The following piece was written as part of The Pandemic: Science and Society course offered from Aug. 17 – Sep. 4.
Climate change and environmental degradation is a public health crisis. While we are stuck navigating the immediate tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been little attention to the impact habitat destruction and climate change has on the release of further viruses. Pandemics have been increasing in frequency, and the emerging diseases can be attributed to humans interacting with the environment irresponsibly.
SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic disease, which means it was transferred from an animal species to the human species through direct or indirect contact. Many wild animals harbor viruses that have the potential to spill over to humans. Unregulated wildlife trade significantly increases this potential, as it involves humans exposing themselves to multitudinous pathogens unseen by the human eye. Habitat destruction is also a key mechanism that forces humans to be in contact with more wild animal species. It is employed to grow massive amounts of crops cheaply and efficiently. Take palm oil, an ingredient that modern society is incredibly dependent on. It is used in make-up, candy, hair products, and much more. 90% of palm oil is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia where tropical rainforests must be cut down to make room for the plantations. Destroying these tropical rainforests not only decreases biodiversity, a crucial component to a healthy planet, but it leaves many species without a livable habitat, meaning that these animals may venture into areas already populated by people. This not only exposes humans to wild animals, but it can also put families and communities in very challenging positions. Dr. Krista Milich, Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology, gave a powerful example during her lecture: if an elephant ventures onto the land of a family’s crops, which provide their main source of income, the family may be forced to slay the elephant to preserve their livelihood.
Climate change itself also can contribute to increased human-wildlife interactions. It has resulted from human activity and in turn caused strong, erratic weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires. These weather events actively destroy habitats, displacing wild animals and increasing the risk that these animals come in close contact with humans or other animals. Climate change not only propels habitat destruction but also occurs as a result of it. For example, imagine that a forest in the Amazon is cleared to construct a new oil-drilling site. This habitat destruction increases the risk of human contact to wild animals, increasing the risk of a parasite being transmitted to a human. The oil is used to power cars, and due to the deforestation necessary to make the drilling site itself, there are less trees that can intake the carbon dioxide. Both consequences lead to further warming, which leads to more habitat destruction. We are stuck within this vicious cycle.
How to address the myriad of issues described above? We should consider turning to Indigenous people, who have been utilizing sustainable practices for centuries. A recent study of the Brazilian Amazon revealed that Indigenous territories with full property rights experienced a significantly lesser rate of deforestation in contrast to territories without full property rights. Another study looking at Indigenous lands across different countries with differing climates and species provided evidence that territories maintained by Indigenous people have the highest levels of biodiversity. Indigenous voices must be included in the necessary future conversations about habitat protection and environmentalism not only because they offer valuable insight but also because they have historically been excluded from a seat at the table.
Habitat destruction is driven by consumerism. Staying aware of one’s personal carbon footprint is important, but it is also critical to acknowledge the privilege that comes with that. Additionally, policy measures are crucial to impeding the destruction of the planet. A simple way to make an impact is to vote in public officials who are willing to fight the powerful corporations who care more about their bottom line than the current and future lives that they are impacting. In terms of wildlife trade, policymakers need to advocate for regulation and testing for potentially dangerous pathogens while accounting for the fact that wildlife trade is incredibly ludicrous (and therefore inviting) in the short term.
Finally, spread science. The implications of science affect everyone in some form or another, although it can be quite difficult to see. Make science relevant to who you are addressing, and underscore the urgency of the situation. “I can’t imagine going through another pandemic like this one. What about you? How has this pandemic been difficult for you?” And follow, “I’ve been reading this fascinating study about deforestation and pandemics…” Scientists and experts warned of a pandemic, specifically a deadly coronavirus, for years. We as a species decided not to listen, incredulous and ignorant despite the evidence. The threat of climate change is painfully similar to that of this pandemic. Scientists and experts have been warning us for decades. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic not only serves as a reminder of the urgency of a human-driven changing climate and environment, but to prevent future pandemics, these environmental issues must be addressed. So, call up a friend or family member today. Listen to their story during this challenging time. Listen for the instances when you can make a connection to the environment. This conversation very well might give one more person the tools to advocate for the earth we are so fortunate to live on.