Besides threatening the natural environment, climate change increases human vulnerability to disease. As temperatures rise, so do the risks of devastating outbreaks of disease due to malnutrition, water and soil contamination, and the proliferation of biological pathogens.
Our Earth is in crisis. As the impacts of climate change become increasingly difficult to ignore or deny, world leaders, climate scientists, and concerned civilians alike are sounding the alarm. However, for all the attention given to the profound and growing threat of global warming in recent years, relatively little has been said about the significant link between climate change and the spread of disease.
The reality, though, is that climate change is not just a threat to the environment. It is also a clear and present danger to human health. This article examines the link between climate change and disease and proposes solutions to mitigate the risk of outbreaks.
Surging Populations of Disease-carrying Insects
A central characteristic of climate change is the swift and often devastating impact it has on entire ecosystems. A consequence of the disruption of the ecosystem is the upsetting of the balance between predator and prey species.
In insect populations, the disruption of this natural equilibrium can be seen in surging populations of prey species accompanied by a correlated decline in predator species. The result of climate change is an overpopulation of pests. These disease-carrying insects can include ticks, mosquitoes, and the like.
As populations of these virulent species rise, access to food sources declines, causing the insects to expand their range into new areas where human populations have little to no experience with or resistance to the diseases these pests carry. This leads to the introduction of often life-threatening diseases, such as malaria, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, into regions where they were once unknown and where prevention and treatment may be limited.
The Rise of Infectious Diseases
Virulent and contagious diseases are not just being introduced into new territories due to the proliferation and expansion of disease-carrying pests. They are also spreading due to the mass migration of animal species relating to the destruction of natural habitats and food shortages borne of pest overpopulation and infestation.
As animals are forced to leave their native habitats, they bring with them diseases to which their species is vulnerable. Close contact with other species, including humans, increases the risk of cross-species disease transmission. Bacteria and viruses, as we learned all too well in the face of Covid19, can readily mutate in order to survive and reproduce more effectively in new host species. And because these new hosts have no immunity against the pathogen, they are more likely to experience severe and even fatal infections.
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Crop Failures, Water Contamination, and Disease
In addition to the increase in disease vectors due to animal migration and the proliferation of disease-carrying insects and animals, climate change also contributes to disease spread through environmental destruction.
Extreme heat and cold events, for instance, can wreak havoc on crop yields. As once fertile farmlands dry up and become unproductive, local, regional, and national food supplies decline, often precipitously, leading to widespread food insecurity, malnutrition, and, potentially, life-threatening famines.
Not only is prolonged malnourishment due to climate change a significant health risk in its own right, contributing, for example, to organ failure, but it also increases the likelihood of contracting and succumbing to an infectious disease. Individuals who are malnourished simply do not have the immune reserves to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens when they are exposed to them.
Importantly, food system disruptions and subsequent malnutrition risks are often accompanied by another climate-related threat: water contamination. As temperatures rise and drought conditions proliferate, groundwater levels decline. Populations must dig deeper into the soil in order to tap into potable water supplies.
However, the more deeply embedded into the subsoil the water supply is, the greater the quantities of contaminants, such as arsenic, it typically contains. Moreover, the risk of zoonosis, the proliferation of bacteria and other organic contaminants, directly correlates with exposure to high temperatures. In other words, the hotter and drier the environment becomes, the higher the amount of toxins in the water supply.
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As dire as the crisis certainly is, there is hope for mitigating the effects of climate change and containing the spread of climate-related diseases. Smart farming technologies, for instance, are being introduced to better support sustainable agricultural practices while reducing the risk of crop failure. These devices and software applications track, analyze, and predict the best conditions for crops.
The ultimate objective of smart farming is to protect global food supplies while substantially reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. Industrial farming, for example, produces enormous quantities of greenhouse emissions. Still, smart farming systems enable producers to generate higher crop yields with less fossil fuel-driven equipment and fewer chemical additives.
Climate change does not just threaten the survival of whole ecosystems. It also threatens human survival due to the increased spread of often virulent diseases. Rising temperatures, for instance, are responsible for the proliferation of disease-carrying insects and their expansion into previously unknown regions. In addition, extreme heat and cold events are leading to the destruction of animals’ natural habitats, forcing migrations which, in turn, increase the risk for cross-species disease transmission. Finally, the harms wrought on the environment itself link to food shortages, water contamination, and the spread of life-threatening diseases among malnourished and frail populations. Thankfully, there is hope in the work of climate scientists and the ascendancy of smart farming practices.