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.