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Beware Of Brain-Eating Amoebas And Lazy Journalists (But Mostly Lazy Journalists)


Since we’re on the topic of media fearmongering, check out this chilling headline from The Guardian: “How the climate crisis is fueling the spread of a brain-eating amoeba.” The piece begins with the heartbreaking story of a Nebraska boy who may have died from Naegleria fowleri, a shape-shifting killer amoeba, after swimming in a lake. Naegleria fowleri grows in warm freshwater, “making it well-suited to proliferate as temperatures rise in the US,” warns the site.

Facing the prospect of never setting foot into another body of water again, I googled Naegleria fowleri and found a number of articles that repackaged the Guardian story, but ratcheted up the alarmism. “According to Scientists, a Brain-eating Amoeba Are Rapidly Spreading Due to Climate Change,” Nature World News warned. The British tabloid, The Mirror, says, “Deadly brain-eating amoeba sweeping the globe fuelled by climate crisis, experts warn.” None of these articles, or others like them, offer any scientific evidence to substantiate the contention that climate change is “fueling cases” of Naegleria fowleri or that Naegleria fowleri is “sweeping the globe” or “rapidly spreading,” or even that the amoeba is something any of us should spend time worrying about.

In the past decade, there have been only 31 cases of the brain-eating amoeba attacks in the United States. There have been 154 cases all told since 1962 (though one suspects the amoeba was more likely to go undetected or misdiagnosed in the past). In colder states, there are barely any cases, with Minnesota (and its 14,380 lakes) leading the way with two in the past 60 years. Our southern states already have warm water, and Naegleria fowleri is extremely rare there, as well. To put it in perspective, for every Naegleria fowleri death, hundreds of people have died falling out of trees, off ladders, and in bathtubs.

Deaths from Naegleria fowleri do not even rise to a rounding error in our death totals. Then again, climate has never been less dangerous to human beings than it is today. Of all the ways people die in this world, natural disasters account for only 0.1 percent of them. Deaths due to all climate have plummeted for decades, even as manmade carbon emissions have spiked. People like to point out that these positive trends are largely due to technological advances and adaptation. Yes. Acclimating to changes in climate, as we’ve been doing for 250,000 years or so, is often known as “progress.” Retrofitting the economy to comport with 1800s technology is the opposite.

But I get it. Anything tangentially related to weather is fodder for climate change hysteria, and nature provides journalists with a perpetual flow of gruesome copy—hurricanes, wildfires, floods, drought, and so on. And since you can get away with virtually anything in this genre of journalism, putting the words “climate crisis” in the vicinity of “brain-eating amoeba” was probably too much to pass up.

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