Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is upon us, with growing severity and no end in sight, since we stubbornly resist committing to strong, systematic steps to slow or reverse our behavior. The U.S. is most egregiously in denial, being the only major industrial nation to sign the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Just think, 191 nations of the world have officially recognized the role of carbon emissions in the over-production of greenhouse gases which lead to global warming. The U.S., governed as it is by Wall Street rather than by the electorate, prefers to live in a state of denial which threatens all of life on earth.
The consequences are dire. They include (but are not limited to) ~
- rising temperatures leading to melting of glaciers and polar icecaps
- rising sea levels
- shifting weather patterns, with more severe and more frequent extreme events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts
- shifting ocean current patterns which affect all of the above
- increased volcanism and earthquake potential
- migrating climate zones ~ resident plant and animal life, as well as human agriculture, must change location, adapt to new conditions, or perish (see map above, click to enlarge)
The impacts on human health are diverse, and just starting to emerge. In addition to increased malnutrition and starvation, the vectors for infectious diseases are responding by spreading past former barriers that no longer exist. The EPA has stated that "disease-causing agents are passed on through food, water and animals ... Climate change may be altering these transmitters, allowing certain diseases to proliferate as extreme changes in water, heat, air quality and more wreak havoc with the waters and animals that host some of our deadliest diseases. What's more, climate change will increase all water-borne diseases via heavy rainfall and flooding. Heavy storm water runoff will contaminate [rivers and] lakes. Sewage systems will be overwhelmed, spilling waste water into crop and beaches. Gastrointestinal distress will take on a whole new meaning to us all."
Here are five examples of diseases which are on the move in North America, thanks to climate change ~
- PAM. As warmer temperatures migrate northward, so are populations of a single-celled amoeba called Naegleria fowlen. The organism "enjoys lakes, rivers, hot springs, and your brain. If you are unlucky enough to swim with the mini-beasts, you may develop what the CDC refers to as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). In other word, an amoeba attacks your brain tissues and you die."
- Lyme disease. "Carried by ticks, the illness is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorfen. Once infected, humans experience fever, headaches, and other maladies. Most people recover after taking antibiotics, while up to 20% of sufferers experience symptoms that can continue for years." Formerly found mostly in warmer and moister southern states, cases of lyme disease are spreading to more northerly states and into Canada.
- Malaria. A mosquito-born flu-like illness caused by a parasite, malaria was essentially eliminated from the U.S. by 1951. However, the number of malaria cases rose sharply in the 1990s. 1500 cases are reported in the U.S. annually. Symptoms of fever and headache may progress to coma or death if the victim is not promptly treated.
- Ciguatera fish poisoning. This immune response to tainted fish magnifies the effects normally felt in food poisoning (vomiting, diarrhea), augmented by neurological problems (e.g., reversing the feeling of hot and cold). "Ciguatera is considered endemic from Florida through the Caribbean. It's caused by eating fish that gorge on the algae of coral reefs. As waters warm, new cases are popping up in previously unexposed northern latitudes ... As sea levels continue to warm due to climate change, the impact zone of ciguatera will contnue to grow."
- West Nile virus. WNV is considered "an unstoppable illness which can leave its victim with symptoms ranging from fever and vomiting to brain-swelling and death. The virus is carried by mosquitoes feeding on infected birds." The higher temperatures created by climate change actually improve a mosquito's ability to bite through both infected birds and us. Worse, drought conditions also encourage transmission. Standing, tepid water is an excellent draw for mosquitoes and the infected birds looking for water." As of August 21, 2012, a total of 1,118 West Nile cases have been reported in the U.S., including 41 deaths in this year alone. Rising temperatures account for much of the increase ~ July 2012 was the hottest month on record in U.S. history.
I'm reminded of the wonderful cliff jump scene from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Caught between a relentlessly-pursuing posse and a vertiginous river gorge, the two outlaws are debating what to do, fight or jump. But Sundance has a problem. Here is the scene. Perhaps a good laugh will help us to learn to swim in this new world we've created.