GCSC Seminar: Challenges of researching connections between climate and disease

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office


As the COVID-19 vaccine makes its way into our communities and record snowfall covers unexpected cities across the United States, many of us have infectious disease—and climate change—on the mind.

Dr. Mercedes Pascual, a professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, will join the Global Change and Sustainability Center at 4 p.m. on Feb. 23 to discuss these issues in her talk “Changing climate and vector-borne infections: some challenges of scale.”

Pascual is a theoretical ecologist who studies the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases, particularly how they respond to changing environments and climates. She emphasizes that infectious diseases—especially those spread by vectors like mosquitoes—are intricately related to climate patterns and environmental issues like deforestation, population growth, and increasing connectivity of communities across the globe.

“We are in a very critical moment,” Pascual says. “Increased connectivity combined with environmental change creates ideal conditions for pandemics.”

Pascual explains that we will inevitably experience significant climate change, not only over the long-term, but also as a change in seasons and in year-to-year variation. Amidst such environmental changes, Pascual and her colleagues have already seen shifts in disease response, including the expansion of some vectors and the emergence of new pathogens.

Because the study of disease transmission brings together environmental and social factors, Pascual explains that it is difficult to predict exactly how they will manifest and spread in the future. “People can say what they expect about climate, what they expect about ice in the arctic, what they expect about some of these very big concerns just from the geophysics of the problem,” Pascual says. But “when it gets to society, it’s much more difficult.”

We know with certainty, however, that climate and disease are intricately related, she says. “The problems are serious and they are complex,” says Pascual. “Strong precaution for what we are doing to the environment applies.”

Pascual urges that the relationship between environment and disease must be considered in public health initiatives and interventions to slow disease transmission. This work cannot be done without considering the context of climate, she says.

While much of Pascual’s research has taken place abroad, the COVID-19 pandemic brings home the importance of her work. “Often we can think of infectious diseases as affecting other countries, other parts of the world, and other parts of society,” Pascual says. But COVID-19 “has global reach and it shows the dimension that these kinds of problems can take.”

Join Pascual on Zoom at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23 to learn more about the affect of climate change on infectious disease and global health.