Apr 1, 2020 Conservation International
Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world at lightning speed, infecting more than 900,000 people and killing more than 40,000 people to date. Protecting nature will be critical to preventing future pandemics, some scientists say. With that in mind, here are five articles that explore the connection between nature and human health.
1. Climate change has lessons for fighting the coronavirus
There are parallels between the lagging global efforts to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, experts assert.
The Story: Experts agree that political pushback and a psychological inability for people to fully grasp the long-term impacts of crises contribute to ineffective global efforts to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, reported Somini Sengupta for The New York Times. For example, the current U.S. administration has made deep cuts to federal funding for scientific research in recent years — particularly climate research — which has disrupted efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, according to chemist Holden Thorp. In addition, several behavioral scientists concur that people have trouble processing the consequences of both the current pandemic and the climate crisis because many of the negative impacts are on a longer timescale.
The Big Picture: “Both [COVID-19 and climate change] demand early aggressive action to minimize loss,” said climate scientist Kim Cobb. “Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough.” From the bushfires that raged through Australia in 2019 to increased flooding in coastal cities, the impacts of the climate crisis are already affecting populations around the world. By 2100, however, researchers project that climate breakdown could kill approximately as many people as the number of individuals who die of cancer and infectious diseases today if global warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
2. To prevent next coronavirus, stop the wildlife trade, conservationists say Global disease outbreaks will become more common if countries do not end the global wildlife trade, according to experts.
The Story: The global wildlife trade is driving the transmission of animal-borne illnesses such as COVID-19 — and experts agree that the multi-billion-dollar industry must be stopped to prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks, reported Rachel Nuwer for The New York Times. The COVID-19 pandemic originated at a live animal and fish market in China, but these types of markets exist in countries across the globe. Referred to as “breeding grounds for disease” by scientists, these wild animal markets expose both humans and animals to bacteria and viruses that they would not have encountered naturally in the wild, which can rapidly spread across the globe once a single person is infected.
The Big Picture: “Tropical diseases tend to have animal reservoirs” — living beings that carry diseases — “more often than temperate diseases, so taking tropical species and putting them in close contact with people at wild animal markets is flirting with disaster,” said Conservation International’s Senior Climate Change Scientist Lee Hannah in a recent interview with Conservation News. In light of the public health crisis, China recently announced a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption — a decision that could help prevent future pandemics. Countries across Southeast Asia must follow suit by imposing strict bans to help end the wildlife trade worldwide.
3. How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting CO2 emissions
Individual greenhouse gas emissions are fluctuating in response to the recent coronavirus pandemic.
The Story: As people around the world self-isolate to curb the spread of COVID-19, they could be impacting their carbon footprint — both positively and negatively, reported Chelsea Harvey for Scientific American. Depending on weather conditions, geography and lifestyle, people that are spending more time at home could be using more energy — and releasing more individual emissions over time. For example, residents of colder regions of the world may need to use individual heaters to stay warm while working from home, which is a significant part of the average individual’s carbon footprint.
The Big Picture: “The biggest potential impact of this virus is the effect on the economy,” said climate policy expert Christopher Jones. “So if it affects the entire economy, then that’s going to affect economic output, consumption and emissions.” To support the economy without increasing global emissions, companies must invest in sustainable funds — those screened for environmental, ethical and social practices — which have outperformed traditional funds during the recent stock market collapse.
4. Expert: To prevent pandemics like COVID-19, ‘take care of nature’
Giving nature space could help curb future disease outbreaks, according to a renowned ecologist.
The Story: As the global wildlife trade persists and development projects expand deeper into tropical forests, humans are increasing their exposure to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry, said Lee Hannah in a recent interview with Conservation News. When human activities such as mining and logging degrade wildlife habitats, animals are forced together and are more likely to become stressed or sick, Hannah explained, which drives the transmission of disease between human and wildlife populations.
The Big Picture: “Ecosystems in nature function similarly to the human body: When they are robust and healthy — which means they have diverse species and space for healthy animal populations — they are more resistant to disease,” said Hannah. “We must take care of nature to take care of ourselves.” To protect nature while preventing future pandemics, governments can implement protected areas, national parks, community conservancies and indigenous-managed conservation areas, according to Hannah.
5. If coronavirus halts climate convenings, ‘we must find other avenues for progress’ As the deadly coronavirus spreads, climate experts fear that it could derail many of the major global climate negotiations — but there is a silver lining.
The Story: Despite a recent decline in global emissions in response to COVID-19, the long-term impacts of the virus could upend actions to slow climate breakdown, experts say. According to Conservation International’s Senior Director of Climate Policy Maggie Comstock, the rapid spread of the coronavirus could derail many of the major global climate conferences, which provide a crucial platform for countries to commit to more ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions. Officials are considering moving these conferences to a virtual platform, but experts are concerned that this could exclude developing countries with limited internet access and may hinder world leaders’ ability to develop the personal relationships necessary to reach compromises during negotiations.
The Big Picture: “The impacts of the coronavirus on climate action are forcing us to reevaluate what we have done right, what we are confronting moving forward and how we can localize our responses to the climate crisis,” said Shyla Raghav, Conservation International vice president, climate change. Although COVID-19 may hinder global conferences, communities, businesses and local governments can still contribute to climate action by cutting their carbon emissions, participating in virtual protests and committing to ambitious climate policies.
Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International.