More Mosquito Bites? Blame Coal

By William S. Becker

I’ve said it before: If you follow the latest information about global climate change, you’ll get the impression that it might cause everything from swimmers’ itch to male- pattern baldness. The speculation can seem ridiculous.

However, it is true that the consequences of climate change are ubiquitous and pervasive. After all, climate determines the weather and the weather is everywhere all the time. The impacts get as small as those mosquito bites you’ll get this summer.

That’s the buzz from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of many agencies around the world that monitor “vector-borne diseases”, the illnesses spread by insects such as fleas, mosquitoes and ticks. Climate scientists have warned for many years that warmer weather would allow the insects to thrive in places that used to be too cold for them.

As a result, more Americans are falling ill from diseases that we associate with the tropics. The CDC reported this week that the number of Americans who get diseases from these insects has tripled since 2004. About 300,000 people in the United States are getting Lyme disease each year. Other vector-borne diseases include Zika, dengue, plague, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and a variety of unpronounceable ailments such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Overall, about 643,000 cases of 16 different insect-borne health problems were reported to the CDC from 2004 to 2016. At least nine of the diseases had not occurred previously in the U.S.

In the study it issued this week, the CDC confirmed that warmer weather Is a factor. But in what appears to be another example of the chill created in the Trump Administration, the CDC avoided using the “C” word. The New York Times reported that the principal author of the study “declined to link the increase to the politically fraught issue of climate change, and the report does not mention climate change or global warming.”

That’s a shame. The CDC missed an excellent opportunity to explain how climate change exacerbates problems that have multiple contributing factors, ranging in this case from the decline in predators that control rodent populations, to more people living near the deer that carry ticks, and the diseases that stow away on international travel.

So far as we know, there is no relationship between climate change and the men who are balding in our midst. But remarkable as it may seem, there is a relationship between fossil fuels and insect bites. The combustion of fossil fuels begets carbon dioxide pollution; the pollution begets carbon concentrations in the atmosphere; the carbon concentrations act like a blanket that begets the warming of the Earth’s surface; and the warming begets the mosquito bites we will acquire this summer. It’s one more way that climate change is moving more intimately and dangerously into our personal lives.