Climate change puts South Floridians’ health at risk

In 2016, a plane sprays pesticide over parts of Miami to reduce the number of mosquitoes that could be carrying Zika.
In 2016, a plane sprays pesticide over parts of Miami to reduce the number of mosquitoes that could be carrying Zika. Getty Images

Today is the first day of summer, and in South Florida that means warmer temperatures, rain and mosquitoes. Just two years ago, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus were first identified in Wynwood before spreading across Florida.

Vector-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya are re-emerging because temperatures are rising. As the planet warms, habitats that support mosquito vectors expand, allowing these diseases to spread faster and further beyond neighborhood, state and national borders.

Climate change has also sparked extreme weather events, which can spur a rise in illnesses. Hurricane Harvey showed us that standing water and flooding from slower and wetter storms can create breeding grounds for water-borne diseases. As we know all too well, hurricanes can also cause damage to vital infrastructure, making it more difficult to contain outbreaks.

Droughts, disruptions in seasons and extreme temperatures put pressure on food production and can cause food insecurity for entire communities. The risk of famine and illness brought by malnutrition increases. Malnourishment makes it more difficult to recover from infections that are otherwise easily treatable, like lower respiratory tract infections and diarrhea.

Similarly, rising seas threaten our supply of drinking water. This is especially true in South Florida, as we get much of our water from underground aquifers that are at risk of salt-water intrusion. Contaminated water can result in severe illness, and salt-water intrusion in the aquifers threatens a most fundamental element needed to maintain a healthy population and a thriving economy.

The findings are clear: Climate change poses a direct and grave risk to our health. This is why we must act. The need for water and food does not ascribe to a particular ideology. Mosquitoes carrying disease do not differentiate between political parties. That is why The Invading Sea project by the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, and WLRN is so impressive. This unique media collaboration is shining a bright light on sea level rise in our communities and is fostering conversation and debate that otherwise would not occur.

Similarly, researchers at the University of Miami are collaboratively working to examine the impacts of climate change and find solutions, whether that involves sea level rise, air quality, advances in sustainability, disease migration, and other public health threats. UM remains committed to investigating the links between climate change and public health and searching for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Our Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is at the forefront of much of this work, contributing to some of the most advanced weather modeling in the world and sharing information with local governments here at home. Faculty at the School of Architecture and College of Engineering are pursuing interdisciplinary initiatives to find innovative solutions for vital infrastructure such as utilities, sewer and water systems, and healthcare systems. The Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine is finding new ways to control mosquito populations and using technology to measure harmful contaminants. The humanities are using a variety of mediums to distill the complex science of climate change into narratives that allow us to better understand the meaning of threats to human existence, raise awareness, and compel us to take action.

These collaborative efforts — whether it is in the media, academia or government — are necessary to holistically tackle these varied impacts and threats. In South Florida, rising tides mean a disruption to our economy, our fragile environment, and increasingly, our health. In fact, we can trace nearly every effect of climate change to a potential health risk.

Our world is changing, and it is incumbent upon each of us to be involved in the search for solutions to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change that threaten our lives and livelihood. Just as we should take measures to fortify the economy and infrastructure against climate change, we must also take the steps necessary to protect the most basic of all needs: our health.

Julio Frenk is the president of the University of Miami.