Experts Warn COVID-19 Won't be the Last Pandemic Due to Climate Change
The rise of infectious diseases is likely to be exacerbated by climate change and we should take COVID-19 as a serious wake-up call, researchers say. The latest IPCC report warns governments to prepare as new diseases spread across the globe and into their countries, reports Grist. Climate change has massive impacts on the way some species move about the world and intermingle, including insects and disease vectors. These changes mean species are brought into contact with new diseases without an evolved resistance to them. Many researchers warn that COVID-19 was a warning sign of how unprepared we are for disease in the climate crisis.
Australian Academy of Science: Climate change and pandemics - Professor Eddie Holmes FAA, November 3, 2021.
UNEP: Deforestation and diseases: why disrupting ecosystems may put us at risk, April 22, 2020.
Why This Matters
Diseases are already more widespread and have more harmful effects than they used to, finds the report. Lyme disease, for example, is usually confined to New England, but because of warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, it has become easier for ticks carrying the disease to spread to new regions. "Climate change can be expected to continue to contribute to the geographical spread of the Lyme disease vector," the report says.
Researchers also find that mosquito-borne diseases, such as Dengue, Zika, and West Nile viruses, are emerging in places they have never been found before. On the spread of West Nile virus in the US, Jonathan Soverow, a cardiologist and researcher at UCLA, writes in Front Lines that warmer temperatures, elevated humidity, and heavy precipitation increased the rate of human [West Nile virus] infection in the US." All of these are symptoms of climate change.
In regard to future pandemics, COVID-19 shows us that we could have pandemics every 5-10 years rather than every hundred, says Thomas Smith, Founding Director, Center for Tropical Research, Co-Executive Director, Congo Basin Institute. He explains that the threat is posed by the intersection of disease and climate-forced migration: "Imagine if a spillover event of a pathogen such as Nipah virus, with a human fatality rate of 40%, coincided with mass migrations, a climate refugee crisis, and civil unrest. This is a recipe for a disastrous, raging pandemic."
Conservation International: Biodiversity and Pandemics, September 23, 2021.
Researchers argue that the most effective way to respond to these pandemics is to ensure they never happen. According to the UK's Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), the price tag for reaching the country's climate goals is much lower than the cost of battling COVID-19. OBR Chairman Richard Hughes stated, "[C]ountries that acted quickly to contain the domestic spread of coronavirus experienced fewer deaths, shallower recessions, and earlier economic recoveries."
The cost of pandemics is difficult to grasp. Experts say that the future cost of pandemics will be a staggering $2 trillion USD per year. Protecting nature to prevent these pandemics would be just 1% of that cost. Measures including stopping deforestation, management of global wildlife trade, and a worldwide viral discovery network could stop pandemics before they appear. But if we continue as is, we are likely to see more pandemics at the scale of COVID-19 or worse during our lifetimes.
Al Jazeera: Wild Recovery - Protecting nature and preventing the next pandemic, April 21, 2021.
WW0: Climate and Health Are Connected, January 26, 2021.
WW0: A Conversation on Health and Climate, August 6, 2020.