The Hot Zone: Where Ebola Meets Climate Change (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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In the latest installment of CleanTechnica Goes To Hollywood, let’s take a look at the new miniseries from National Geographic, The Hot Zone. The gripping — some say horrifying! — six-parter depicts true events surrounding the first known case of Ebola in the US, and if you’re thinking there are some parallels with the response to climate change, well yes and no. See for yourself!

climate change Ebola Hot Zone

Did you miss it? The show unspooled earlier this week, but you can catch the first episode for free on The Hot Zone official website until July. The whole thing is also yours for the viewing on demand or on Nat Geo’s TV apps with a cable subscription. Also, there will be a whole Hot Zone marathon this Saturday, June 1 at 6:00 pm ET/3:00 pm PT.

Meanwhile, here’s some helpful insights from The Hot Zone science advisor Dr. Michael Smit, an expert in emerging infectious disease epidemiology. Dr. Smit graciously responded by email to CleanTechnica’s questions about parallels between the climate crisis and the fight against Ebola.

Climate Change & Communication

CleanTechnica: How has advising on Hot Zone informed your understanding of the way that the lay public — even high-information people with good intentions — absorbs and communicates fact-based information from scientists?

Dr. Smit: It is a constant challenge to communicate complicated scientific information to the lay public. You really must take on the public’s perspective and explain things without any expectation of prior medical training.

In addition to explaining concepts in simple, nonmedical terms, you have to explain things in practical terms so the public understands the concept in relation to their personal views and relationships.

A good example is the difference between viral and bacterial infections. For bacteria, we can treat with antibiotics for infections like pneumonia. For viruses, like those that cause the common cold, antibiotics do not work. If not explained properly, people just hear “infection” and think that antibiotics are the cure.

The Spread Of Misinformation

CleanTechnica: What are some narrative elements in Hot Zone that parallel the spread of misinformation about climate change?

Dr. Smit: There were no narrative elements in The Hot Zone that I would compare to this. The parallel to the spread of misinformation about climate change I see in the 2104 West Africa Ebola epidemic would be the local people’s hesitancy to believe that Ebola was real.

In West Africa, the local people have been mistreated by officials in positions of authority, both civilian and military, to the point that trusting any outsider is difficult. This led to conspiracy theories about the reality and cause of the epidemic.

We had employ special teams of “psychosocial” personnel to engage the local communities and convince them that Ebola was real and we were there to help. Similar challenges exist in the current Ebola outbreak in DRC.

How Science Works

CleanTechnica: What do you hope viewers will learn about the way science works, including health workers on the front lines as well as researchers and scientists in the lab?

Dr. Smit: With population growth, deforestation and climate change, humans will be encountering new and possibly deadly infectious disease outbreaks. We need to adopt a “one health” vision, where the environment, plants, animals, and humans are all interconnected.

In addition to proper stewardship of the environment, we need to commit to training and preparing for future infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics. This means funding important public health organizations like the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and humanitarian relief organizations that treat Ebola like International Medical Corps.

Scientists and healthcare workers do not grow overnight; they require years of training and funding. We also need active surveillance programs that can identify outbreaks at their source, before they have had a chance to spread regionally or internationally.

Climate Change, Ignorance, & Education

CleanTechnica: Ebola is still a threat in some countries, and Ebola health workers in some countries are at risk from human threats as well as having to protect against the disease. What kind of educational and public policies could help keep them safe? Meanwhile, here in the US there is a movement to prohibit teaching climate science in schools. Do you see any parallels?

Dr. Smit: We need to communicate to the people at risk of infection that Ebola is real, it is spread by touching bodily fluids, and is preventable by washing hands and safe burial practices.

This can be a very difficult message to communicate when the local people believe that Ebola is a conspiracy from the government to maintain political control or get money from international agencies. I do believe widespread immunization for Ebola is going to be a game changing intervention in Africa, forming an additional barrier to spread of the disease.

Any parallel to climate science in the US would be the unwillingness of Americans to believe climate scientists that human activity contributes to climate change. A similar challenge exists in convincing local Africans in an Ebola outbreak that Ebola is a real infectious disease spread by touch, and that touching a body of someone who died from Ebola is a significant infection risk.

As you might imagine, convincing people to change their belief system is an incredible challenge.

Mobilizing Against Climate Change

CleanTechnica: The story of Ebola is one of global mobilization against a global threat. What are the parallels with the eradication of polio and other vaccine-able diseases? What steps are needed for the US to mobilize for climate action?

Dr. Smit: Responding to global infectious disease threats requires political will in addition to vaccines and other medical interventions. The parallel I see with other vaccine preventable diseases is the negative effect war and poverty have on global mobilization against outbreaks.

It is important to understand that Ebola is a disease of poverty. In the initial outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, the fatality rate was over 90%. Compare this to the patients in the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic that were treated in Europe and the US, where the survival rate was over 90%.

The patients who survived Ebola in Europe and the US received top-level supportive care that is currently not available in some areas in Africa in the field, such as IV fluids and electrolyte supplementation.

Also, the fact that the current Ebola outbreak in DRC is happening in a conflict zone where healthcare workers are the targets of militant groups is similar to the resistance immunization programs for polio are seeing in Pakistan.

It is very challenging to overcome local beliefs in conspiracy theories once they have taken root in a community. This holds true for both immunization programs and climate science.

The bottom line is we have to communicate accurate, effective information to these communities in a consistent manner so they can take action in the best interest of their health and safety.

The Science, It Burns!

Got all that? Dr. Smit’s answer to that last question popped up in bold, red text in the email, so go ahead and read that part over again. Now consider the connection between poverty and climate impacts, and the emerging issues of climate gentrification and environmental justice.

Aside from the poverty factor, the issue of deeply embedded belief systems also resonates.

Conspiracy theories and outright lies have subbed in for actual science over climate change and vaccination alike, that much is clear. How about another key area in which certain high profile policy makers dare not touch the hot stove of science? If you can think of one, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Hint: take a look at the rash of so-called “heartbeat” bills burning up statehouses throughout the US.

Need another hint?

Follow me on Twitter.

Image (screenshot): Hot Zone via National Geographic.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3152 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey