The COVID-19 pandemic, or rather a version of it, has been sitting in the human race’s rear-view mirror for quite some time, approaching and accelerating. Both epidemiologists and climate change activists have been warning humans for decades that the anthropogenic influence on the world would have exceedingly dire consequences for humans and animals alike, in the form of novel diseases.

It is a fallacy to think that just because humans have been subject to the COVID-19 virus, that there will not be others. There are two elements of human-driven climate change that are making new epidemics more likely. The first is the warming average temperature of Earth. The second is the explicit exploration and destruction of wild spaces. Both result in increased human contact with new or large groups of animals.

Alanna Shaikh is a global health expert, and consultant at Tomorrow Global, a company that evaluates the future of global health in a proactive way, in the interest of their clients. During a TEDx Talks presentation in March of 2020, Shaikh took the opportunity to shed some light on how pandemics have become an important part of our future, a part which we would be fools to ignore. “This is not the last major outbreak we are going to see”, she said. She does however highlight that this can be the last one that humans, and their healthcare systems, are so surprised by.

Climate Change Protest
Credit: University of Cambridge

Rapid and expansive deforestation is noted to be the most significant cause of wild habitat loss globally. Habitat destruction results in animals migrating to survive. This includes movement to food-rich areas, i.e., human settlements. These migrations naturally lead to increased interaction between humans and animals we likely would not have otherwise encounter.

Livestock farms, especially those used for bulk food production, are another point of potential transmission of disease from animals to humans. And of course, wet markets. By now the alleged origin story of COVID-19 in humans is well-known and widespread. The virus is said to have developed in horseshoe bats, and likely made its jump to humans in a wet market in Wuhan, China, although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has yet to confirm this. Many nations have lit a fuse for new inter-species disease transmission by destroying biodiversity that other species depend on, and by moving human civilisation closer to potentially incubating animals.

Of course, the warming climate is also providing a perfect storm for novel viruses and bacteria to jump to humans. Diseases carried by insects such as ticks and mosquitoes are referred to as vector-borne diseases. With average global temperatures rising due to the greenhouse effect, the geographic limits for these insects so too expand. During the summer of 2020, the mosquito species Aedes aegypti was linked to a new outbreak of Dengue fever in sunny Florida.

With rising temperatures, it is estimated that the regions in which these insects can thrive, will grow to a point such that nearly 6 billion people will be at risk for dengue fever by 2080. By comparison, there were 4.2 million cases recorded by the WHO in 2019. As permafrost and arctic ice continue to melt, methane reserves trapped in the ice are being released, accelerating the rate of warming. Also being released are pathogens that have been frozen since the last ice age. It is a feedback loop, with humans as the trigger.

So, it’s all doom and gloom, right? Wrong. Humans are the driving force behind the increasing reality and risk of new pandemics. Which means we are also the solution. Our consumption habits, as well as those of large corporations, account for the constant need for global expansion. This means we can choose to alter our diets, or shopping, and the companies we afford our patronage. Consuming less meat, and meat by-products can reduce the need for intense expansive agriculture. Shopping with the needs of the environment in mind, when we absolutely need to shop, means less deforestation and water consumption. Being more mindful about which companies we use for services essential to us allows us to choose climate change evolves.  In beginning to limit climate change, we have the ability to limit the possibility of future life-altering pandemics like COVID-19.

Vanessa Gomes – Science Correspondent