It’s the earth’s perfect retribution, and it’s happening much faster than scientists predicted. Humans have finally pumped just enough pollutants into the atmosphere to create an environment perfect for their greatest enemy: the common mosquito.
According to environmentalist Bill McKibben, 2015 was the hottest year on record, and 2016 is shaping up to be even hotter. Earlier this month, the satellite temperature-sensing system showed the average temperature across the entire Northern hemisphere rose by two degrees Celsius, breaking the record. “[That’s the] temperature figure that the world has set as its red line for where we can’t go,” McKibben said in an interview with Boston Public Radio, “the one thing that the world has really agreed on about climate change.”
Two degrees may not matter on a small scale, but according to McKibben, breaking this record is a big deal in terms of climate change. “What happens in any given place on any given day is weather,” he said. “But what happens, measured across the whole planet, is climate. This is a huge system. Think how big the earth is, think how much extra heat it would take the budge its temperature up by two degrees, that’s the kind of extra heat you get when you pour enough carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.”
Big climate agreements and things signed in Paris may be coming up a day late and a dollar short, or really a decade or two late and billions of dollars short.
Extra heat means hot weather, and hot weather means more mosquitoes. More mosquitoes mean more disease, including the Zika virus and Dengue Fever, both of which McKibben says are spreading quickly, due to climate change. “A warm, wet world, which is what we’re building, is kind of a mosquito ranch,” McKibben said. “One of the reasons that the Zika virus has spread so fast is that the mosquito that spreads it, primarily, Aedes aegypti, has spread very rapidly,” he said. “Zika follows the very rapid spread of Dengue in the last decade around the planet, [it’s the] same mosquito.”
The “red line” McKibben refers to is a level agreed upon at the UN Paris Climate Change Conference. “We haven’t broken it for the entire planet, and we haven’t broken it permanently, but this is the first time, even for a day, that we’ve nudged across it,” McKibben said. “It’s a sign that change is coming, so much faster than people had hoped. In a sense, it makes it look like the big climate agreements and things signed in Paris may be coming up a day late and a dollar short, or really a decade or two late and billions of dollars short.”
According to McKibben, The idea that we can prepare for the disastrous effects of global warming is severely overdue—the consequences are happening now. A few weeks back, tropical cyclone Winston hit Fiji, with the highest wind speed ever measured in the Southern hemisphere. “That’s the kind of record wind speed that’s possible because these storms draw their power from the heat in the oceans, which are at unprecedented temperatures,” McKibben said. “That followed by about six months, incidentally, the highest wind speed ever measured in our hemisphere, Hurricane Patricia, which crashed into Mexico last autumn.”
The damage in Fiji was drastic. “There are still six or severe percent of the population homeless, at least 10 percent of the GDP was wiped out,” McKibben said, “which in economic terms was the equivalent of about 15 simultaneous Hurricane Katrinas.”
Currently, earth is approaching an El Niño, or a warm phase associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific ocean. “It looks like we’re at the moment of a kind of step-change, when these systems are going to jump up,” McKibben said. “El Niños are always warmer, but this El Niño on the back of all this global warming seems to be liberating huge amounts of heat from the ocean, where it’s been stored for the last 10 or 15 years, as heat has accumulated on our planet.”
Meanwhile, as climate change continues to cause natural disasters and hurt humans, mosquitoes prevail. And how should we prepare for our dystopian future in Planet Mosquito? “That’s almost a science fiction story if you think about it,” Mckibben said. “Five governments now, their health ministers have told women to avoid getting pregnant, not to have children. That’s got to be the first time that ever happened in human history.”
Bill McKibben is the founder of the climate campaign 350.org, and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. To hear his full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.