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?