How Climate Change Increases Our Risk For Pandemics

Mar 24, 2020

Deforestation in Sierra Leone, 2013
Credit jbdodane.com/Flickr

Climate change may be putting people at risk for more pandemics like COVID-19. Habitat loss due to climate is bringing animals that can transmit disease in contact with humans more often. 

Dr. Aaron Bernstein is a pediatrician and the interim director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University. He says while we don’t know exactly what caused the first case of the novel coronavirus, we do know a lot of other serious outbreaks have started through closer contact with animals.

For example, take the Ebola epidemic in West Africa which coincided with cutting down forests for agriculture.

“Likely part of the reason why that happened is because bats that carry Ebola had lost their homes. And so we may be pushing bats into new places by destroying their habitat,” Bernstein says.

READ MORE: Can Pets Get COVID-19?

Bernstein says SARS, COVID-19's sister virus, is suspected to have been transmitted from bats to civet cats to humans.

He says confined animal feeding operations can also put people at risk for diseases like swine flu — putting many animals close together can help create new virus strains that are harder to kill.

Bernstein says this crisis is an opportunity for people to recognize that we can make positive changes to prevent climate impacts — including disease. 

“We're transforming the climate and we can't pretend that these radical changes to how the Earth works and life on Earth are not going to affect our health,” Bernstein says.

Contact Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

This is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. However, we recommend checking the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Indiana State Department of Health for the most recent numbers of COVID-19 cases.