COVID and Climate Change – why XR must visit the WHO

New research confirms the role of climate change in making diseases like COVID-19, which come from wildlife, more likely, by direct and indirect effects, working in concert with other environmental damage.

Yep, shocking.

I use the words “more likely” and “like” in that sentence, reflecting scientific method and norm for communicating conclusions. In hypercomplex systems where isolating individual variables and establishing specific connections between events is difficult, that should not limit our ability to draw conclusions about probabilities, especially when they have massive implications for life on Earth.

I wrote about this connection in March 2020 and since then there are rather credible folks explaining the same connections. In this blog I will review that analysis, before reflecting on the implications for society and environmental action. My aim is to encourage the environmental movement to engage more courageously with this matter, so we might have more sober policy discussions about both climate and the pandemic.

First, some definitions. ‘Spillover’ is the term used by experts on disease (epidemiologists) for infections that spread to us from animals other than humans. Zoonoses aren’t bleeding snitches from getting too close to a caged animal in a zoo, but diseases that we contract from that spillover from wildlife to humans. So what is the latest science saying about zoonotic spillovers?

“Disruptions in environmental conditions and habitats can provide new opportunities for SARS-CoV-2 and maybe other CoVs to spillover” explained nine scientists in a joint article a few months into the pandemic (Bonilla-Aldana et al. 2020). The following month when scientists at the United Nations used their credz to try to bring attention to this worrying connection. The UN Environment Programme stated that environmental changes “create opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people. Climate change­­–primarily the result of greenhouse gas emissions–exacerbates the situation.” They launched a report on the matter, with a jaunty positive-negative title “preventing the next pandemic” (yep, optimism is relative!). In the report they communicated how “epidemic zoonoses are often triggered by events such as climate variability, flooding and other extreme weather…” and that “climate change is a force of growing importance that influences the future geographic distribution and abundance of species such as bats, monkeys and rodents, including those in which zoonotic pathogens often originate…” (UNEP, 2020). The director of UNEP sought to make the info more intelligible with these sensible words: “key anthropogenic drivers for the emergence of zoonoses [are] from agricultural intensification and increased demand for animal protein to the conversion of land and climate change.” Hmm. Allow me to translate for Inger Andersen. “We have been doing stuff like industrial farming, eating more wild animals, and messing up their climate so they get sick in new ways and have to move, which means we are more likely to be infected by them in new ways.”

Still not convinced? With his colleague David, the well-known US epidemiologist Anthony Fauci wrote in a peer reviewed journal in September last year how “Evidence suggests that SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are only the latest examples of a deadly barrage of coming coronavirus and other emergences. The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another reminder [of how] our human activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, [so] we will increasingly provoke new disease emergences.” Yes, that article got the conspiracy merchants vlogging away about a global conspiracy, which we will come back to, don’t worry. But for now, let’s treat it as expert opinion, albeit the product of an industrial medical profession.

Now it gets worse. A new paper, currently under review, concludes that our damage to nature and the climate means that more diseases are coming are way no matter what we do about climate. Using modelling, they predict that over the next 50 years climate change and environmental degradation will increase “the cross-species transmission of novel viruses at least 4,000 times. Counter to expectations, holding warming under 2°C within the century does not reduce new viral sharing [in their model.]” The first time I read their paper, the number 4,000 did not sink in. I am sorry to make the lockdown feel worse, but you should let that sink in: 4,000 times.

Taken together, these studies make the claim that COVID-19 was made more likely by climate change, and thus we will see more such diseases in the coming years, quite depressingly uncontroversial. There are instances where this view has entered the mainstream, such as an article in Rolling Stone magazine. However, it is not on the tip of the tongue of scientists, environmentalists or politicians. A comparison of people searching for COVID and conspiracy, on the one hand, and COVID-19 and climate, on the other, shows where general public interest has focused.

Some people respond to that by wanting to know “for certain” about the connection. If that is you, then my answer is by what criteria will you consider something certain? For instance, it took decades to identify the likely animal source of HIV/AIDS. It also over ten years for proof that the first form of COVID, called SARS, came from bats, when the Wuhan lab discovered the very same virus in bat poo. Of course, even that does not prove a direct link, if you want to know which bat infected which human ‘patient zero.’ In infinitely complex living systems, we exist in the grey of our conceptualising of patterns and probabilities. Hence the “like” and “likely” in my opening sentence.

Some people dislike that grey and prefer to say it is irresponsible to make the connections that people like me, the UN and the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) are making. For instance, in March last year, I received critical tweets from some environmental pundits when I published my analysis of the possible connections between climate and the coronavirus outbreak. They said I was making stuff up, despite my blog being very clear on the peer-reviewed sources for the claim. I then noticed how some of the same people who dismiss the COVID-19 connection with climate also confidently say that deforestation is a factor in such disease outbreaks. Although they cannot say which forest clearance is the cause of which bat infecting which person, that doesn’t matter for them. Instead, the burden of proof is less necessary for them on that matter than on the climate connection. Could that be because the implications are less troubling?

Think about it. If climate change is making epidemics more likely and will continue to do so by a factor of 4000 over the next 50 years, no matter what we do, then we face a situation where there is no simple cause, no simple answer and no simple culprit to release our anger towards. Rather, we have to recognise a difficult predicament requiring an ongoing and complicated response with no fairy-tale ending or chance of retribution.  

Not a lot of people like that perspective, and so prefer the corporate-government narrative of ‘magic bullet’ vaccines, or the conspiracy argument that someone evil somewhere can be blamed for our problems (which I will come back to). But take a moment to realise the implications of that connection between climate and COVID-19 being made clear. This is what I said to the undergraduates at a conference on climate adaptation at the University of Groningen.

Once understood it means we might begin to see that all manner of current disruptions to our own lives are indirect outcomes of environmental and climate destabilisation. Worried about your job? Experiencing social anxiety? Annoyed at the polarisation between people who want to be told what to do or want to believe it’s all a conspiracy? Or simply missing grandma? Once you make the connections, then all of this can be understood as our everyday experience of climate change. Because we aren’t separate from the planet that makes us.

But hold up! If you have been paying attention to the question of the origins of COVID-19, you will know that there is the view – including from experienced but controversial virologists – that it came from a lab in the city of Wuhan, China. Unless you read centrist media only, and then you will think such ideas are poo-pooed as Trumpian hoodoo. It is true that lots of scientists have debunked the claim of other scientists that the virus came from a lab. That debunking is of the view that the virus shows evidence of being genetically altered by humans. That does not discount an accidental release of a natural virus from a lab doing the research on coronaviruses. It is unfortunate that we have not heard more from the staff of the Wuhan lab, especially those who were rumoured to have got sick in the fourth quarter of 2019. Hopefully the World Health Organisation (WHO) study team in China will be able to talk to them, as if not, the suspicions will grow.

If there is eventually more evidence for it being an accidental release from the Wuhan lab, then that will side-line discussion of the environmental link. But should it? The reasons for what was being done at that lab actually re-establishes the link with environmental change, through the way that some people respond recklessly to perceived threats. Let me explain…

In the Wuhan lab, they were doing “gain of function” research on the viruses. That means they were seeing how they could make a virus gain an additional dangerous function, such as the ability to infect human cells. Again, as a non-expert in epidemiology, I find it difficult to believe the knowledge benefit of proving something is possible that we knew is possible anyway (from the SARS in bat poo), outweighs the risk of accidental release of something newly dangerous to humanity. It seems I am not alone in that view, as the ‘gain of function’ research was banned in the US. However, US scientists helped the research to continue, with Anthony Fauci and colleagues funding the work to be done in the Wuhan lab. To do such dangerous work in a city of 11 million people that hosts global sporting events also seems to me reflecting a dangerous hubris in that branch of medical research.

You can see why the conspiracy theories have some juicy material to blend into a global plot of some kind. But we do not need to go that way. Instead, we can simply ask: how does someone justify doing such risky stuff? Perhaps if one is anticipating a spate of pandemics because of ecological change and climate change? Talking to Rolling Stone magazine about how climate change means we are entering a new era of pandemics, Anthony Fauci said “our preparedness has to be commensurate with that risk.” I don’t know Dr Fauci or his team. But I know of the research that says the ‘experience avoidance’ prevalent amongst successful men in patriarchal culture can lead to high-risk behaviours when they feel their identity, status or worldview are threatened (Chawla and Ostafin, 2007). Other psychological research proves that when some people perceive greater risks to themselves they can take greater risks – something shown in gambling and in finance. Another example of how this might be happening in response to climate anxiety is in the military, where officers are game planning invading countries to secure resources in the midst of a destabilising climate. Unfortunately the tendency for reckless risk taking is more likely to occur amongst people in positions of power, due to the higher prevalence of insecure narcissism amongst senior role holders. This is why we urgently need more offering of support for emotional literacy and self-awareness as leaders in all walks of life experience greater climate anxiety, as well enhancing ongoing accountability in all organisations.

So we know that some climate anxiety was an aspect of the inner worlds of people who funded the gain-of-function research on coronaviruses in Wuhan. Could it have been one of the explicit or implicit rationales? Even if the virus is proven to have come from that lab, engineered or natural, accidental or not, then it is still partly influenced by climate change, as perception of growing vulnerability influenced the risky decision-making of researchers.

The Wuhan lab origin theory may be disproven, or never be proven one way or the other. Whatever the outcome of that analysis, the mainstream environmental movement and the WHO have failed to make the climate connection with COVID-19 origins a matter of general public awareness. The WHO website on the relationship between climate change and COVID-19 does not even mention the information from their sister UN agency. That is significant, as it means that other influential global organisations, like the World Economic Forum, tell the world’s leaders as Davos 2021, that there is no “clear cut” connection. When I was reviewing the draft of the IPCC 6th assessment report, it also omitted the recent research that I have listed in the blog (so let’s hope that changes).

The upshot? It is time for new ways of bringing this connection to public awareness. The green groups have been quiet on the role of climate change in making COVID-19 more likely. So perhaps it is time for some Extinction Rebellion activists to visit the head office in Geneva with the banner:

“WHO: Tell the Truth on COVID Causes.”

Sure, they might receive some vitriol from across the political spectrum, but at least we might finally ‘cut through’ to the general public on the credible evidence that climate change is partly responsible for the growing likelihood of epidemics – whether directly or because of reckless responses to the threat by some researchers. The implication from a wider recognition of the Climate-COVID connection is that we need to increase efforts to curb climate change while also having a more sober conversation about a balanced approach to public health that does not assume vaccines will return us to ‘normal.’ A truly holistic approach to public health would be one positive outcome.

Some of the references (some were hyperlinked)

Morens, D. M. and Anthony S Fauci (2020) Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19, 182(5):1077-1092.

Bonilla-Aldana DK, Holguin-Rivera Y, Perez-Vargas S, Trejos-Mendoza AE, Balbin-Ramon GJ, Dhama K, Barato P, Lujan-Vega C, Rodriguez-Morales AJ. (2020a) Editorial Commentary: Importance of the One Health approach to study the SARS-CoV-2 in Latin America. One Health 10: 100147. DOI: 10.1016/j.onehlt.2020.100147, 4 pages, 74 refs.

UNEP (2020) PREVENTING THE NEXT PANDEMIC: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission.

Chawla, N. and B, Ostafin (2007) Experiential Avoidance as a Functional Dimensional Approach to Psychopathology: An Empirical Review, JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 63(9), 871–890 (2007) © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20400

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