Have Our Climate-Changing Actions Come Back to Bite Us?

Mattie J. E. Rush

What does every person across the globe have in common, aside from our species classification as Homo sapiens? You guessed it – we are all vulnerable to climate change!

Climate Change is arguably the one “common enemy” that the world shares, according to the United Nations. Every single country is vulnerable to climate change; no matter where someone lives and whether they know it or not, they have likely witnessed its diverse effects.

And now, the Western Hemisphere is buzzing with worry regarding a threat that is hypothesized to be exacerbated by climate change, and we at Partners share their concern. The Zika virus, which according to the Center for Disease Control is speculated to cause a slew of diseases, is spreading rapidly across the Western Hemisphere. The Aedes aegypti, which typically serve as campfire nuisances and poolside companions, have taken on a new life as the vectors for the virus, transmitting the disease from one host to another. They are the same vectors responsible for the transmission of yellow fever, West Nile, and dengue. 

The Zika virus is thought to cause Guillain–Barré syndrome, which affects the nerves and can result in temporary paralysis. The virus has also been linked to microcephaly in infants of infected mothers, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads, and often other neurological problems.

For years, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Senior Fellows program has worked hard to promote climate change mitigation and clean, sustainable energy throughout the Americas. Our fellows have traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Suriname, and Barbados – all which are now are now affected by the Zika virus – and they have worked side by side with many of the people it is threatening. We are concerned for our partnering countries and the rest of the Americas, and feel that it is our duty to shed some light on the Zika virus, the risks it poses, and our climate’s role in the center of it all.

Climate change created the optimal conditions for the Aedes aegypti mosquito to spread the Zika virus far and fast, according to the New York Times. And, as the climate warms, mosquitoes could emerge earlier in the year. The increases in heat, rain, humidity, and the lengths of the warm seasons allow for the mosquitoes to stay active for longer seasons, according to the National Research Defense Council. Further, mosquitoes feed more frequently in warmer temperatures, increasing their chances of feeing on infected hosts and acquiring the virus. Most alarming is that the virus replicates faster in mosquitoes in warm temperatures, meaning that younger mosquitoes are capable of transmitting the virus to humans earlier in their lifecycle.  

So just how fast is the virus spreading? The first reported case of the Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere (excluding Easter Island) came less than a year ago, in May 2015. Since then, it is speculated that up to 4 million people may now be affected by the virus. El Niño coupled with climate change to make 2015 an abnormally hot year, quite possibly contributing to the astonishingly quick outbreak of the Zika virus. With temperatures continuing to rise, areas like the arctic that were once too cold are becoming warm enough for colonies to proliferate. Researchers fear that the virus will accompany its vectors as climate change permits them to move into new regions with human hosts. As Heidi Brown at the University of Arizona stated in an interview with NBC, "[mosquitoes’] lifestyles, their behaviors, the speed with which they grow up is tightly related to climate."

What does this mean for the future? Since the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is found throughout the world, and it thrives in warm, wet environments, researchers are worried that future human-induced climate change will enable the Zika virus to spread to even more countries. This is worrisome because, according to the Washington Post, “[many researchers] have concluded that a warmer world is likely to be a boon to the bugs, allowing them [to] reproduce faster, emerge earlier in the season, [and] survive longer.”

It is our hope that more global leaders will take climate change seriously and act to mitigate the impacts, especially as they see its effects increasing. We are saddened by the impact the Zika virus has on the global community, and are concerned about the rate at which the virus is spreading. Climate change mitigation is more important now than ever. As President Obama stated, “No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

If the Zika virus is indeed causing the increase in microcephaly cases in newborns, then we are arguably already seeing one of the many threats that climate change imposes on our future generations. So, for my final blog here at ECPA I ask you to please continue our Fellows’ mission – “to share research, ideas and best practices in an effort to form holistic and sustainable partnerships between government agencies, businesses, universities and NGOs.” It is only together that we can we find the best solutions to mitigate climate change, learn from the events we are currently witnessing, and hopefully prevent history from repeating itself in the future.