Climate change and pandemics
Today we were joined by Geraint Davies MP, chair of the all party parliamentary group (APPG) on air pollution, to launch our report "Climate Change and Pandemics". Although seemingly separate and independent, the two great crises facing society at the current moment (those of climate change and global pandemic) are, in fact, intertwined with each exacerbating the consequences of the other.
This report is now available to download and read in full below
The global COVID-19 pandemic has diverted attention of many policy makers and politicians away from a variety of pressing issues, with good reason. However, those other issues do not go on hold as we as a society attempt to cope, and eventually overcome, this pandemic. Paramount amongst these other issues is that of climate change. In this report, we seek to outline what climate change is, how is relates to COVID-19, what changes it is predicted to cause in human behaviour and society, and how it will exacerbate existing inequalities.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humans have been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate unseen before in human history, and have caused an increased concentration of greenhouse gases unseen in recent earth history. The effects of these increases are well known, and include, but are not limited to, more extreme weather and higher water levels. Additionally, increased greenhouse gas emissions have knock on effects relating to diseases, and especially to emergent zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. Emerging zoonotic diseases are spilling over into human populations at an increasing rate for a variety of factors, but one of the most important is land use change in previously wild areas. As areas that previously were agriculturally fertile grow fallow, there will be greater need for humans to disrupt ecosystems and come in contact with new pathogens, increasing the odds of a new spillover event. In addition to that, increased temperature is changing the range of many disease vectors, most notably mosquitos. Climate change also threatens to release new diseases, long dormant in the permafrost, against which no one alive has any natural immunity.
Climate change can also have an impact on human behaviour in a way that makes it easier for disease to spread. One of the major drivers of the fast spread of COVID-19 is the existence of modern transportation. With climate change, we can expect that there will be more natural disasters leading to the mass displacement of people, and with them the displacement of their diseases. This includes both the temporary displacement of towns and villages affected by climate change, and potentially states and regions made unliveable by climate change’s long-term effects. However, there is some hope; COVID-19 seems to have increased the awareness of the importance of long-term global planning to avert natural catastrophe, rather than to just respond to it. Although climate change is a far trickier problem to solve, there is some hope that people will learn the preventative lessons from COVID-19 to prevent the next international catastrophe.
Climate change, like any other natural disaster, does not kill on its own; who it kills, and to what degree, is determined by the social forces that it meets. In our unequal world, that means that those who are most likely to suffer the consequences of climate change are those who have contributed the least to it; the global poor. Most notably, the poor in developing tropical countries whose agricultural land is becoming more marginal, whose slums are heating up faster, and in whose countries the next plagues are most likely to emerge. But even in wealthy countries like Britain, where the effects of climate change will not be as dire in the short term, the disadvantaged are still more likely to be hit, and hit hardest, by the effects of climate change.