The Flesh Flies of Climate Change


I just returned from Bali. A large island in Indonesia just below the equator. It seemed like the perfect place to talk about large flies that either, (a) lay their eggs in the wounds of animals or that (b) transfer diseases when the flies take a blood meal (like the tsetse fly that I work on!). Nothing like a tropical paradise to send your mind thinking about flesh eating flies, heh? The two just seem to go together naturally. Most of the researchers are on-the-ground field entomologists, geneticists or GIS specialists. They came from many parts of the world: Iraq, Brazil, Yemen, Indonesia, Kenya, France, Ethiopia, Austria, Australia, UK and me, USA. We all gave presentations and, no surprise, climate change (CC) was the topic of conversation in many of the presented field studies. The climate change deniers keep picking at supposed anomalies in climate temperature readings and ignore the great swaths of other supporting data. But temperature measurements themselves (which all show global warming) aren’t the only story, there is stunning data showing drastic changes on the ground in real ecological systems.

The tiny minority of scientists who are questioning the scientific consensus that CC is real and human caused (less than three percent) can be safely ignored until they come up with some sort of data that supports their view (interestingly many CC deniers are former cigarette company researchers contesting cigarette-cancer connections (check this out from the Guardian in the UK for more info)—It may be you may want to reflect on the ‘evil and designing men’ the scriptures talk about arising in the Last Days). And the warming keeps coming. (Some of you will probably send me websites that show a cooling trend over the last few years. I file these with my alien abduction, astrology and moon landing conspiracy websites. Keep them coming because I need these examples for my “Misunderstanding how science works” lecture).

But let’s return to what I learned in Bali. Wohlfahrtia magnifica, is a nasty fly that lays its eggs in the wounds of animals and people. It is destructive pest in areas around the Mediterranean. It can cripple or even take out up to 80% of a herder’s livestock. Very bad beasts. But it’s moving north into Poland. A range it’s never had before. We know it’s never been there before because the animals native to the area are not adapted to its presence. When predator-pest/ prey-host animals have been together over evolutionary timescales, they tend to develop an equilibrium in which the parasite or pest is not as good at attacking its host. This is because natural selection has favored those who show some resistance to their attacker. But when a disease or pest moves into a new area it usually has a field day because the new host creatures in that place have no natural resistance. This is why, for example, European diseases were so devastating to Native American populations, they had not been challenged with these organisms before. That’s how we know that Poland has warmed to levels not seen in evolutionary time scales, W. Magnifica is wrecking havoc. The climate has never been such that these flies could survive that far north before. The story is being told in many ecosystems. The same climate expansions are being seen in tsetse fly in Africa. Many insect species in Britain. Worldwide, pests are expanding.

People keep talking about the economic cost of doing something and fear that in trying to stop climate change, we may be spending on something that we might not need. The problem as been that that most economists when they look at the world, had a big black box that said ‘resources’ that feed the models they are using to analyze the warp and woof of economic dynamics. These resources appear into the models as if by magic. However, the more recently established field of ecological economics has realized that that resource box that drives the economy is dependent on ecological services for its maintenance. I mentioned the flies above but let’s take another example. Much of the world depends on bees. For example, the California fruit and nut growers are completely dependent on beekeepers to move bees into their area. Economists estimate that bees provide between 8 to 13 billion dollars in services just to the fruit and nut growers. Yet bees are in crisis. (This is not the time or place to talk about Colony Collapse Disease, but CC is implicated, however, there is not enough evidence to scientifically hang your hat on CC yet—just some nice correlation). But climate change is affecting ecosystem services now. The little things that run the world, are shifting their behavior and range. In Bali we talked about the changes playing out into real pest and disease expansions.

In the rhetoric so common to the deniers, they seem to miss the point that the changes in climate are going to mean more than a little warmer weather. Growers and ranchers are likely to see disease expansions such as those detailed above. CC rearranges fundamental ecological relationships that affect support processes upon which we all rely. Europe will face costs of hundreds of millions of dollars based on one fly alone. What this will do to natural populations of animals will not yet be counted by the economists, because they will not matter until those changes start to affect people’s pocketbooks, but everything we know about ecosystem services suggests that the costs will be staggering because the individual pieces are networks of interacting webs. Like a game of Jenga you can only pull out so many sticks before the ball tumbles to the bottom.

The effects are real. You may not think CC will affect you, but as disease and pests expand, your food will cost more. There will be resource wars as we’ve seen in the Middle East and Africa. These do affect us. CC is a threat to your way of life. If you think the costs of climate change are going to be a few more dollars at the pump you are missing the point. This will change the world as we know it, including world cropping systems through increases in plant and animal diseases, missing ecosystem services, and changes in the biological world as we know it. For example, look at the change in just the last 20 years of hardiness zones (when to plant trees) in the US. These effects are real and have huge economic implications.

For example, in not understanding this, the recent Utah State Legislature’s decision to formally ignore and down play the importance of CC, are doing the people (especially ranchers and growers) terrible damage. Get ready for some cost adjustments in the cost of plant and animal production as new a new world of pest management opens due to CC. Of course how could that affect us?

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12 comments to The Flesh Flies of Climate Change

  • SteveP:

    Why is science wasting good money on the research of flies? They are just nasty pests that cannot tell us a thing about global warming.

    No wonder our world is in trouble. Our scientists are deluded. They study the wrong things and then they come to political, anti-religious conclusions.

    You should see all the snow outside my door right now.

    OK, I just realized something. I am really just mad (envious) because you got to go to Bali. Please negate all my steam-releasing arguments above.

  • My issue with the CC crowd is so many of them are looking at huge changes being required of industrial nations, but the numbers I’ve seen will not make a dent in global warming.

    And then I’ve seen studies that show we can pump the upper atmosphere with reflective particles for about $100M, and reduce our global temperature.

    Why are Al Gore and others seeking the more complicated and expensive route, which has no discernible change for overall climate change, when we can solve it almost immediately for a fraction of the cost of the current Jobs bill?

    I’d like to resolve the CC issue, also. But why are we trying to do it the hard and expensive way?

  • Stan

    Solve problems of pollution with more pollution. Brilliant! Heaven forbid we do something inconvenient.

  • Steve

    Allow me to set a really negative tone–not because I’m negative, but because my glass-half-full attitude is really frustrated by the immensity of the problem as I see it…

    As a neuroethologist (one foot in mammalian field work and one foot in clinical neuroscience), I see the earth’s systems and the brain’s systems as made up of huge numbers of parts, e.g., although oversimplified, species and resources vs. neurons and blood supply, that are complexly interconnected. When the human brain starts to lose connections as in Alzheimer’s, the symptoms are initially subtle. You forget where your keys are, you forget a name, etc. But, even way late in the progression, an Alzheimer’s patient can have very good coherent days when it is possible for loved ones to believe the sufferer is getting better. But the disease is progressive and has no known cure.

    So, if the earth is anything like the brain, as bio-hydro-geo-atmospheric connections begin to fall apartchanges will be likely be subtle, and it will be very difficult for anyone to tell how far along a “disease” like global warming has progressed. And just as for the Alzheimer’s patient, who can have coherent days, so the earth can have episodes when global warming trends will appear to reverse.

    So here’s what scares me a lot. We have spent a ton of money attemtping to understand, reverse and treat Alzheimer’s and we haven’t yet done it. The earth is far more complex than the brain, (for starters, it contains the brains of millions of species represented by millions of individuals all connected through ecological stoichiometry, sociobehavioral interactions and niche overlaps). If the earth has a “disease” it will probably be way more difficult to fix because of this immensely increased complexity. And, we have yet to invest anywhere near the research dollars, time, effort, etc. on earth systems that we have on neuropathological conditions. In fact, scientists haven’t yet convinced the public that a global disease exists that needs fixing. So, if global warming exists how are we going to fix it? Some may say, “when it gets bad enough, we’ll figure it out.” But if global warming acts like Alzheimer’s or cancer or cardiovascular disease, by the time it looks “bad enough” to everyone, it may be way too late to treat.

  • kevinr

    SteveP: Thank you for your detailed yet readable information that helps people like me (naturally Mormon paranoid, see By Common Consent’s new blog on “correlation”) begin better to understand global warming. I wish I could ask more specific questions, because I admit to leaning towards the “deniers” side. Would you take one question? Here it is in case you want to. The complexity of the earth, its atmosphere, just its immenseness, seems like it would be difficult to track global warming by temperatures, yet that’s the only hard evidence (up until I’ve read your blog here) that is ever set forth, and is it really hard evidence because of the very difficulty?

  • Mrs.Andy

    Glad you had a good trip to Bali!
    The problems you just outlined are sobering. We are so disconnected from our food supply (doesn’t shrink wrap just grow on everything from cucumbers to chickens?) that it will be hard to persuade people that our ecosystem is starting to break down.
    I should pay more attention to the science of climate change, but when I start to think about all the opportunists who are politicizing the issues for their own personal gain I get so irritated that I have to quit before my blood starts to boil.
    People are also stupid. That is hard to think about for very long. How can we expect people to care about the world as a whole when they do moronic things like pump dairy wastewater into the ground by reversing their well pumps to avoid a fine? Even littering or dumping trash in the desert show an astounding lack of regard for our Earth. It is hard to imagine what it would take to convince people to change their whole lifestyle for something they can’t personally see that doesn’t personally affect them.
    So, hats off to you for getting out and actually finding out what is going on and figuring out what we should be prepared for while there’s time to do something about it! Go Steve!

  • Thanks for the report, Steve.

    Re #5: I think a partial answer to kevinr’s question is that he is right. It is difficult to come up with a global temperature. That’s why the temperature anomaly (i.e. relative temperature change) is usually used. Not only are anomalies easier to deal with, they apparently have good spatial correlation (see #6 here).

  • SteveP,

    I recently read a story from NPR discussing the correlation between one’s worldview an one’s stance on climate change. It appears that publishing more facts is not the best way to change hearts and minds. Do you have any thoughts on the role of science in promoting science, and the best strategy for science to take?

    The NPR story:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124008307

  • David H Bailey

    With regards to this topic, some of you may be interested in the essay “Creationism, Global Warming Denial and Scientific Integrity,” which I posted on my Science-Meets-Religion blog:

    http://www.sciencemeetsreligion.org/blog/2010/03/creationism-global-warming-denial-and-scientific-integrity/

  • David, that is a great piece. Thanks for writing that and providing the link.

    Thank you all for your commenting. I’ve been sort of negligent in replying because I’m leaving for Senegal later this week and between that and Bali I’ve been buried and I wanted to give thoughtful replies. So much for that!

    I thank all of you. It is scary and as Mrs. Andy says it really comes down to caring about the world. If a patient came in and 77 out of 80 doctors said, “According to or best medical science tests this patient has cancer.” We’d be considered crazy to say, “No let’s wait until the tests are undoubtable.’ The director of the London Museum of Natural History just sent me some more papers documenting changes that are appearing in insect populations around the world and that show unprecedented ecological redistribution.

    Kevinr, it’s interesting as the global temperatures are not in dispute among climate scientists (except those noted above working with a conflict of interests). The warming signal is absolutely clear. It’s the talk show, think tank, political crowd who claim otherwise. No published science suggests there is no warming trend.

  • Jack

    SteveP,

    Thou almost persuadest me to become a “denier” than merely somewhat of a skeptic. Most skeptics do not deny that the earth has been warming. Most (informed) skeptics (I should say–though I doubt most “alarmists really believe there is such a thing) have trouble with modeling, data management, and the hugely important role of positive feedback.

    You get all those ducks in a nice little row — and then you might convince me that spending untold trillions to curb warming by a degree or two might be worth it. Oh, and also, you might even be justified in linking your opposition to holocaust deniers.

  • Kelton Baker

    I’m supposed to be persuaded by this?
    “That’s how we know that Poland has warmed to levels not seen in evolutionary time scales, W. Magnifica is wrecking havoc.”
    Please ignore the increased role of global trade, Poland’s entry into the EU, repeals of agricultural protectionist policies, open intra-European borders, greater restrictions on pesticide use, changing land and water use, intensive agriculture, population increase and urban shifts. No, the only plausible explanation for expanding habitat areas is the fractional-degree warming trend that is explaining every concern including declining bees( as long as Colony Collapse Disease is not part of the discussion).

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