In recent years, conversations about climate change have become increasingly urgent as governments and organizations around the world have gained a deeper understanding of the significant and irreversible negative impact that human activity is having on the planet.
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At the time the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic, climate change was at the forefront of political conversations and agendas. It was considered to be a crucial time to take decisive action to protect the future of the planet. However, the world’s spotlight moved away from climate change as the impact of the pandemic wore on.
Now, scientists are highlighting the similarities between the two crises, even suggesting that climate change may have been a causal factor in the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we highlight the relationship between the pandemic and climate change, assess the role of climate change in the pandemic, and review the proposal that responses to the pandemic and climate change should be aligned.
Similarities between climate change and COVID-19 crises
Although the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change do not immediately appear similar, upon closer inspection a number of significant shared factors are revealed. Both crises are attributed to substantial unnecessary loss of life.
COVID-19 is known to impact particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, causing severe respiratory disease, and climate change affects air quality, drinking water, food supply and shelter - all factors that are associated with health. Climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 additional deaths annually between 2030 and 2050. COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of 2.3 million people worldwide since the start of the pandemic.
Both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are known to impact certain demographic groups more so than others. Research has revealed that the vulnerable and disadvantaged pay a greater price in both scenarios, with people in poverty suffering the impacts of climate change and the pandemic more so than the rich. Unfortunately, there have long been disparities between the poor and rich in terms of health care and exposure to factors that poorly affect health. The pandemic and climate change highlight these disparities.
Finally, both crises have pushed regional healthcare systems around the world to the limit. Climate change and COVID-19 have resulted in large numbers of people being hospitalized, forcing countries to reassess how they manage their healthcare systems.
Was climate change a causal factor of the COVID-19 outbreak?
In January of 2021, a paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment revealed evidence that climate change may have played a direct causal role in the emergence of the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
An international team of scientists from institutions in the UK, Germany, and the US were able to link the climatic changes that occur as a result of climate change directly to COVID-19. They emphasize that the number of bat species present is linked with the number of coronaviruses in a particular environment.
Due to climate change, factors such as temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and cloud cover are evolving. These factors have a direct impact on the growth of plants and trees. Therefore, climate change is affecting natural habitats and ecosystems via altering environmental factors. Even subtle adjustments can have a great impact on the species living within an ecosystem. The recent paper revealed that climatic changes directly fostered a favorable environment for many bat species to thrive, allowing for the emergence of novel coronaviruses - including the SARS-CoV-2 strain.
COVID-19 is not the only infectious disease linked to climate change. For many years the World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted the link between changing environmental conditions and epidemic diseases. It is hoped that now, this link may take center stage, forcing policy-makers to consider the wide-reaching impact of climate change and make calculated strategies to prevent further environmental damage and reverse, where possible, the damage that has already occurred.
Coronavirus: What has Covid done for climate crisis? - BBC News
The benefit of aligning responses to COVID-19 and climate change
Experts have proposed that aligning government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change would allow for the overall improvement of public health, as well as foster a sustainable economic future for regions worldwide. In addition, aligning responses offers a chance to protect the planet’s biodiversity and limit further changes to diverse ecosystems.
A 2020 report by The Lancet highlighted the need to align responses to both crises in order to address them optimally. Because of the common factors of the pandemic and climate change, converging responses is rational. Both are linked to human activity and both lead to the degradation of the environment.
As well as human-induced climate change influencing outbreaks of disease, the wildlife trade is a significant factor in the spread of zoonotic diseases such as SARS-CoV-2. Illegal wildlife trade cause humans to mix with different species in places where they are not supposed to, fuelling zoonosis.
Climate change and infectious disease cause preventable loss of human life. Through strategic adjustments, further loss of life can be stopped.
Over the coming years, we will likely see more strategies implemented to amend human behavior so that it has less impact on the environment, and, consequently on the spread of infectious diseases.
- Beyer, R., Manica, A. and Mora, C., 2021. Shifts in global bat diversity suggest a possible role of climate change in the emergence of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. Science of The Total Environment, 767, p.145413. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969721004812?via%3Dihub
- Climate Change Could Have Played A Role In The Covid-19 Outbreak. David Bresson. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2021/02/08/climate-change-could-have-played-a-role-in-the-covid-19-outbreak/?sh=3c4240b611ef
- Impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable: UN chief. UN News. Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/06/1067502
- The Lancet, 2021. Climate and COVID-19: converging crises. The Lancet, 397(10269), p.71. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32579-4/fulltext
- Watts, N., Amann, M., Arnell, N., et al., 2021. The 2020 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: responding to converging crises. The Lancet, 397(10269), pp.129-170. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32290-X/fulltext
- Whitehead, M., Taylor-Robinson, D. and Barr, B., 2021. Poverty, health, and covid-19. BMJ, p.n376. https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n376