If there’s any doubt remaining in your mind that climate change is a plague on humanity, Linda Marsa will take care of that for you. Marsa is a longtime medical writer. She’s made a career as a muckraker, taking on the pharmaceutical industry and dispensers of scientific snake oil. And she’s recently turned her attention to how our warming of the planet increases the chances for a wide array of epidemic illnesses.
For her new book, Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — And How We Can Save Ourselves, Marsa, a contributing editor for Discover, traveled the country and the world, looking for communities on the front lines — “places that give us a glimpse of what’s coming in next 20, 30, 40 years,” she says. The result is a finely crafted and sobering tale on par with David Quammen’s recent tome, Spillover, only with a little less Isn’t this fascinating and a lot more, Holy fucking shit, people, wake the hell up!
“I’ve done some important stories, but nothing compares to the magnitude of this,” Marsa told us during a recent visit to Grist HQ. “Because this threatens civilization, this threatens us as a species.”
Here’s a little more of what she had to say. Goodbye now. We’re all moving to Canada.
On how a medical writer ended up authoring a book about climate change:
I did story for Discover on how climate change is going to increase the incidence of vector-borne diseases. I came across some research done by Siegfried Schubert at NASA looking at ocean temperatures. He found that the drought that caused the Dust Bowl was caused by just a 1 degree change in the surface temperature of the ocean. People say, “It’s getting 2 or 3 degrees warmer [with climate change] — so what?” But I realized that we’re dealing with these really delicately calibrated ecosystems. One degree change in the temperature of the ocean changed the course of the jet stream, and [along with bad agricultural practices,] led to the Dust Bowl.
On why she spent almost a month in Australia doing research:
I went to Australia, 1) to see what climate change looks like, and 2) to see what it looks like in an advanced industrialized country. It’s very easy to dismiss what’s happening in Bangladesh: “Eh, that’s not going to happen here.” But Australia is on the front lines of climate change. They’ve always had very extreme weather, but as temperatures ratchet up, the extreme weather is ratcheting up by several orders of magnitude: Drought, floods, water rationing, terrible fires, haboobs — they’re really up against it.
I got there right after the big floods. The floods came right at the heels of 12-year drought. During the drought, 10,000 farming families were forced off the land that their families had farmed for generations. [When] they lose their farm, it’s like a death in the family. The suicide rates were skyrocketing. The stuff that you see about Australians on TV — you know, “Throw a shrimp on the barbie” — they’re really like that. They have this incredible pioneer spirit. They’re wonderfully hospitable. And when you have people on suicide watch, you know it’s really bad.
On how climate change is spreading disease:
West Nile is a really good example. It’s sort of like you have these catchers, these vectors that are just waiting for something to vect. As the name implies, West Nile started in the West Nile district of Uganda. It was really localized in Africa. Then there was an outbreak in Israel, somebody was infected, and they flew to Whitestone — the city I grew up in in northern Queens — and the local mosquitoes picked it up. It came in 1999, but in 2002 there were torrential rains, the mosquito populations exploded, and suddenly it’s endemic in the U.S.
Then there’s Lyme disease: It started in Connecticut. Now it’s in Canada. It migrated up there. There’s a fungal disease, Valley Fever, that’s endemic to the Central Valley in Arizona. This fungus thrives in hot soil, and the kind of weather we’re seeing is expanding the environmental belt that is hospitable to Valley Fever.
On why the pharmaceutical industry is not investing in medications to cure or treat these diseases:
It costs a billion dollars to bring a new drug to the market. When you’re talking about maybe 1,000 people or even 10,000 people getting something — they’re not going to invest a lot of money.
Look at ports in Los Angeles — there’s a lot of carbon and particulates in the air. And the Central Valley, you get the same thing — you drive over the hill and you’re driving into this blanket of smog. As the temperatures go up, these pollutants get cooked by sunlight, and it creates more smog. I looked at what all this pollution is doing to people physically. I found very high rates of asthma, increased heart disease. These kids’ lungs are stunted by 20 percent — and they don’t get better.
This is also an environmental justice issue: People who have the means to get out don’t stay. Twenty-three percent of Californians are college graduates. In the Central Valley, it’s 13 percent. People who can leave do.
On how bad it could get, short term:
The baby boomers are acting like they’re not gonna see [the impacts of climate change]. Guess what? We’re starting to see it. Look at what happened last summer. We had Superstorm Sandy. After these extreme weather events, the public health system collapses. Yes, New York responded pretty well to Sandy, but not great. Doctors Without Borders, for the very first time in its history, set up a clinic on American soil in the far Rockaways. You had people stranded in their houses and apartments with chronic diseases. They’re on the 12th floor, these public health nurses would come up there and find people with diabetes who hadn’t had their meds.
All these coastal cities are vulnerable. But there’s also flooding in the heartland. We have 100,000 miles of levees in this country, and 30,000 miles of them are OK, but the other 70,000 aren’t. If those levees break, people are flooded, and they lose everything. This is the kind of stuff that we’re looking at. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this.
On how bad it could get, long term:
Aiguo Dai [at the National Center for Atmospheric Research] did some projections on what’s going to happen if we let this go unabated. The whole belt from the bottom of the Canadian border to northern Argentina is going to be just desert in 100 years. Where are all these people going to go? Where are all the people in Bangladesh going to go? Their country is going to be flooded very soon. The enormity of all this, the sheer numbers of people who are going to be impacted, is staggering to me.
On how we can attack the climate crisis and solve our health problems too:
A lot of the prescriptions for a greener future are also for a healthier future, too. There was a report that came out about a month ago about how greener cities are also healthier, wealthier cities because they’re not spending as much on fossil fuels, because they have more public transportation. If you take public transportation, you’re walking 19 minutes a day — that’s two-thirds of how much exercise we need to get every day. The car-centric culture made us miserable, lonely, and fat. We need to move back to much more dense, urban living.
As a medical writer, it makes me crazy with all these people taking all these pills. I just think, “Walk a mile!” It will get rid of diabetes, heart disease. I walk two miles every single day. On the weekends I walk five miles Saturday and five miles Sunday. I walk 20 miles a week. And I should be doing upper body, but I don’t. But I’m really pretty healthy. I’m really old, but I go to the doctor and he says, “What are you taking?” And I say, “Nothing.”
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