Climate Change and Vaccinations by Mark Kilpatrick

What does climate change have to do with vaccinations? On one level, nothing. But if we look at denial of the science, there are many similarities. Our understanding of the world is based on centuries of scientific inquiry, hypotheses, experimentation, refutation and discussion before agreement is reached as to the validity of the theory explaining how things work. Vaccinations came about through a gradual understanding of germs and how the body defends itself against disease.

The last 80 years has seen an unprecedented decline in mortality due to infectious diseases, due to the development of antibiotics and vaccines. The proof of the effectiveness is undeniable; who today knows anyone who has contracted polio, diphtheria or tetanus? Yet there is an increasing cohort of the population who believe that vaccinations are harmful, unnecessary and part of a conspiracy by “big pharma” and the medical establishment. Apparently, governments and agencies like the World Health Organisation turn a blind eye to the supposed harm vaccines cause because they are beholden to multi-national drug companies. Anti-vaxxers deny the science of immunology based on pseudo-science they read on the internet and their own prejudices, not on any understanding of how the immune system works or of medical science in general.

Similarly, with climate change, the people who choose not to believe the science are doing so because it does not fit their world view. The role of CO2 in creating the greenhouse effect was first postulated in the 1820s by Fourier, since then scientists have been doing what scientists do: they try to pick holes in the argument, conduct experiments, look at alternative explanations for the findings, record temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels, publish papers which lead to more discussion and arguments back and forth until they come to a consensus. For the last 60 years or so, that consensus has been that the world is warming due to increased C02 from the burning of fossil fuels.

The science is settled. We are today seeing the beginnings of what the science has predicted in terms of a changing climate; coral reef destruction, vast swathes of mangrove die-off along Australia’s top end, drought, bushfires, sea-level rise. Yet still, people refuse to believe the science. Denialists, like anti-vaxxers, do not understand the science or the scientific method that underpins these discoveries. They believe that there is some vast, worldwide conspiracy behind climate science.

Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that discoveries that challenge our current view of the world are usually met with disbelief and hostility. Galileo was found guilty of heresy and lived the remainder of his life under house arrest for daring to suggest that the earth travelled around the sun. This was an affront to people who believed that the earth and humanity was the centre of the universe. Charles Darwin was ridiculed for his theory of evolution because people could not accept that we were “descended from apes” rather than being created by God in his image. Scientists have been burned and tortured because their theories disturbed deeply held world views.

We have long believed that we can take what we want from the planet, buy whatever we desire, and throw away what we don’t need. This underpins much of our modern life. No wonder so many people are unable to accept that this is not sustainable. It is easier to deny the science, castigate people like Greta Thunberg and crank up the air-con.

What do we suppose that an anti-vaxxer would do if their child contracted polio and could suddenly no longer move and was struggling to breathe? They would most likely go to the nearest emergency department and put their faith in modern medical science to save their child’s life.

And hope it’s not too late.

*Mark is a community health nurse in East Gippsland