Twelve months ago, my country was in the grips of our deadliest bushfire season ever. The scale of devastation was enormous with 45 direct deaths and over 400 indirect deaths, 18 million hectares burnt, and over 9500 buildings destroyed. The world inherited our smoke. You could see the destruction from space. Climate scientists equivocally agree that climate change played a role in the intensity and scale of destruction – boosting the risk by thirty percent.
The eighteen months prior to the fires had borne witness to some of the largest climate protests in Australia. Led by school students striking from school for a safe future, throughout 2019, over half a million Australians took to the streets to demand climate action. Fire chiefs warned our Government of a fire season as deadly as we experienced, but their warnings fell on deaf ears.
As the fires ravaged our continent, it felt as though we had reached a tipping point in public concern and awareness about climate change. When confronted with 27 core concerns, Australians said that climate change was our leading concern (72%). But little did we know that as the ash was barely settling on the tragic symptoms of one crisis, another was brewing – Covid 19. Whilst Covid-19’s impacts on Australia have been far less severe than in other parts of the world, our lives have been changed by it forever. Countless jobs have been lost, many have died, hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus have been spent and our economy has been driven into recession.
Throughout 2020, it has felt like action on climate change has taken a back-seat, which is concerning when, unaddressed, it too will drive social, environmental, and economic breakdown on a scale that the human mind struggles to comprehend.
What is even more concerning about the lack of attention being given to climate change amidst the Covid-19 crisis is that both crises stem from the same song-book: our unsustainable relationship with nature.
Climate Change Increases Virulence
Climate change will make pandemics and our susceptibility to them worse, but by addressing climate change, we can reduce the risks of infectious disease, benefiting both our own health and that of the planet.
Just like Covid-19, climate change is a symptom of our unhealthy relationship with the earth. Biodiversity is declining faster than it ever has in human history. As the earth heats up, animals are being forced to migrate up slopes and towards the poles. Scientists estimate that almost fifty percent of species are already on the move. And as they do, they come into contact with new species, increasing the risk of new diseases forming and spreading existing diseases to new places.
As an example, malaria is moving to higher altitudes in parts of South America and Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that a temperature increase of 2-3 degrees (the world is currently on a trajectory for at least 3 degrees of warming) would put several hundred million additional people at risk of malaria.
As we clear land for the same activities which drive climate change – forestry, transportation, mining, urbanization and agriculture – we force wild animals into ever closer proximity with humans, increasing the risk of infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans. The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa is likely to have been partly caused by the migration of bats due to palm oil production on their traditional habitat.
In fact scientists estimate there are now 1.67 million unknown viruses affecting the earth’s animals. So it is no surprise that three quarters of the world’s new or emerging infectious diseases now come from animals. Nor that there are already well established links between climate change and infectious diseases like Lyme, dengue fever, and malaria among others.
Climate Pollution Spreads Pathogens and Increases our Susceptibility to Infection
In addition to the crowding out effect that climate change has on animals, forcing them out of their natural habitats and into closer proximity with us and other species, it also helps to spread infectious disease and increases our susceptibility to infection. As we mine and burn coal, oil and gas (the number one contributor to climate change), tiny air pollution particles, called PM2.5, are released into the atmosphere where they serve as transporters for pathogens, increasing the reach and potency of these diseases.
In fact the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas causes such poor air quality that Harvard and Max Planck Institute researchers have linked poorer air quality to a 15% higher mortality rate from Covid-19, independent of pre-existing medical conditions, access to healthcare, and socio-economic status. In other words, if you live somewhere with poor air quality, you are more likely to die from Covid-19. Furthermore, up to 80% of this poor air quality was attributable to the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas – the number one driver of climate change.
This is consistent with other research linking air pollution to infectious disease. For example, in 2003, a study found that people living in parts of China with moderate air quality were at an 84% greater risk of dying from SARS than those living in parts with clean air. Those living in areas with the poorest air quality were 200% more likely to die.
Chinese researchers found that for every 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 in a cross section of Chinese cities, there was a 0.24% increase in Covid-19 fatalities. Overall, air pollution is attributable to 27% of all Covid-19 fatalities in China, 26% in Germany, 20% in the US, 18% in France, 16% in Sweden, 15% in Italy, 14% in the UK, and 12% in Brazil. Although we are the world’s largest coal exporter, Australia regulates PM2.5, so only 3% of the deaths from Covid-19 are attributable to poor quality here. Instead, we export our pollution to the rest of the world.
Whilst Covid-19 has inadvertently led to marked improvements in global air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, we should be careful not to divorce the means from the ends. The recent greenhouse reductions caused by covid-19 have come at the expense of over 80 million infections, almost 2 million deaths and countless jobs lost or adversely impacted.
The health benefits of tackling climate change are enormous. But it should not require a deadly pandemic to compel what we know is needed to save our lives and protect the planet from climate devastation. Instead, we need strong and decisive action from Governments and businesses globally to avert the worst impacts of climate change and its concomitant impacts on human health.
By Tackling Climate Change We Also Minimize Infectious Disease
Climate change threatens all of us and it is incredibly deadly. Recent projections by the US National Bureau of Economics suggest that by the end of the century, human deaths from climate change could be in the order of 85 deaths per 10,000 people – more than all infectious-disease caused deaths worldwide.
By tackling climate change, we can immunize ourselves against some of the worst impacts of infectious disease.
For example, reducing deforestation helps to slow biodiversity loss and species migration, slowing the spread of infectious disease. Transitioning our economies away from the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas to clean renewable energy sources like wind and solar, cleans up our air, and our health. Moving to more regenerative models of agriculture can reduce emissions, improve animal welfare and reduce the rate of infectious disease in animals as they are allowed to roam freely in nature rather than being cruelly cooped up in close quarters.
Pandemics are not simply part of our way of life. They are caused by our way of life. As the world mobilizes in response to Covid-19 and strives to attain a new normal, we should not forget that pandemics are becoming more frequent. We must address their root causes at the same time as treating their impacts. Climate change is one of those causes. It is already devastating our health. Leaving it on the backburner as the world is ravaged by Covid-19 is simply not a safe option.
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