A Warning of Climate Change’s Potential Effect on Public Health, But Will We Listen?

Research suggests a political disconnect on the status of global environment that could impact health response during a crisis.

Even as concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic begin to fade (perhaps prematurely) in many parts of the world, a study published April 28 in Nature issued a stark warning about future public health crises and the role climate change plays in their development.

However, given that climate change is a politically divisive issue, at least in the United States, there’s no guarantee the country’s leaders will heed that warning—or that their constituents will want them to. This may mean that they will not take steps to address the root causes of climate change or provide funding and resources to bolster the nation’s defenses against future pandemics.

And, if the authors of the Nature study, which examined the link between climate change and viral transmission, are correct, as earth’s climate continues to warm, animals will be forced to relocate from their natural habitats to areas with large human populations. This close contact between species will increase the risk for animal-to-human virus transmission, they say.

That could have deadly consequences, as we’ve seen with SARS-CoV-2. Assuming, as many suspect, the virus first spread from animals to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, China, increased risk for such transmission with future pathogens could result in more, and larger, pandemics.

“As the world changes, the face of disease will change too,” said Gregory Albery, an expert in disease ecology at Georgetown University and coauthor of the Nature study told the Guardian. “This work provides more incontrovertible evidence that the coming decades will not only be hotter, but sicker.

Considering that, as of this writing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 has killed nearly 1 million people in the United States, taking no action would essentially mean handing down a death sentence to hundreds of thousands of people. The US is the second-largest emitter of the greenhouses gases that researchers believe cause climate change overall (behind China), but the largest per capita.

So, will leaders listen? It depends, research suggests. A study of Twitter and Reddit posts published on April 20 in Health Communication found that posters tended to view the public health response to the COVID-19 through different lenses, generally based on their politics.

Should that trend continue, the response to future crises in the United States could be similarly disastrous—or even nonexistent. However, that doesn’t mean scientists and public health specialists should give up trying to get their messages across, the researchers said.

“While it is true that political polarization makes science communication challenging, and that there will be those who may disregard the latest scientific findings, it is nevertheless important to continue disseminating warnings and the latest scientific findings,” Health Communication study coauthor Anna Valiavska, PhD, visiting assistant professor of communication studies and Director, Center for Speech and Effective Advocacy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, told Contagion. “Research in public health communication demonstrates that mistruth and disinformation are not new phenomena, and while that should not quell concerns about our ability to mount an effective response to future public health crises, it does provide a series of blueprints and case studies about what strategies do and do not work well in communicating about public health warnings.”

For Valiavska, this means public health officials need to connect with communities at the local level and use social media platforms such as Reddit to combat, and correct, misinformation.

“I hope climate change skeptics and the next generation can fully appreciate two truths,” Wildlife Conservation Society Director of Health Research Sarah Olson, PhD, told Contagion. “One, earth’s natural systems are deeply interconnected. Two, human health and well-being are not separate from these natural systems—we rely on earth’s natural systems—water, plants, animals, microbes, and the air we breathe. If those two truths can be believed in and acted on like the law of gravity we may get somewhere.”