumulation of faecal microorganisms and cause spikes in infections amongst local people3.
There is also another aspect that we shall not underestimate. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life4. This could lead to disease outbreaks and pandemics that could cause countless deaths.
The spread of diseases due to climate change may also impact us indirectly, including through affecting plant and animal populations. For example, plant diseases are one of the important factors that impact on global agricultural productivity, and climate change will further aggravate the situation. Combined infestation of pests and diseases in plants, under climate change scenarios, could result up to 82% losses in attainable yield in case of cotton and over 50% losses for other major crops5.
Similarly, diseases such as bluetongue, an arthropod-borne viral disease of ruminants with a high mortality rate, could become exacerbated due to climate change and increasingly affect livestock animals, as it is already being documented in northern Europe6.
Scientific debates continue on how, and the extent to which, climate change will affect the spread and impact of diseases across world’s regions7. Mitigating climate change will be crucial to avoid the drastic scenarios that scientists foresee, which extend way beyond those discussed here and also include the exacerbation of gender inequality and biodiversity loss (which can in turn further fuel climate change and spread diseases7, respectively).
It is necessary to reflect on the role that the news media play in portraying and bringing attention to the issue of climate change. More coverage is a prerequisite for public awareness and effective pressure on policymakers to act in time on the issue of climate change.
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- Shuman, E.K., 2010. Global climate change and infectious diseases. New England Journal of Medicine, 362(12), pp.1061-1063.
- Wu, X., Lu, Y., Zhou, S., Chen, L. and Xu, B., 2016. Impact of climate change on human infectious diseases: Empirical evidence and human adaptation. Environment international, 86, pp.14-23.
- Gautam, H.R., Bhardwaj, M.L. and Kumar, R., 2013. Climate change and its impact on plant diseases. Current Science, pp.1685-1691.
- Purse, B.V., Mellor, P.S., Rogers, D.J., Samuel, A.R., Mertens, P.P. and Baylis, M., 2005. Climate change and the recent emergence of bluetongue in Europe. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 3(2), pp.171-181.
- Altizer, S., Ostfeld, R.S., Johnson, P.T., Kutz, S. and Harvell, C.D., 2013. Climate change and infectious diseases: from evidence to a predictive framework. science, 341(6145), pp.514-519.
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