Moving South at Four Miles a Day

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson    

The thing I love about the World Wide Web (which most people think of as the Internet although the Internet is more than the Web), is that it’s all about serendipity. “Good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries” is as good a definition as any.

I couldn’t find the poem with the T.S. Eliot quote for my “Free Pass” essay where I thought it was in my volume of Eliot’s work (one of the few I didn’t sell when I finished the course in college) so I checked with Bing and found it that way. In the process I had the good luck to make the fortunate discovery of an essay on climate change and disease, a subject on which I’ve been taking notes for a few weeks, intending to write to you about it.

Two events sparked my interest in the way the warmer the climate gets, the more diseases flourish. One is the fact that West Nile (as in Egypt) virus has again been found in Massachusetts, where it doesn’t belong. The other is that the Centers for Disease Control got the Florida tourism industry’s knickers in a twist by noting that there are cases of dengue (say DEN-gay) fever in the Keys.

OK, so Florida’s sort of tropical, but Massachusetts? Not so much. But it’s getting there.

Because West Nile virus is closer to home (about 80 miles away, right now) I found the CDC’s maps showing its incidence since it first hit the US in 1999 and was blown away by how fast and how far it’s traveled.

Here’s 1999.

US cases of West Nile virus, 1999

And here’s 2009.

US cases of West Nile virus 2009

Find the rest, if you like, by clicking on the yellow “Incidence Maps” button.

If you prefer numbers to maps, try the table of human infections and choose a couple of years to compare the number of cases by state and the number of fatalities.

West Nile virus is not often fatal, but it sure can make you feel sick. Dengue fever is similarly rotten, and can turn into hemorrhagic fever, which is something really bad. But although there’s not yet a vaccine or a cure for it, it is not, as Agence France Press says, incurable in the sense that you can’t get over it. Bill McKibben writes about having had it in his new book Eaarth, and he lived to tell the tale.

Where disease and climate change interact is where warmth and moisture nurture germs, fungi, and virus-bearing insects. Jeanne Roberts, on Celsias, whose July, 2008 essay leads with the T.S. Eliot quote my “Free Pass” article closes with, has done a powerful lot of research on the subject. What follows are excerpts from her work.

The CDC – whose recent study linking global warming and disease was so edited by the Bush administration that it no longer makes sense – is not the only one taking notice of this potential for disaster. [Note from MEW:The link is to the director's unedited report, which is worth your time.] The Center for American Progress , an American liberal political policy research and advocacy organization, describes a sequence of events surrounding global warming that could eliminate entire populations, including large portions of the developed world. Citing worsening air pollution (a prime cause of respiratory illness and a trigger for heart failure), vector-borne diseases, less reliable food production, more flooding, and more frequent and deadly wildfires, the authors, Daniel J. Weiss and Robin Pam, note that World Health Organization figures already show more than 150,000 deaths per year from climate change, and the planet has only warmed about one and one half degrees. What happens, they ask, when we reach five, or even 10, degrees hotter?

Across the pond, Dr Hugh Montgomery, the director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, reflects back on the heat wave of 2003 that killed up to 35,000 people in Europe. He likens global warming to each of us moving south at a rate of 4 miles a year, and notes with alarm that every one degree rise in temperature means 75 deaths.

“By the 2080s, we can expect to see weather like that of August 2003 every year. This is bad news.” Montgomery notes with typical British reserve.

It’s been a tough July here, about 1,200 feet above sea level, surrounded by trees. Most days temperatures have been 10 to 15 degrees F above historical averages, day and night. This is so unusual that there’s not a single municipal building in this town that is air-conditioned. There may be some houses, but I know of none.

There’s talk of putting an air conditioner in one of the windows in the town hall dining room, where elders gather for lunch on Tuesdays, and a call has gone out for unused recliners so folks – not just elders, but anyone who suffers in the humid heat – can cool off when they need to.

It’s said that misery loves company. This year we have plenty of both. And while ordinary people around the world try to stay civil and productive, a hundred almost entirely rich, almost entirely men, sit in air-conditioned splendor in the halls of the U.S. Senate, doing absolutely nothing about the greatest threat facing civilization. Absolutely nothing.

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One Response to “Moving South at Four Miles a Day”

  1. An excellent analysis, and a pattern now repeating in Minnesota, where this summer has seen unexpected levels of humidity. The upside? We are still getting rain for the crops to grow. But in five years? Who can say.

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