To Prevent the Next Pandemic, We Must Take Climate Action

Kristi Andrus
“Infectious diseases are scary because they are immediate and personal. They radically and rapidly change how we lead our lives and are an immediate threat to our friends and families. They hit all of our “go” buttons.
Climate change seems to many an Armageddon in slow motion, and its dangers can feel impersonal. It’s easy to think, “I didn’t cause this” or that “it doesn’t directly affect me.”
But there’s another way to look at it. Like COVID-19, if you’re concerned about climate change, you can take actions right now to improve your health and the health of your friends and loved ones.” — Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE

Health, Nature, and Economic Stability are Interconnected

Did You Know? The world has lost 60% of all wildlife in the last 50 years, while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled.

Our health depends on the climate — climate change alters and accelerates the transmission of infectious diseases — and biodiversity — while some species are going extinct, those that survive and thrive (rats and bats) are more likely to host potentially dangerous pathogens that can make the jump to humans.

It’s a vicious cycle: The decline of a species threatens the ecosystem that regulates the climate. We must take climate action to prevent the next pandemic.

Up to 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction — many of them within decades. In short, that means my children, your children, will miss out on seeing 1/8 of the world we saw growing up, and it likely means more pandemics.

It also means irrevocable, unfathomable change hard to imagine. At the end of this post, I’ve listed and linked to the most vulnerable cities and destinations. When the travel bans are lifted, will our bucket-list locations still be available to visit?

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A Pandemic Takes its Toll

Nearly 8M people died worldwide from COVID in 2020. It’s hard to remember, but this time last year, “temperature checks,” “mask protocols,” and “social distancing” were unfamiliar. Today, they are part of life as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact poverty, the economy, debt, food supplies, jobs, schools, inequality, and more.

But not all of the effects are life or death. 22% of people noticed their vision got worse during lockdown. Dentists observed increased patients experiencing pain from grinding or clenching their teeth. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the number of people reporting mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and stress, has skyrocketed — 1 in 2 people are suffering anxiety or depression during COVID.

Tragic Inaction

Recently, a few friends and I were messaging back and forth about Pompeii. My husband and I visited the ruins 12 years ago, and I can still remember how the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I saw the dog preserved in ash, still tethered to its post.

I could see Mt. Vesuvius in the distance, and as we walked throughout the city, I couldn’t help but wonder what else was lost. Beyond the artifacts and history, what human ingenuity and family bloodlines ended that day? How did the world irrevocably change?

In terms of scale, an estimated 2,000 people died at Pompeii, about 1,000 less than those who died on 9/11. For perspective, The World Health Organization estimates 250,000 annual deaths from climate change, COVID’s claimed nearly 2M deaths worldwide, WW1 killed 20M, and an incomprehensible 75M died during WW2.

Like all the most fascinating tragedies, there’s always an underlying question — Did they know it was coming?

And the obvious follow-ups, If so, why didn’t they prevent it? If not, what did they miss?

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The Year “They” Became “Us”

2020 was such a different year. It shifted my perspective on many things, being vs. doing, for example, resilience vs. resistance, loving my children vs. parenting them. And for some reason, I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment or the insight that blazed into my head; I could suddenly see how fast the world is changing.

It took me standing still, amid a world collectively standing still (or as relatively still as we have been in modern times), to see the world with fresh eyes, to witness the signs. And, well, the signs are everywhere.

At first, I felt indignant (to use JK Rowling’s favorite word), like it wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t noticed the decline, devastation, and injustice before.

When I came to terms with my lack of awareness, I got curious. I wondered if when war was coming, or natural disasters loomed throughout history, did the people who were warned deny it to their peril? Did they dismiss the experts and side with whoever distracted, entertained, soothed them, ignited them, and absolved their personal responsibility?

Or were “they” just too busy, working and living and raising families, struggling in their own ways? Maybe they were distracted by politics or sporting events. Perhaps it’s not that great of a stretch to imagine that they didn’t recognize the subtle signs of a volcano on the brink of eruption.

I regularly read empowering news about increasing longevity or how close we are to solving illnesses and preventing health conditions. But what’s the point if the planet is wrecked, we hate each other, and all of the money belongs to so few?

I’m not sure why we continue to deny what’s happening around us, but I do know we waste every minute that we don’t spend figuring out how to prevent climate change. We face a global problem, an existential threat, and as polarizing as these times seem, we are more alike than different. We have more in common than not, and we must come together to face insurmountable dangers and unite in our commitment to survival.

We are at a tipping point. It’s not a time to be devastated, paralyzed with fear, divisive, or stick our heads in the sand — it’s a time to educate ourselves, formulate a plan, and support the ones already leading the charge. It’s time to focus on what matters.

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Pandemics are an Environmental Response and Survival is at Stake.

When presented with the question — is COVID an environmental problem? The answer is simply Yes. Net-net: Pandemics are an environmental response to loss of biodiversity and climate change, and survival is at stake.

Every time a forest is destroyed or a habitat rendered unlivable, a species has to move from that place, perhaps the one best suited for it, and find another. The consequences of these migrations can be anything from overcrowding to a strain on resources or transmission of infectious diseases. It’s a pattern that will continue and worsen as the number of inhabitable places to live continues to shrink.

We are not doing enough fast enough. The challenge seems impossible and our impact insignificant, but prevention is infinitely less expensive and less harrowing than dealing with the fallout. We spend just over $3 trillion annually in the U.S. on health care, and more than half the deaths are preventable.

“Travel is Fatal to Prejudice, Bigotry, and Narrow-Mindedness." - Mark Twain

Who wants to pass on a ravaged planet to our children? The world is full of beauty, but there’s also extensive suffering — witness it all, you only live once — feel the fullness of your humanity, then travel, learn, and personalize the problem.

If a place is calling you, the minute the restrictions are lifted, go. Just go. Travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to see. Visit a place you’ve only dreamt of. It’s better to be in debt for an experience that inspires you for a lifetime than for almost any other reason.

Travel is exposure. The more you’ll see, the more you’ll appreciate, and the more urgency you’ll respond with because either 1) you’ll see people who live so much better than you and have such a higher quality of life it stuns you and lights a fire in your soul, or 2) you’ll see people who live so much worse than you that you can’t help but take more responsibility for the undeniable gifts you’ve been given. Perhaps both.

Get out of your neighborhood, your bubble, your ideological cage, and fall in love with the world. Our circumstances are dire, but we can prevent so much suffering and pain. Be healthy, live in peace with nature, people, and animals, choose love over fear, and be a light.

Or, if you prefer actionable to philosophical, start with awareness of overconsumption, water conservation, and pollution, then keep going.

6 Ways to Preserve Biodiversity

101 Ways to Fight Climate Change

The Climate Mitigation Gap

If you’re struggling to personalize the problem or wondering if it really will impact you in this lifetime, instead of thinking, I’m glad I don’t live there, or I’ve got enough to deal with; not my problem yet, think of it this way: What will it personally mean to you when millions of people must relocate? At that point, it’s too late.

40% of the U.S. lives on a coast, 40% of the world lives on a coast, and the coasts are most vulnerable for three reasons.

What will it personally mean to your family and community when you have to compete for food and homes and jobs and clean water? What strains will it put on healthcare when there’s a pandemic every year? How will the vulnerable among us survive when they don’t have the money or the mobility to escape? How will anyone survive when there isn’t somewhere to go?

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References

It’s been 50 years since the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), which helped set the stage for the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Today, under quarantine orders to help mitigate COVID’s spread, shifts in transportation, industrial activity, and consumer habits have led to a decline in carbon emissions, but if it will last is unknown.

  • Public concern about climate change has remained steady, even as fears of the spread of infectious diseases have risen.
  • Two-thirds of U.S. adults say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change. Similar shares say the government is doing too little to protect water (68%) and air quality (67%), animals and their habitats (62%), and national parks (55%).
  • 63% of Americans say stricter environmental regulations are worth the cost.
  • A majority of Americans see at least some local effects of global climate change. 62% of Americans said that long periods of hot weather, floods, storms, or wildfires affected their local community.

Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment

Highlights of the conversation with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan are pasted with permission below, but every single word is worthy of your time.

Does climate change affect the transmission of coronavirus?
Climate change alters how we relate to other species on Earth and that matters to our health and our risk for infections.
As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, which creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.
Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide.
Does air pollution increase the risk of getting coronavirus? Does it make symptoms worse?
People who live in places with poor air quality are more likely to die from COVID-19 even when accounting for other factors that may influence risks of death, such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare.
Why are emerging infectious diseases on the rise?
We have massive concentrations of domesticated animals worldwide, some of which can be home to pathogens, like the flu, that can make people sick. We also have massive concentrations of people in cities where diseases transmitted by sneezing may find fertile ground. And we can travel around the globe in less than a day and share germs widely.
“We are losing species at a rate unknown since the dinosaurs.”
But a look at the origins of COVID reveals that other forces may be in play. In the past century, we have escalated our demands upon nature, such that today, we are losing species at a rate unknown since the dinosaurs, along with half of life on Earth, went extinct 65 million years ago.
This rapid dismantling of life on Earth owes primarily to habitat loss, which occurs mostly from growing crops and raising livestock for people. With fewer places to live and fewer food sources to feed on, animals find food and shelter where people are, leading to disease spread.
When we change the rules of the game by drastically changing the climate and life on Earth, we have to expect that it will affect our health.
What actions can we take to prevent future outbreaks?
We need to take climate action to prevent the next pandemic. For example, preventing deforestation — a root cause of climate change — can help stem biodiversity loss and slow animal migrations that can increase the risk of infectious disease spread.
Rethinking our agricultural practices, including those that rely on raising tens of millions of animals in close quarters, can prevent transmissions between animals and spillover into human populations.
Reducing air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas also helps keep our lungs healthy, protecting us from respiratory infections like coronavirus.
To combat climate change, we need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions drastically.
“If we really care about preventing this kind of problem in the future, we need to think hard about climate change.”
Why is it so important for health officials to talk about climate change now?
We need to wash our hands and we need to socially distance, but if we really care about preventing this kind of problem in the future, we need to think hard about climate change and the biodiversity crisis.
“The separation of health and environmental policy is a ​dangerous delusion.”
Climate change and global health policy are largely treated as separate issues by the public and media. Do we need to adjust our thinking?
Yes. The separation of health and environmental policy is a ​dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with. We need to bring these communities together. Some progress has been made in addressing the risk of pathogen spillover from animals into people. But largely, we still view the environment, and life on Earth, as separate.
We can and must do better if we want to prevent the next infectious pandemic. That means we must combat climate change and do far more to safeguard the diversity of life on Earth.
COVID-19 is killing people now, and climate change is killing people now. The scale of actions to combat them is starkly different. Why?
Infectious diseases are scary because they are immediate and personal. They radically and rapidly change how we lead our lives, and they are an immediate threat to our friends and families. They hit all of our “go” buttons.
Climate change seems to many an Armageddon in slow motion, and its dangers can feel impersonal, and it causes diffuse. It’s easy to think, “I didn’t cause this” or that “it doesn’t directly affect me.” But there’s another way to look at it. Like COVID-19, if you’re concerned about climate change, you can take actions right now to improve your health and the health of your friends and loved ones.
We can learn from this pandemic that people are motivated by the personal and the actionable. Our research shows that the actions we need to combat climate change are the same actions we need to make people healthier right now. We need to do much more to talk about the “burden of disease” that’s preventable and the things we can do now to prevent it.
Is climate change too expensive to fix?
We spend just over $3 trillion every year in the United States on health care. And by some estimates, more than half the deaths in the United States are preventable, primarily because of pollution, diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits like smoking.
When you look at this question purely from a financial standpoint, air pollution is a drag on economic growth. Solutions to address it has been enormously cost-effective in the United States. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency that looked at the costs and benefits of the Clean Air act found that every $1 invested in reducing air pollution returns up to $30 in benefits. The only thing our health and our economy can’t afford is climate inaction.
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Places with the Most to Lose

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the world today. If you think a pandemic sucks, try an apocalypse. It’s not too late. Click the links below to understand the combination of factors that threaten the following destinations and resolve to be a part of the solution.

6 U.S. Cities That Will Be Most Impacted by Climate Change in the Next 20–50 Years

New Orleans, New York, Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Honolulu

The Climate Crisis Is Global, but These 6 Places Face the Most Severe Consequences

Nigeria, Haiti, Yemen, Manila, Kiribati, and the United Arab Emirates

18 Destinations to Visit Before They’re Lost to Climate Change

The Great Barrier Reef, Venice, Glacier National Park, The Dead Sea, The Amazon, Yamal Peninsula, The Maldives, Key West, The Rhône Valley, Mumbai, The Alps, Napa Valley, Rio de Janeiro, Alaska, Osaka, New Orleans, Madagascar, Lagos

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