The Relationship Between Climate Change and Adapting Viruses
Climate change is an all-encompassing danger threatening humanity. Recent years have seen the massive consequences of irresponsible climate damage contribute to natural disasters all across the world. In the U.S. alone, there were 18 billion-dollar weather and climate incidents from January through September 2021.
Now, we’ve entered a second year of a global pandemic that continues to adapt and persist. These fights against climate change and viral contagions are connected more than you might think, and making progress on one front can impact the other.
Here, we explore the relationship between climate change and adapting viruses as we look for better ways to protect ourselves.
How Climate Change and Adapting Viruses are Linked
If you keep your eyes on the news, you know that climate change continues to accelerate at faster rates than ever before. Every year, record temperatures combine with natural disasters to create horrific conditions for plants, animals, and people. Throughout 2021, we experienced massive crises including Hurricane Henri, which left 42,000 Rhode Islanders without power, and a historic drought covering 93% of the west that continues into this new year.
Meanwhile, we are in the second year of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and things still do not look like an end is in sight. The virus known as COVID-19 has adapted a few different variants, including the notably potent Delta and OMICRON variants, that threaten the progress made in fighting the spread of COVID through vaccine roll-outs. Vaccines work to inoculate individuals from the worst of the virus, but viral adaptations are giving COVID new spreading potential.
The two looming threats of climate change and adapting viruses loom over the public consciousness at the moment, and yet many fail to realize that these two problems are often exacerbated by the same practices. Climate change and the behaviors causing it are also creating opportunities for novel viruses to spread across the globe.
Here are two examples.
Deforestation is an unsustainable practice happening at a rate of 15 billion more trees with every passing year. With every tree we cut down, we release stored CO2 from the bark into the air and destroy the carbon-absorbing benefits that come with forests. The majority of this resource-stripping is taking place in the Amazon, where plants and animals have lived for thousands of years in relative seclusion, developing their own local viruses and antibodies.
Humans, however, have never before been introduced to many of these diseases, which may be zoonotic, meaning they can transfer from animals to humans. This is one prominent hypothesis for the origins of the COVID-19 virus, which is thought to have come from a wild bat.
Viruses adapt to survive in new conditions. Deforestation takes the old conditions away and replaces them with our globalized urban culture. This makes it easy for pandemics to start.
In a similar vein, our overindulgence in unsustainable pollution and the burning of fossil fuels have led to melting glaciers, themselves a ticking time bomb of public health problems.
Scientists consistently find that thanks to human activity over the last 200 years — as industrialization boomed — the amount of carbon dioxide in the environment has gone up by 40% while methane levels are up exponentially. These conditions warm the world and cause glacier mass to retreat significantly. Not only does the disappearance of glaciers have severe implications for habitats (including human habitats), but adapting viruses are a threat that may also emerge from the ice.
In fact, viruses as old as 15,000 years have been found in glacier ice. Being so long removed from a larger ecosystem, these viruses are unlike what our bodies are used to or prepared to fight against. In other cases, still-intact smallpox and Spanish Flu viruses were discovered in 100-year-old tissue. These are viruses that even though we have treatments for, parts of the world will suffer disproportionately from an outbreak.
The release of old virus forms could wreak havoc on our adapted immune systems in a worst-case scenario. That’s why epidemiologists — experts in viral diseases, their spread, and their treatment — have a vested interest in the state of the climate beyond any personal attachments to nature.
As humankind faces these twin threats of climate change and adapting viruses, it’s important to outline exactly what is at stake. COVID-19 has been difficult for all of us to live with. In the future, unregulated deforestation, and melting glaciers could add fuel to the fire of lost habitats and zoonotic diseases spreading into the populace.
How We Can Better Protect Ourselves
Fortunately, we are better positioned than ever before to reduce the trend of unsustainable industry and thus mitigate the risk of climate change and adaptive viruses. renewable energy is clean, stable, and where we must head to fully adapt to acknowledge our planetary boundaries. And the cost of renewable energy has fallen 80% since 2010, making them now one of the most affordable and desirable power sources on the market.
Meanwhile, nature-inspired climate solutions continue to be implemented by a host of governments, nonprofits, and inspiring individuals. The future doesn’t have to be bleak with the right protections and climate-friendly best practices. Here are just a few:
- Use renewable energy to power your home or business.
- Buy recycled products and practice recycling.
- Support sustainable politics and business processes with your vote and purchasing power.
- Use only what you need and find gratitude for what you have.
- Look at how your actions affect the entire ecosystem — and if you’re unsure how, do some research and start conversations with peers.
By reducing our consumption of natural resources, we can cut down on climate change and the spread of some adapting viruses that threaten our futures. Climate change and public health will forever be linked by the consequences of irresponsible industry. Make a difference by embracing nature positive choices today.