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Climate Blinkers and Malaria

May 24, 2010

In 2006 I wrote a short article about the danger of making climate change the center of every problem (I sometimes call this behavior ‘climate blinkers‘). The basic argument: just because climate change can be related to anything, does not mean that is important to everything.

A recent paper in Nature provides a very good example of this problem, as applied to malaria. The authors found that contrary to the received wisdom, the role of climate change is little more than an “unwelcome distraction” in the fight against malaria.

Many people believe that a warmer world will lead to more malaria, measured in deaths and the geographic spread of the disease. This assumption is based on a scientifically established fact: the malaria parasite can infect its hosts more effectively in a warmer climate. If you hold everything else constant, in theory a warmer world has a bigger malaria problem.

But you can’t effectively apply that logic to the real world, because nothing remains constant. In my 2006 article, I used the following diagram to illustrate this conceptual problem:

As I wrote at the time:

The red wedge represents the marginal increase in deaths that a climate impacts model might tell us to expect, all other things being equal. But the baseline projection is actually quite unlikely, especially in the context of an unstable government, a fragile and decaying agro-economic system or, conversely, a transitioning economy with the capacity to eradicate the disease. Whether the problem is largely solved by effective intervention, or greatly exacerbated by non-climate-related disasters like a civil war, overpopulation or some other collapse, the marginal change due to climate is rendered less important. Even if the baseline proves relatively accurate, the impact due to climate change pales in comparison to the massive failure of efforts to intervene in an eminently solvable problem that causes 8 millions deaths a year.

So now, in 2010, a prominent paper is calling climate change a distraction in the fight against malaria. What does this mean? I believe we should see this as a lesson in science policy. The mere existence of a link between climate and some problem should not be enough for us to dedicate millions of dollars to narrow studies of that connection. We need evidence that climate change is not just relevant, but actually important before throwing time and resources into it.

More importantly, we need to study social environmental problems in a systematic way, allowing for many different perspectives. We should be wary of researchers who take a climate blinkers approach. It may be convenient to their methodology; and it may help them to win grant money. But it does a disservice to our understanding of problems like malaria, and to those suffering from its devastating effects.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Genevieve Maricle permalink
    May 25, 2010 10:47 am

    Hey Ryan,
    This is a good post, and the article is a good one to flag… but I have a question about the implications of your argument. Building from this line,

    “The mere existence of a link between climate and some problem should not be enough for us to dedicate millions of dollars to narrow studies of that connection.”

    the argument as I read it is that we should not study the link between climate and malaria because that’s not where the real malaria problem is. The real malaria problem – and its solutions – reside in the social and political (and I would imagine, technical) environment in the nations malaria affects.

    I guess my problem with this is that it seems to argue for a break from the systemic thinking that you recommend. Why not, in studying the stress factors that govern malaria’s impacts, also consider the impact of climate change? Why not have this be one of the MANY factors that you evaluate? It seems to me that studying the impact of climate on malaria eradication while also studying (e.g.) the impact of conflict on technical interventions would provide a more complete understanding of potential solutions, particularly as the global fund and other funding mechanisms ramp up spending on malaria research.

    I just don’t see this being an either/or. I think health research spending is quite high, and quite conscious of the social environment of diseases. Seems to just make sense to also track the role of environmental factors as well. Thoughts?

    • May 25, 2010 11:42 am

      Hi G!
      I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. I don’t think the malaria-climate connection should be completely ignored. But we shouldn’t expect any narrow studies of it to help in dealing with malaria.

      What I am advocating is science policy decisions based on an understanding of the problem context. If you have a pretty good understanding of the malaria problem, then you might still be interested in the malaria-climate connection, but you won’t have delusional ideas about solving the malaria problem by addressing climate change.

      Similarly, if you are funding hurricane impacts research, you might still be interested in improved forecast models. But if you really understand the dynamics of how people respond to predictions, and how communities build resilience, then you won’t have delusional ideas about solving major problems through incremental reductions in uncertainty.

      Thanks for the comment!


  1. cspawn » Blog Archive » Climate Blinkers and Malaria

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