One of the greatest discoveries in medicine, the use of antibiotics against infections, is on the verge of useless, due to the effects of climate change. The rise and spread of ultra-resistant bacteria, which kill three thousand people a year in Spain, is related to the extreme phenomena produced by global warming.
“Climate change has an influence because it forces populations of animals and plants to move to different areas and, in addition, increases intermittent episodes of droughts and torrential rains. Both phenomena favor the mobilization of the genes responsible for resistance to antibiotics in bacteria ”, explains Mayte Muniesa, researcher in Microbiology at the University of Barcelona. Being contaminated by antibiotics, which come from animal and human use, andn river sediments and sewage only survive bacteria capable of developing immunity. Concentrated with the drought, “they burst out in great quantities with the torrential rains that stir up the bottom.” Their resistances are transported and transmitted between “sisters” until they reach the clinical setting.
To the known list of calamities generated by the variation of temperatures, rains and winds – such as floods, desertification, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, heat and cold waves, retreat of glaciers and snows -, now add the “Emerging dangers” such as this proliferation of ultra-resistant bacteria that costs the lives of about 700,000 people annually around the world, according to the UN.
The Spanish Government now recognizes that “resistance to antibiotics” and “new contaminants in water” are “Emerging vulnerability factors”. With the planet on the brink of the abyss, what were once threats become fait accompli.
In addition to the deaths caused by infections that antibiotics can no longer control, “the climate is more extreme, the sea level rises and the period of drought is longer,” confirms Fernando Valladares, director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences and scientist attached to the Higher Center for Scientific Research. «We have more wind speeds and more cyclones every season, lhe port infrastructures begin to be affected on the coast and there are more fires. It affects natural vegetation and crops, while water resources decrease. The situation is unsustainable. That is why we speak of a ‘climate emergency’ ”.
Also in cities “there is scientific evidence of the impact of climate change: floods, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels,” says Vanesa Castán, from the University of Sheffield. «The effect on coastal cities and the lack of water is worrying, sometimes due to the melting of glaciers or long droughts ”.
The drift of the planet began with the industrial revolution, in the 19th century, and now that «modern life is based on production and consumption, waste is generated in the form of gases that accumulate in the atmosphere and have the property of trapping the heat we receive from the sun. Is what we call ‘greenhouse effect‘”Explains Sergio Henrique Faria, one of the scientists preparing the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a researcher at BC3. «The more we are on our planet and the more we produce and consume, the more of these gases accumulate in the atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is at levels never seen before ».
To stop this warming, the governments signed the Paris Agreement, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that the temperature of the planet does not increase more than 1.5ºC with respect to the one that existed in the pre-industrial era, that is, in the first decades of the XIX. Five years later, so little progress has been made in this regard that scientists and ecologists already believe that the temperature will exceed 2ºC, unless policies change radically.
“The difference of half a degree has a great impact on the climate,” continues Valladares. «2ºC is the red line that we must not cross. We are already at 1.2ºC of warming (just three tenths of the Paris target). We have to decelerate but the brake has been put with little decision».
Not even the onset of the pandemic can stop the escalation. “We have put all the CO2 fixed under the ground for centuries into the atmosphere. How do we interrupt that? », Reflects Galán. «You have to fix it back on the ground but we don’t have thousands of years.
In the heat of the butterflies
In terrestrial systems, the effect of climate change spreads with the smoothness of a bug’s flight, almost imperceptible but steadily advancing. They are insects are the first to colonize regions that begin to be transformed by global warmingball. A butterfly, for example. In Spain, the caterpillar of the species ‘Thaumetopoea pityocampa’ known as ‘procesionaria’ is beginning to be seen in parks and nature reserves in the north of the peninsula, with intense defoliation of the forest mass.
The warming also affects crops and livestock, which lose productivity and force to delay or advance harvests. In cattle, stress lowers milk production and heat can generate mortalities in herds and herds, says Galán. The quality also suffers. “Climate change affects food security,” he predicts. “The agricultural world will be very different.”
95 percent of agricultural production occurs in places where rain, temperature and aridity converge ideally for the growth of life. Due to the greenhouse effect, these “safe climate spaces” begin to destabilize very quickly and prevent crops and livestock from adapting, according to a study published in the journal ‘One Earth’. Less food will be produced in the immediate future. With a scenario of 3ºC higher than the pre-industrial era (twice the 1.5º target), a fifth of world food production would remain outside a safe climate space, and if the increase reached 5ºC, it would be a third , the researchers conclude. Lcrops in Spain would also be in danger. “If the temperature rises by 3ºC, we estimate that 23 percent of the areas where it is currently grown would be outside the safe climate space, although the livestock sector would remain within,” says Matti Kummu, a researcher at the Finnish Aalto University.
To the events of the climate, we must add the different types of pollution that involve air, water and soil. Only that of the oceans affects about 3 billion people, according to a study by Boston College’s Global Health Pollution Observatory. The seas, including the Cantabrian Sea and the Mediterranean, have become a “broth of toxins” made with plastic, mercury, hydrocarbons, pesticides and agricultural and industrial chemicals, reveals the article published in the ‘Annals of Global Health’. They cause harm to human health through ingestion of shellfish and fish to “spread deadly infections.”
Pollution in large cities is mainly due to two elements: fine particles (PM 2.5) in suspension and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Both are responsible for more than 200,000 premature deaths in Europe, according to a study published in ‘The Lancet’. Spain is one of the countries that concentrates the most toxic gas in its urban centers: in Madrid, mortality from NO2 can reach 7 percent. Although man is far from disappearance as a species, its footprint could push “entire groups of related species” to extinction, such as pangolins, tapirs, lizards, lemurs, turtles or frogs, according to research published in ‘Nature’. Green spaces such as the boreal forest, the largest climate zone on the planet, which would lose four million square kilometers, almost a quarter, and the Arctic tundra would disappear completely, while the tropics, with its dry forests and desert areas, will also shrink. would thicken.
Mankind has “Technical feasibility to limit warming to less than 2ºC relative to pre-industrial”say United Nations experts. That could happen if global emissions fall to 70 percent in 2050 compared to 1990. However, those same mitigation limits make it unlikely to meet the Paris targets, scientists slip. «The big mistake is not currently introducing the climatic criteria in any political action, ”says Olazabal.
Adaptation also has limits: financial, social, political, cognitive or geographical. “Addressing global environmental challenges requires a fundamental reorganization of current production and consumption systems, which means abandoning growth as the main strategy for well-being, ”says researcher Vanesa Castán. Just two decades ago, the IPCC admitted that “few studies” had “specifically quantified the effects of climate on exposed people.” Now there is talk of new risks, but their exploration is still as insufficient as the real measures that can contain the emission of greenhouse gases and all their effects on the climate. The planet breaks and acts late.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism