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Climate change setting the stage for more pandemics

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Leslie Campbell

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March 29, 2020

WE HAVE SUCH A MAGNIFICENT “backyard” here. We can hike from our doorstep for miles through forest and along beautiful moss-covered bluffs, and today we took full advantage. At first I was preoccupied thinking about the pandemic and also Focus, and noticed that I was missing whole chunks of our route. David was taking lots of photos so he was more “there.” Soon I started taking some of my own with the iphone. I love doing close-ups of such worlds-of-their own as moss, lichen, tiny yellow violets and brand new pine flowers or maple flowers.

 

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Bigleaf maple flower bud bursting open

 

Before our hike, we listened to CBC radio, an interview with Paul Rogers, who told Michael Enright, “The world should never be the same again, because we must learn from this.” He noted that our lessons, on how to work internationally, and to revise health and other systems to deal with the pandemic, will be applicable and necessary to deal with the climate crisis.

Speaking of the climate crisis, I stumbled into some rather chilling reading at the site of Jem Bendell, a University of Cumbria social-science professor known for his theory of “deep adaptation” in relation to climate change. Bendell argues that time is up for gradual measures to combat global warming. Without an abrupt transformation of society, changes in the planet’s climate would bring starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war—the collapse of civilization—within a decade. (Gene Miller mentioned him in his Focus column a couple of editions back.)

According to a recent article on Bendell’s website, he spent the past week studying how climate change and the virus are related.

He says that a warmer habitat and disappearing insect populations have caused bats to move. “When bats shift to new locations, they mix with other populations of bats, which provide conditions for the emergence of new strains of virus. In addition, as bats appear in new locations, so they can come into contact with livestock and animals in wild food markets that they would not have done before. That provides conditions for the transfer of any viruses to those animals which then expose humans, as WHO (2020) has confirmed for COVID-19. The same problems are affecting birds, with implications for other pathogens which affect humans.”

To further explain the connection, he writes, “Imagine if you were having to work extra hard, had less nourishing food and were exposed to wild changes in weather. You might come down with the flu. This is similar to what is happening to bats. The effect tends to be cumulative...”

Also, unfortunately, the biodiversity crisis means there are fewer animal species or  “reservoir host populations” for pathogens. And, Bendell explains, the fewer birds and bats there are, the more pathogen concentration and mixing occurs—which increases the “spillover risk for zoonotic infectious diseases to humans.”

He sums up it up this way: “There is sufficient evidence to conclude that COVID-19 may be, in part, an impact of climate change. It may be yet another destructive climate event. As our climate changes, it stresses plants, insects and animals in the wild in multiple ways and so they become sick, infect each other, and therefore, as fellow animals on this planet, we can get sick.”

Bendell feels that the impact of this pandemic is far greater on society than it needed to be, “because of the nature of our economic system, which is dependent on financiers’ confidence of an increasing volume of trade, transactions and debts. In a world where disease and other disruptions are likely to increase, we need a different economic model which does not multiply and prolong the harm.” Interviewed by Bloomberg recently, Bendell said governments should commit only to “fair and green” bailouts, and “shouldn’t save carbon-intensive industries such as airlines, oil, gas, coal or cement. Instead, they should let the companies approach bankruptcy and nationalize one or two of them to get them aligned with national climate policies.” He believes that keeping the most polluting industries afloat will increase the likelihood of future pandemics.

Bendell is an interesting researcher and thinker.

I welcome your response, either as a comment below or privately through the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of this page.

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