Coronavirus as warning shot

Crews worked night and day shifts in 2018 to suppress fires at Interstate 5 in northern California.

Jim Bartlett Team Rubicon/BLM for USFS
Communicating linkages between biodiversity loss, climate breakdown and pandemics could serve as a trigger for action on these vital issues.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has turned people’s lives upside down, and captured unprecedented policy and media attention worldwide. Drastic actions have been taken to impose “social distancing” and lockdowns, with significant socio-economic impacts.

Economies across the world are depressed: millions have become unemployed, many companies have become bankrupt and travel has become greatly reduced. Unprecedented economic packages have been implemented to provide relief. Medical research has largely become focused on tests, cures, and vaccines related to the coronavirus.

These drastic actions demonstrate the seriousness with which people and governments react, and the economic pain they are willing to withstand, when faced with significant loss of life.

Incentive

While much of the attention has become focused on the Covid-19 crisis, all the other serious challenges – poverty, food insecurity and hunger, water scarcity, urban air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, and indeed, all the other diseases that claim millions of lives annually - sadly continue to be with us, and will remain so long after Covid-19 is hopefully a distant memory.

As for climate breakdown, there are dire predictions of, among other effects, temperature and sea level rise, extreme weather events, and disruptions to water regimes, with adverse societal impacts. Many of these effects are occurring more rapidly than previously thought.

Ironically, the countries that have been most responsible for - and have benefited the most from - energy consumption and other activities resulting in greenhouse gas emissions, are the least exposed to and affected by - and most able to withstand the effects of - climate change. This is because of their smaller populations, higher per capita incomes, and their ability to adapt due to technological and other resources.

Meanwhile, the poor countries of the world, representing the bulk of its population, which have contributed the least to and benefited the least from these emissions, and more particularly, the poorest in these countries, are the most exposed to and affected by, and the least able to withstand effects such as droughts, flooding, and crop losses.

The wealthy countries - and the wealthy in poor nations - therefore feel themselves to be distanced, both spatially and temporally, from the effects of climate change, as a result of which there is little incentive for them to support control actions.

Zoonotic

This discounting by time and distance is exacerbated by the perception that the most serious manifestations of climate breakdown will occur – if they do – in the future, and to people elsewhere and that the benefits of control action by the countries most able to provide it, will not be captured by them, but will most benefit people in poor regions, and future generations.

There are therefore significant barriers to concerted global action, despite the already serious effects of climate change, and predictions of worse to come.

In contrast with climate breakdown, pandemics spread far and wide, and quickly, affecting societies across the world, therefore creating strong incentives for urgent action, as demonstrated by the Covid-19 crisis.

But Covid-19 is only the most recent among many serious infectious diseases. Indeed, new and emerging infectious diseases have increased significantly since 1940. A total 60 percent of these have been zoonotic, with 72 percent of these zoonotic diseases having been caused by pathogens originating in wildlife, including SARS, HIV, Ebola, and Nipah.

The most important contributor to these zoonotic diseases is land degradation due to human activities such as clearing of forests for agriculture, urbanisation, and mining.

Habitat

Much of the resulting habitat and biodiversity loss are occurring in tropical Asia and Africa, which are rich in pathogens and their animal hosts. The intersection of these circumstances and effects leads to significantly increased interactions, and transmission of pathogens, between animals and humans.

Growing human consumption, and associated resource extraction activities, play a critical role in land degradation and habitat and biodiversity loss, and cross-species pathogen transmission. So do informal bush meat markets, on which millions of poor people depend for their food.

Climate breakdown is becoming an increasingly important contributor to land degradation and habitat and biodiversity loss, and thus to emerging vector-borne diseases, owing to rising temperatures and changed rainfall patterns.

In turn, land degradation is a major contributor to and can exacerbate climate change. Finally, climate change is expected to become the most important contributor to biodiversity loss in the next few decades.

So, land degradation, habitat and biodiversity loss, and climate change reinforce each other, and make global pandemics like Covid-19 ever more likely.

Behaviours

Given the drastic actions that we are taking, and the costs we are bearing, in responding to Covid-19, it is worth considering highlighting the linkages between land degradation, habitat and biodiversity loss, climate change, and pandemics, to the public and policy makers, to motivate control action on biodiversity loss and climate change.

Highlighting linkages with the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes and wildfires would also be useful, but while these events are dramatic, and cause considerable damage to life and property, they are localised. The societal impacts of pandemics such as COVID-19 are far more widespread, substantial, and long lasting, and more likely to motivate support for control action.

This of course means appealing to fear to motivate control action on biodiversity loss and climate breakdown. There is an on-going debate regarding the pros and cons of appealing to fear versus hope in motivating public support for control action related to climate change.

Some argue that making people afraid will cause them to become disengaged and feel disempowered. However, research suggests that messages to engender hope and optimism regarding climate change may actually lower the motivation to engage in and to support mitigation actions.

Further, there is evidence that appealing to feelings of fear is generally effective at positively influencing behaviours relating to health threats.

Plants

The long and slow feedback loops that serve as a major barrier to concerted global action on biodiversity loss and climate change may be drastically shortened and speeded up in the minds of the public and policy makers, because of the potential for pandemics to rapidly afflict everyone across the world, with devastating effects - note in this regard that, while low-income and minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, higher income groups are by no means immune, even in rich countries.

Besides, there is a large number of yet to be identified zoonotic viruses that could lead to pandemics more lethal than COVID-19.

And so, honestly and clearly communicating the linkages, based on the best available science, between biodiversity loss, climate change, and pandemics, and highlighting the role of consumption behaviour that leads to these effects, while also appealing to hope and optimism, by for example, highlighting the manifold benefits of preserving biodiversity, including several life-saving drugs synthesized from plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, and the impressive progress that has been achieved in harnessing wind and solar energy, could serve as an effective trigger for action on all these issues.

This Author

Professor Madhav Badami teaches in the schools of urban planning and environment at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. His interest areas are environmental policy, urban infrastructure and services, urban transport, and environment and development.

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