This post was updated May 19, 2020.
Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world at lightning speed, infecting more than 4.8 million people and killing more than 319,000 people to date. Protecting nature will be critical to preventing future pandemics, some scientists say. With that in mind, here are five articles that explore the connection between nature and human health.
There are parallels between the lagging global efforts to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, experts assert.
The Story: Experts agree that political pushback and a psychological inability for people to fully grasp the long-term impacts of crises contribute to ineffective global efforts to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, reported Somini Sengupta for The New York Times. For example, the current U.S. administration has made deep cuts to federal funding for scientific research in recent years — particularly climate research — which has disrupted efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, according to chemist Holden Thorp. In addition, several behavioral scientists concur that people have trouble processing the consequences of both the current pandemic and the climate crisis because many of the negative impacts are on a longer timescale.
The Big Picture: “Both [COVID-19 and climate change] demand early aggressive action to minimize loss,” said climate scientist Kim Cobb. “Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough.” From the bushfires that raged through Australia in 2019 to increased flooding in coastal cities, the impacts of the climate crisis are already affecting populations around the world. By 2100, however, researchers project that climate breakdown could kill approximately as many people as the number of individuals who die of cancer and infectious diseases today if global warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
The destruction of nature could cause future animal-borne disease outbreaks, experts say.
The Story: Poaching and deforestation have increased since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, according to recent reports from Conservation International field offices. While bushmeat and ivory poaching incidents have become more frequent in Africa, Amazonian deforestation in Brazil has reached a nine-year high since the pandemic began in 2019, reports show. Evidence suggests that the majority of these activities were enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited — some driven by desperation, others by profit.
The Big Picture: “Poaching and deforestation are unfortunate and disturbing, as our health — and the health of our economies — are inextricably linked to the health of our planet,” said Conservation International’s CEO M. Sanjayan in a recent statement. “Now, by accelerating the destruction of nature, we are only increasing the risk of future pandemics.” To minimize poaching and land degradation in Africa, Conservation International is working with governments to help provide alternative livelihoods. Through a community-based approach, Conservation International’s Herding 4 Health program will work with farmers to help degraded rangelands recover, while improving cattle health and providing a steady stream of income — even during uncertain times.
Further reading: Coronavirus disrupts illegal wildlife trafficking, for now
Though poaching is on the rise in Africa, a new report suggests the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted illegal wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. This could have a lasting impact on the industry — if countries enforce stricter bans on the global trade of wild animals.
Further reading: The hidden toll of lockdown on rainforests
“This narrative of nature having been given a break during COVID, it’s not entirely accurate,” said Sebastian Troeng, executive vice-president of Conservation International, in response to the recent surge in deforestation. From endangering indigenous peoples to exacerbating forest fires in the Amazon, this destruction of nature could have long-term impacts on the world’s biggest rainforest, experts say.
Individual greenhouse gas emissions are fluctuating in response to the recent coronavirus pandemic.
The Story: As people around the world self-isolate to curb the spread of COVID-19, they could be impacting their carbon footprint — both positively and negatively, reported Chelsea Harvey for Scientific American. Depending on weather conditions, geography and lifestyle, people that are spending more time at home could be using more energy — and releasing more individual emissions over time. For example, residents of colder regions of the world may need to use individual heaters to stay warm while working from home, which is a significant part of the average individual’s carbon footprint.
The Big Picture: “The biggest potential impact of this virus is the effect on the economy,” said climate policy expert Christopher Jones. “So if it affects the entire economy, then that’s going to affect economic output, consumption and emissions.” To support the economy without increasing global emissions, companies must invest in sustainable funds — those screened for environmental, ethical and social practices — which have outperformed traditional funds during the recent stock market collapse.
Giving nature space could help curb future disease outbreaks, according to a renowned ecologist.
The Story: As the global wildlife trade persists and development projects expand deeper into tropical forests, humans are increasing their exposure to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry, said Lee Hannah in a recent interview with Conservation News. When human activities such as mining and logging degrade wildlife habitats, animals are forced together and are more likely to become stressed or sick, Hannah explained, which drives the transmission of disease between human and wildlife populations.
The Big Picture: “Ecosystems in nature function similarly to the human body: When they are robust and healthy — which means they have diverse species and space for healthy animal populations — they are more resistant to disease,” said Hannah. “We must take care of nature to take care of ourselves.” To protect nature while preventing future pandemics, governments can implement protected areas, national parks, community conservancies and indigenous-managed conservation areas, according to Hannah.
Further reading: Conservationist: Protecting nature an ‘investment’ in our health
In a recent video, Conservation International’s CEO M. Sanjayan calls for renewed efforts to stop deforestation and to clamp down on the illegal trade of wild animals, particularly in the tropics, where many recent infectious disease outbreaks have originated.
The coronavirus pandemic has derailed several major global climate conferences, but experts agree that climate action must continue.
The Story: Following the postponement of several major global climate conferences due to COVID-19, Conservation International climate experts argue that there are still critical steps that countries can take to tackle the climate crisis in 2020. From engaging local communities to implementing national climate policies, governments can continue to tackle climate change despite lockdown restrictions, said Maggie Comstock, Conservation International’s senior director of climate policy. On an individual level, Shyla Raghav, the vice president of climate strategy at Conservation International, urged people to learn from the world’s rapid and definitive responses to the coronavirus.
The Big Picture: “Crises like this pandemic demonstrate the incredible capacity of societies to come together in the face of unprecedented, insurmountable challenges and adapt,” said Raghav. “This is exactly what we need to tackle climate change.” According to a 2018 UN report, humanity only has about a decade left to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and the recent decline in global emissions illustrates that changes in human behavior can show tangible results for climate action. “Countries must find ways to make their emissions reductions goals a reality and increase the ambition, conferences or no conferences,” added Comstock.
Cover image: The Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Peru (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)