The negative effects of a warmer planet on human health are expected to be wide and varied, from heat stroke to low birth weight, asthma to cholera. As we move into the northern hemisphere’s summer, though, many are perhaps most likely to find ourselves thinking about two such diseases, West Nile and Lyme.
Both are widespread and troublesome, rarely fatal but with the potential to cause long-lasting neurological damage. Both have only recently become significant problems for public health, and both have been spreading. Both are zoonotic, meaning they come from and lurk in non-human animals. And, perhaps most significantly in climate terms, both are vector-borne, meaning they are transmitted by ticks, in the case of Lyme-causing bacteria, and mosquitoes in the case of the West Nile virus. Ticks and mosquitoes, of course, do poorly in cold weather but quite well in warm, and so too do the many diseases they carry.
For a very good introduction to this topic, watch the short video “Covid-19 Will Be Just ‘One of Many’ New Infectious Diseases Spilling Over From Animals to Humans” and read the interview with David Quammen here (Anna Belle Peevey, Inside Climate News, 2020). (More below on Quammen.)
Then, read Jeff Goodell’s excellent article in Rolling Stone, “How Climate Change Is Ushering in a New Pandemic Era” (2020). As is typical of his work, this piece is both packed with information and rich with storytelling.
Another solid and informative piece is Abrahm Lustgarten’s piece in ProPublica, “How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease” (2020).
On the occasion of the Zika outbreak, the New York Times Magazine published a wide-ranging, engaging, and very informative piece, “Why the Menace of Mosquitoes Will Only Get Worse” (Maryn Mckenna, 2017). And here is a 2021 update on Zika.
Should you find yourself getting really interested in these topics, perhaps especially in the context of Covid-19, you might read this interview in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists with David Quammen, “How it feels to predict a pandemic.” (Dan Drollette Jr., 2020) and then Quammen’s terrific 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. The disturbances caused by climate change are only part of this very creepy, well-written, complex, and educational story – but it’s a story we would all do well to learn.
This series is curated and written by retired Colorado State University English professor and close climate change watcher SueEllen Campbell of Colorado. To flag works you think warrant attention, send an e-mail to her any time. Let us hear from you.