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Critical scientific knowledge gaps have left Earth in the midst of a 'polycrisis'

A disturbing new study reveals that scientists are missing a huge piece of the puzzle. Very few researchers are looking at the overlap between infectious diseases, biodiversity loss, and climate change, placing Earth in a polycrisis.

That means we’re probably delaying (or even missing!) solutions that could create win-win-win scenarios for our planet and its people.

For example, consider some current problems: species disappearing at an alarming rate, a global pandemic that keeps dragging on, and record-breaking heatwaves and droughts year after year. It feels overwhelming, right?

Traditionally, those problems might even seem like they belong to separate worlds. But what if they’re actually deeply connected, making each threat even worse?

Missing studies on infectious diseases, biodiversity loss, and climate change

“When we began to look into it, we had suspicions the number of studies would be low, but not that low,” says Dr. Jonathan Davies, a researcher with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC’s) Biodiversity Research Centre.

Dr. Davies’ team dove into the world of scientific publications, combing through over 1.8 million studies from the last decade.

What they found was an overwhelming focus on tackling these crises separately, not together. When you consider how interconnected these problems are, that’s a pretty big red flag.

What makes this a “polycrisis”?

It’s tempting to think that the solution is just to fix each problem one at a time. The truth is these problems don’t happen in a vacuum. They feed into each other, creating a vicious cycle. Let’s look at a classic example: malaria.

Climate change directly influences the ideal conditions for mosquitoes that carry malaria. Rising temperatures expand their potential range, while altered rainfall patterns can either create more breeding grounds or concentrate mosquitoes in limited water sources.

Further complicating matters, cyclical climate events like El Niño and La Niña lead to unpredictable shifts in suitable habitats. Meanwhile, human actions create a parallel crisis. Deforestation eliminates natural mosquito controls and can alter rainfall.

Dam construction often establishes vast new breeding grounds in still water. Even urbanization plays a role, with discarded containers and warmer city temperatures aiding mosquito populations.

This complex combination doesn’t guarantee more malaria cases everywhere. However, it creates a chaotic landscape where outbreaks become harder to predict.

This forces experts to focus on reactive measures instead of proactive control, potentially increasing the burden of this deadly disease on affected areas around the world.

All of this means the disease pattern changes – potentially making it worse in some areas, and expanding it into new ones. It’s a problem with many moving parts, yet for the most part, we only study those parts in isolation.

Forget the usual solutions

“Greater effort needs to be made to search for solutions with cross-benefits,” adds Dr. Alaina Pfenning-Butterworth, who conducted the study while at UBC Botany.

This crisis demands a new approach. Imagine planting massive forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere – a classic climate solution. Well, that may not be it. Plant the wrong types of trees in the wrong places, and you could actually reduce biodiversity and make those forests more vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

That’s a lose-lose scenario. We must start looking for solutions that benefit all three problems simultaneously.

Interlinked futures: Climate, biodiversity, and diseases

This kind of problem-solving isn’t simple, which is why the study highlights a huge need for collaboration. Medical researchers, ecologists, climate scientists, computer modelers, and even social scientists – we need these different perspectives all talking together.

Historically, science has often focused on narrow specialization. While this has led to amazing breakthroughs, we now face problems far too complex for any single discipline to solve alone.

These problems demand a whole-systems view that’s hard to achieve when experts don’t talk to each other.

Imagine trying to understand the impacts of a warming climate on disease outbreaks if experts on climate and infectious diseases never share information.

Or, tackling biodiversity loss without understanding the social and economic drivers behind it. Working together unlocks new questions and creative solutions that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Study significance

“I believe the majority of people would prefer to live in a more sustainable and biodiverse world, and empirical data show that people are healthier and have an increased feeling of well-being when closer to nature,” says Dr. Davies.

It’s about securing a future where humans and other species can flourish. Addressing these connected threats will protect our health, our livelihoods, and that sense of wonder and connection to nature we all crave.

Resolving Earth’s polycrisis

Consider these individual approaches to address the existing knowledge gaps:

Be a science advocate

Support research that takes an interdisciplinary approach.

  • Learn to spot it: When you read about new scientific studies, pay attention to whether the researchers are from multiple disciplines or if the study explicitly tackles problems from multiple angles.
  • Donate mindfully: If you donate to charities or funds that support research, prioritize ones that have a clear mission of encouraging collaboration across fields or tackling connected problems (like biodiversity and climate).
  • Talk to elected officials: Science funding is often decided by policymakers. Share your belief in the importance of interdisciplinary research with your representatives and urge them to prioritize it.

Get curious

If you’re a student, look for ways to learn across traditional subject boundaries.

  • Explore electives: Take advantage of elective courses outside your primary course of study. A biology major could learn a ton by taking a course in environmental economics or climate modeling.
  • Find collaborative projects: Look for professors or student groups who are working on projects that bring together different fields. Even if you can just volunteer for a bit, it’s a great way to see this kind of problem-solving in action.
  • Ask for more: Don’t be afraid to approach your professors and ask about resources or opportunities to explore the connections between their field and others.

Spread the word

Have conversations about the importance of tackling these challenges together.

  • Make it relatable: Explain examples like the malaria case study to friends and family in ways relevant to them. Maybe they care about gardening or fishing – tie it into changes they might be noticing.
  • Share impactful articles: There are some great news sources focused on science and the environment. Share articles that highlight the need for interdisciplinary work with your network!
  • Engage with skepticism carefully: Some people may be dismissive of climate change or biodiversity loss. Try to find a shared value as a starting point for the conversation (like clean water for everyone!).

In summary, we stand at a critical juncture, facing the interconnected crises of species extinction, a global pandemic, and climate change. The scientific community must rise to the challenge and work collaboratively across disciplines to investigate the complex links between these threats.

By identifying solutions with cross-benefits and avoiding unintended consequences, we can seize this valuable window of opportunity to create a more sustainable, biodiverse, and harmonious future. The choice is ours, and the time to act is now.

The study is published in published today in The Lancet Planetary Health.


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