The challenge of reporting on climate change and health

Journalists must make sure that the research they quote is properly peer reviewed Copyright: Flickr/absentmindedprof

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Reporting on how climate change affects health is a real challenge — screen your sources and find reliable experts, says Asefaw Getachew.

When journalists communicate how climate change might affect the spread of insect-borne disease, they play an ambitious, yet pivotal, mediator’s role. They must, in partnership with scientists, translate research results into plain English and present decision-makers and the public with realistic predictions of risk.

This type of information is particularly vital in developing countries, where people already struggle with many insect-borne diseases, are very vulnerable to climate change, and have low resilience to both. These countries need solid information on how climate change will affect disease prevalence and transmission so they can establish effective prevention and control strategies.

An uncertain future

One of the biggest problems is that the subject is so complex, and climate predictions are so uncertain. Few journalists — even those with some background in science — have a deep enough knowledge of both epidemiology and climate modelling to understand the intricacies involved.

Just predicting the climate change part is a complex task. Scientists combine data and mathematical models to predict changes in temperature and rainfall. They try to account for compounding factors, but their forecasts are by no means cast in stone.

Add in trying to predict how these changes will affect the spread of disease, the results become even less certain.

It is true that many insect-borne diseases are influenced by climate. For example, as long as there is enough rain, rising temperatures — up to a ceiling of about 30–35 degrees Celsius — generally increase malaria mosquitoes’ metabolism, making them feed more often. This, in turn, can increase transmission. Parasites within mosquitoes develop faster in warmer temperatures too.

But this does not mean there is a simple relationship between climate and malaria, because a wide range of other factors also influence transmission. These include environmental and societal conditions, such as population density and people’s immunity, or the parasite or vector’s level of resistance.

Ask an expert?

Accurate reporting relies on journalists appreciating and accurately communicating these complexities.

In theory, journalists could work more closely with scientists — asking them to clarify the key methods, results and implications of their research. But scientists themselves do not yet agree on the long-term effects of climate change on insect-borne disease. This is true even for the most researched diseases, such as malaria or dengue fever.

For example, some studies attribute the malaria resurgence in the East African highlands to rising temperatures associated with climate change. But several other studies claim that although temperature patterns may have shifted, the number of months with temperatures suitable for transmission has not changed significantly during the past century, so something other than climate change must be to blame.

Reliable resources

So what can journalists do in the face of this complex, uncertain and hotly debated topic?

Finding reliable sources for scientific news about climate change and health is critically important. Journalists must follow basic principles for screening evidence — making sure, for example, that scientific research is properly peer reviewed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a particularly valuable source of information on climate change, presenting the knowledge that most scientists agree on. Its conclusions on human health, published in its fourth assessment report, indicate that climate change is already affecting the global disease burden, and that it plays an important role in the distribution of malaria, dengue and tick-borne diseases. But the report adds that reliable long-term assessments of climate change’s interactions with malaria are still needed.

Other organisations, too, can help journalists identify creditable sources of information. The Environmental Law Institute, for example, has published a list of more than 60 institutions who can be consulted about climate change.

Journalists also need training. This should include training in basic science communication skills, such as how to translate statistics and risk (see Communicating statistics and risk). But it should also include training in the basics of climate change and its affect on health — journalism schools and courses should revise their curricula to include the ‘abc’ of climate change and its impacts.

Of course, few newspapers — particularly those in the developing world — can afford to send their journalists, who often have to write about a wide range of topics, on training courses for every field they cover.

But journalists can help themselves by consulting tailored guides to climate change, such as Reporting on climate change: Understanding the science, published by the Environmental Law Institute.

Scientists, too, can help. Research institutions should host online discussion fora and blogs to encourage debate and share experience between scientists, policymakers and journalists. Such tools could cover key issues and help journalists accurately present new findings. Scientists and the media must find a way to establish a coalition that fills knowledge gaps and informs decision-makers, to help target resources effectively and build adaptive or mitigation capacities.

Asefaw Getachew is a consultant for the Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa, at the international non-profit organisation, PATH. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of MACEPA/PATH.