The new coronavirus is not caused by climate change.
However, some of the circumstances that set the stage for the emergence of the disease are also part of the climate change puzzle, and infectious disease more generally is part of the package of problems caused or made worse by climate change. There are other ways in which the two stories are linked.
Let us explore those links.
The Climate and Corona
Coronavirus is not actually the name of the disease, though anyone who has watched at least one news broadcast in the past month knows what disease I mean. There is an excellent summary of the outbreak here, but I’m unclear whether the article is going to be updated–it might look very different by the time you read it, as this story is evolving very quickly.
The new disease has been officially named 2019-nCoV or COVID19, but most people continue to refer to it simply as the coronavirus. I will sometimes do the same.
I’ve seen posts on social media to the effect that coronavirus has killed very few people in comparison to, say, poverty, and the only reason it’s been getting so much attention is that it can kill rich people. Such criticism is fair in a general way, but it misses a crucial point; coronavirus has killed very few people yet, but if infection gets close to universal (and it could), the death toll will be in the millions, and most of those lost will be among society’s most vulnerable–the poor, the elderly, and the already ill.
The faultlines of vulnerability and bias in our society are going to be very much on display.
While COVID19 itself appears not to be caused by climate change (the virus appears to have jumped into our species from animals held at an open-air market), other, equally dangerous, diseases do have a strong link, or could have one.
First, there are diseases, such as malaria, that are spread by animals that require warm temperatures. A warming Earth means those diseases can spread farther and have longer seasons. There is also some evidence that influenza, which normally prefers cold weather, may (counter-intuitively) become more of a problem as the climate warms. There are also long-frozen viruses coming out of permafrost that could conceivably start finding hosts. And as animals change their ranges in response to the changing climate, some could come into contact with humans who haven’t before, potentially giving us diseases we don’t have immunity to.
New diseases don’t usually kick off made-for -Hollywood disasters, and coronavirus is unlikely to do so. What it is likely to do is cause a lot of pain and suffering world-wide and be a major and expensive pain in the neck for possibly every country on the planet. And since climate change is likely to increase the frequency of new diseases, we’re seeing a preview of the future, unless we do something to change our trajectory.
One major way that humans pick up new disease from animals is by moving into wild places humans don’t normally go–a situation that’s becoming ever more common as humanity continues to press outward, logging, poaching, and developing previously wild lands. Once a disease makes a jump into our species, the chance of it spreading worldwide quickly is very high, thanks to frequent intercontinental air travel. If humanity used less in the way of resources–as we will have to, without fossil fuel–there would be less logging, less poaching, and less air travel. There would also be less risk of global pandemic.
There is a wonderful book called Spillover, by David Quammen, that explores these and other ideas and presents a thorough introduction to how diseases spread into our species. I recommend reading it in light of current events.
Coronavirus (and the policies designed to stop it) are causing a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions–when economies slow, so do emission rates. It is tempting to secretly cheer for the disease. I don’t think such cheering is as immoral as it sounds, since cheering alone can’t have any effect on the progress of the disease, but coronavirus is not any kind of solution. First, the change is temporary, and China, for one, has a habit of increasing economic output after a slow-down to make up for lost. Second, the immediate crisis of the disease is likely to distract from efforts to curb emissions, even though climate change ultimately stands to kill more people.
The new coronavirus could present us with an opportunity to see what it looks like when the world takes a crisis seriously and responds together–and we could take that example and apply its lessons to climate change knowing that public health, like everything else, is going to get harder to look after the worse we allow climate change to get.
Or, we could use the threat of coronavirus as an excuse to put climate even more firmly on the back burner and then simply get used to another level of disaster and suffering, recommitting ourselves to complacency.
We have a choice to make.