A couple of days ago I saw this tweet:
Pests? maybe; #malaria? don't think so! #Climatechange could bring malaria to the UK http://t.co/QGkdhZcFrC #fearmongering
— Tim France (@francetim) May 5, 2013
I agree with Tim France, but with the short tweet he also assumes UK will be a rich country with a good health system in 100 years. Below are some thoughts on how we evaluate the impacts of climate change, following up a previous post.
Every time driving a car, there is a chance you will crash. In thunderstorms you might be hit by lightning, and at any time your home could be hit by a meteor. If you drive faster the consequences of a car crash is probably more severe; if you fill your pockets with iron and stand under a tree in a thunderstorm that might be a bad idea; we can increase or reduce the risk of something bad happening. For meteors, well, there is currently not much we can do. What all of these threats have in common is the low probability they will occur, but if they do the result might be devastating.
How are these risks related to malaria in the UK and climate change? The answer is probability. Malaria was common in the in Northern Europe including UK, Sweden and Finland 250-100 years ago, but is no longer a problem. While temperatures declined or showed no trend from about 1750 to the 1920s they have risen since, and we have seen no resurgence of malaria in Europe (except from small outbreaks).
Let us go back to the car. The risk, or probability, of serious injuries in a car crash is dependent on many factors. Increasing the speed will increase the risk, but how do we compare driving a car at 40 MPH without a seat belt to driving the a car at 50 MPH with a seatbelt? From 1750 to 2013 Europe got seat belts and air bags preventing malaria; better houses (less mosquito contact), improved health systems (shorter time to recovery), the population density increased (less mosquitoes per human), and land use changed (less breeding sites for mosquitoes). These factors allowed us to increase the air temperature without increasing the risk of malaria epidemics. So what about the future?
It is virtually certain temperatures will continue to increase the next 100 years. The temperature increase alone will potentially lead to more malaria. But the real impact? Do we assume UK has the same health system in 2100 as today? Will people live in even better houses? What if there is a war in 2080? The IPCC does not make assumptions or scenarios describing alternative realities (on national scales) on how societies will develop the next 100 years. To understand the possible real, and not only theoretical, impacts of climate change, we must also dare to speculate about how society will evolve over the next 100 years. Only then we can come closer to understanding the risk of increasing the speed from 40 to 50 MPH, and know under which assumptions we are making projections about impacts of climate change.