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Home HEALTH How Climate Change Might Be Affecting Pathogenic Diseases: NPR

How Climate Change Might Be Affecting Pathogenic Diseases: NPR

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with climatologist Camilo Mora about the impact climate change is having on pathogenic diseases.


We often talk about the impact climate change will have on us in big and visible ways, like floods, fires, and storms. A new study published in Nature this month looks at much smaller ways that climate change can affect us, microscopic ways. Climatologist Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii was one of the study’s authors. And he told me that part of his motivation was to see if climate change had anything to do with the COVID-19 outbreak.

CAMILO MORA: We just don’t know yet. But what I can tell you after doing this work is that I can tell you at least 20 different ways that COVID-19 could have been caused by climate change.

SHAPIRO: So I asked him to explain the connection between climate change and diseases caused by microorganisms like viruses and bacteria.

MORA: What happens is that there are many ways in which climate change is forcing these species to come into contact with us. And by increasing those contacts, it turns out that now there are pathogens that are in nature, they have a greater chance of getting in and making us all sick. And what we did in this paper was to quantify the magnitude of how important this is.

SHAPIRO: Give us a story, an example that illustrates how this works.

MORA: So an example that I really like is to imagine that in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of nowhere, there is a bat. And that bat obviously has its own pathogens that have been accumulating for hundreds of years. But they are there and we are here. So there is never really a contact. There is no risk to us from that bat.

Now imagine that we are producing greenhouse gases. We produce a lot of heat. With that heat comes drought. And with that drought comes, sometimes, forest fires. Now this bat that is in the middle of the jungle in the middle of nowhere, without causing us pain, has to fly to find food, water and sometimes a habitat by flying further. Sometimes you contact us. And that one moment when the animal with the pathogen comes into contact with us is called a spill. And from there, once that overflow happens, that’s it. I mean, that triggers an incredible amount of human suffering, like, for example, what happened with COVID-19.

SHAPIRO: So the main conclusion is that climate change will make us more or less susceptible to these types of diseases.

MORA: The way I put it is like, imagine I’m going to fight Mike Tyson. Now, on top of that photo, put three other fighters like Arnold Schwarzenegger (laughs), Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan. And now you have those…

SHAPIRO: Mike Tyson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and Sylvester Stallone? IT’S OKAY.

MORA: Oh no, I think that can beat me – I can get my ass kicked for sure.


MORA: The analogy is that I can’t stand one of them; forget about holding all four. You can see heat waves all over the world, wildfires, floods, you name it. That’s nothing compared to what’s coming. At this time, the planet has warmed by only one degree. And we predict that, in the worst case, it could heat up to five. So take all these things that we think are bad, multiply them by five, and that’s how potentially bad it could be.

SHAPIRO: Even if all carbon emissions stopped tomorrow, the Earth will continue to warm due to the decades of human activity so far. So how should infectious disease experts adapt to a planet that will warm no matter what we do?

MORA: The priority should be mitigating this problem because, yes, you’re right, us, this is going to be bad. But what I am telling you is that if we do nothing, this is going to be much worse. The chances that we can adapt to these will be overwhelming. Just think about what it costs us to adapt to COVID. Those are 1 in 1,000 year diseases. Imagine that these things happen every 10, every 15 years. We won’t be able to deal with this.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the diseases that we’re dealing with right now, from COVID to monkeypox to polio, do you see a connection to climate change?

MORA: Ah, there’s the connection. It’s amazing. And in fact, I live it. I experienced that in my own country in the past. I came on vacation to…

SHAPIRO: Colombia.

MORA: …In Colombia. And I think I’m a strong guy. And, you know, we Colombians like to feel like we’re the boys of the jungle. And I came here, and I refused to use mosquito repellant. And I get begging for a mosquito. Turns out that mosquito had chikungunya. And I got infected with this disease. My skin is all blistered for a week. It was painful. To this day, I have pain from this in my joints.

I came to find out while I was doing this article that the reason this outbreak was happening was because there was so much rain all over the United States that it just created this proliferation of mosquitoes all over the world. And it so happened that chikungunya, which was quite rare in a very remote place, with so many mosquitoes, there was a chance that that virus would go and infect everyone. And I paid the consequences of this.

SHAPIRO: Camilo Mora is a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii, speaking to us from Colombia. Many thanks.

MORA: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

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NPR transcripts are created by an NPR contractor on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authorized record of NPR programming is the audio record.


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