The Infectious Possibilities of Climate Change
Scrolling through Netflix has become a typical behavior of our modern world, and one day I found myself engaging in this behavior when I came across the show, V Wars. The show’s premise is simple: two scientists get exposed to an ancient prion released from the polar ice caps that they are exploring, eventually causing one of them to become a vampire. Consequently, chaos ensues and the world is overridden by vampires. While a prion with vampiric side effects may be unlikely, deadly infectious organisms being released from melting ice caps is highly likely. This issue reminded me of a book that I had recently read, titled The Precipice, which highlighted the dangers of humanity’s actions and how the consequences can leave us in potentially dire situations. Although the book did discuss the immediacy that should be considered with a pandemic and climate change independently, there was no dialogue about how climate change could essentially cause a pandemic that we would be helpless in. Time and again, humanity has seen ficiton become realityunimaginable natural disasters have devastated communities and a global pandemic changed the fate of the world. In that case, it would not be unrealistic to consider the threat of ancient ‘evils’ arising from the ‘ice cages’ that humanity’s industrialization has broken through. As Bill Gates and many other leaders have mentioned, it is important that we focus on these two issues and how they can impact each other. Through evidence found in science and history, I hope to highlight this relationship (between climate change and global pandemics) that has played a role upon those in the past and will play a role in the future as we determine the precipice of humanity’s existence.
Before going into what lies in the ice, it’s important to consider the various zoonotic diseases, transmitted from animal to human or vice versa, that result from deforestation and habitat destruction. Time for another pop culture reference: the film, Contagion. Patient Zero is presumed to be an American woman who ate pork at a restaurant, but the end credits scene shows that the global pandemic started prior to this incident. An infected bat defecated in feed that was consumed by pigs, one of which was later prepared by a chef, the first human point of contact with the virus. When people move into natural habitats, this is the kind of situation that is very possible. Many speculated that the recent COVID-19 pandemic was a result of this type of interaction. This pandemic has not ended, and there is still a chance for similar ones to arise. A study that was published in the Nature journal predicted that there could be 15,000 zoonotic diseases as a result of climate change1. With temperatures rising and animals looking for cooler places to live, this increases the possibility of animals moving into locations where humans preside1. Thus, increasing the risk for transmissible diseases.
Unfortunately, these developments are also happening in seemingly controlled settings. Factory animal farms are large vats harboring disease. The animal waste that is discarded is often exposed to the environment: toxic cesspools of feces, urine, blood, and rotting flesh often lie outside of the farm, where it is at risk of being exposed to other wildlife and foliage. The antimicrobials used on these animals also increase the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can be easily transmitted between animals in these compact spaces2. Some diseases can go unnoticed. One example that comes to mind is Mad-Cow disease. The prion that was detected when checking the meat looked like a protein that was previously known to be harmless. This deficiency in knowledge caused the deaths of more than a hundred people. Because of the long incubation period of this disease, it took years to realize the impact of factory farming on health. There is so much unpredictability with the projection of these diseases, but it is a warning call telling humanity to change the way it treats the environment and other organisms.
Before concluding, I would like to go back to the premise that started this dialogue: deadly viruses arising from melting ice caps. This is sadly a very possible reality; The Precipice did mention that methane is released from melting ice and adds to the greenhouse gas effect. This additional warming not only leads to rising sea levels but more tangible risks such as deadly viruses. While some scientists say that the risk of ancient bacteria and viruses released from melting ice and permafrost will not necessarily lead to pandemics3, it is still necessary to be cautious because environmental factors can aggravate the infectious capability of these organisms. Unlike bacteria, viruses need a host so the likelihood of an animal’s contact with it is low. However, permafrost, containing these viruses, is found in human-inhabited places like Russia. So the risk is still very relevant given Earth’s current circumstances. As previously mentioned, with the rise of temperatures, animals will move to colder places. This thus elevates the risk of infection and transmissibility. With the risk of rapid climate change and melting ice caps, what was once seen as fiction isn’t very far from our reality. While I do not know where humanity will end, it is clear to me that the possibilities of the end are endless. See you on the precipice.
**Check out The Precipice to get some insight into the future possibilities of humanity.**
Gilbert, Natasha. “Climate Change Will Force New Animal Encounters – and Boost Viral Outbreaks.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 28 Apr. 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01198-w.
Jones, Bryony A, et al. “Zoonosis Emergence Linked to Agricultural Intensification and Environmental Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 21 May 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3666729/.
EuroScientist. “Viruses Frozen in Melting Glaciers – Should We Brace Ourselves for More Pandemics?” EuroScientist Journal, 14 Feb. 2022, https://www.euroscientist.com/viruses-frozen-in-melting-glaciers-should-we-brace-ourselves-for-more-pandemics/.