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 is justified, of course. Rather, it is the lack of similar coverage on the issue of climate change that is worrying. While governments across the world are relying on science to tackle the current pandemic, this barely occurs for climate change as scientific evidence is consistently ignored or rejected by governments in this case.
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. Scientists especially warn us about extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfalls with severe flooding, and prolonged droughts, under climate change scenarios, which will have serious implications for human health and will severely exacerbate inequality and injustice.
The poorer regions of the world, which are the least responsible for climate change, will be the most badly affected. For instance, heavy precipitation in the Global South 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 likely 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 rural people3.
There is also another aspect not to be underestimated. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt there is a concrete risk that ancient viruses and bacteria that have been trapped and laid dormant under the frozen surfaces for hundreds or thousands of years will spring back into life4. This could potentially lead to more disease outbreaks and pandemics in the future.
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 most important factors negatively affecting 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.
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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