Hello COVID-19, here I am again, back for more. I can’t seem to think about anything else. My wife and I spent a lovely, candlelit, device-free evening last Saturday to recognize Earth Hour, and we STILL couldn’t avoid talking about this pandemic (it was a deep and thoughtful conversation though). Oh well, I guess I might as well accept the reality of the coronavirus’s vice-grip on my mind and start a three-part series exploring the linkages between this virus and the climate crisis.
There are some surprising connections between the two, which might not be apparent at first glance. Next week I will discuss the decarbonization opportunities that will be available when the long-term economic recovery from this pandemic begins. The following week I will consider what analogical lessons we can learn from COVID-19 and apply to climate action. For this week though, I want to be more direct and explore the linkage between climate and the cause of this disease.
I’ll take this in two steps, first discussing what we know is NOT true, and then discussing what we know IS true. As to the former, let me be as clear as possible: there is no evidence that climate change caused the outbreak of this novel coronavirus. Maybe you are thinking, “Duh, why did he even need to say that?” It’s because some have tried to argue that link exists.
I am troubled by this claim. Don’t get me wrong, I’m concerned about the climate crisis and worry about it literally every day, but we cannot allow unfounded claims about climate to muddy the waters of this issue’s scientific consensus. Doing so will at the very least create confusion. At the worst, it will cause some portions of society to think the climate movement is trying to co-opt COVID-19 for its own purposes. We cannot do that.
Neither should we miss the opportunity to learn from COVID-19! So what are the scientists telling us is true? This article last week from The Guardian is a good read on that question.
The evidence suggests that humans were introduced to this coronavirus because of a “wet market” in China, where patient zero contracted the virus from a wild animal. That crossover – from wild animals to humans – is the key. There are likely many more viruses that circulate amongst animal populations that could become pandemics should humans contract them. It is therefore critically important that humans are cautious when interacting with wild spaces and the animals living therein.
So wet markets are a human health risk that should be mitigated. Deforestation for cattle grazing in the Amazon is a human health risk that should be mitigated. The growth of palm plantations in Indonesia is a human health risk that should be mitigated. And the disruption in migration patterns and ecosystem habitability that climate change will cause is a human health risk that should be mitigated. All will bring humans into more contact with animals that may have diseases we really don’t want.
The COVID-19 virus was not caused by climate change. But this virus probably isn’t the last one that will spill over into the human population. It’s entirely possible that the next one will have that direct link to climate. As many have said, the climate crisis is the ultimate threat multiplier, and here it multiplies the threat of future pandemics. As people begin to rightly ask how to make sure something like COVID-19 doesn’t happen again, responding to the climate crisis is one of the many things we will need to do.