Catie Boehmer

What’s COVID got to do with conservation?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down, the Salazar Center had built its mission and values around something that many scientists and policymakers are now calling for to safeguard humanity from the next would-be pandemic: protecting and restoring healthy, intact natural systems. While there have been calls to ban so-called “wet” markets and illegal wildlife trade, it’s bigger than that. Over the past several weeks, articles have proliferated about the connections between human health and the natural world, as well as the link between public health issues and climate change. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Humans are increasingly encroaching on and fragmenting our planet’s ecosystems and landscapes—building roads and subdivisions, extracting resources such as timber and groundwater, and converting previously wild lands for agriculture. These activities have myriad effects. Disrupted ecosystems tend to lose their biggest predators first, leaving behind smaller species that reproduce in large numbers and have immune systems more capable of carrying diseases without succumbing to them. At the same time, by turning forests into farmland and erecting homes in the wildland-urban interface, we’re more likely to come into contact with the wildlife that remain in these areas—no wet market required. Almost half of the new diseases that jumped from animals to humans (zoonotic pathogens) after 1940 can be traced to changes in land use, agriculture, or wildlife interactions. And, not only are humans destroying natural habitats, we’re driving climate change, which in turn is reducing the amount of habitat available to any given species, shifting species’ natural ranges, or both, further increasing the chances that these animals will inadvertently cross paths with people. That’s not all. As temperatures warm and biodiversity decreases, ecosystems are knocked further off balance, and animals are mixing in new and unexpected ways, providing even more opportunities for diseases to spread. In short, human impacts not only make it more likely that an ecosystem is susceptible to harboring viruses like COVID-19, they also increase the chances that people will come into contact with the species carrying those diseases.

Changing human behavior on a scale effective enough to prevent another pandemic like COVID-19 is a tall order, but there is also much to build upon and be learned from the current crisis. Lee Hannah, a senior scientist at Conservation International, for example, points out that, “There’s going to be right places for disease control, and they may largely overlap the right places for biodiversity.” And, scientists from Stanford have also suggested that relatively small buffer zones, such as tree farms or reforestation projects, around biodiversity-rich areas could dramatically lessen the likelihood of human-wildlife interaction. What does this mean in practice? If we learn from this crisis and enact some of these measures, efforts to reduce the transmission of zoonotic viruses can do double duty in the fight against climate change: the same healthy biodiverse landscapes that need to be preserved are more resilient to the effects a warming planet, and new or restored buffer zones can also act as a carbon sink.

Image by @statisticallycartoon (courtesy of Instagram)

What is more, the response to the pandemic has made it clear that our society is capable of the rapid and dramatic action required to combat climate change. For example, aggressive steps to reduce planet-warming emissions (investing in solar and wind power, switching to electric cars, requiring more energy-efficient infrastructure) wouldn’t be nearly as disruptive to everyday life as the current stay-at-home orders and would have far-reaching impacts. And, addressing climate change may well necessitate an economic support response not dissimilar from current relief efforts—previously thought infeasible by some—such as providing for those whose jobs are most vulnerable (coal and oil workers, among others) and low-income communities who bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters like wildfires and floods. City and state policymakers are also demonstrating the power of local and regional leadership in a crisis, and such an approach can pave the way for increased climate change resilience and adaptation planning. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing just $1.8 trillion in building resilience against climate change over the next decade—by investing in green technology, resilient infrastructure, forest restoration, and renewable energy—could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits, and much of this work can get underway with the support of the same local leaders who are currently directing the COVID-19 response.

There is no doubt that responding to climate change will look different from the response to COVID-19 in many ways. Rather than socially isolating, the fight against climate change will require collaboration and coming together like never before. And the impacts of climate change are slower-building and, in many places around the world, will not affect as many individuals and communities as quickly, visibly, or dramatically as this pandemic has, so conservationists may have a harder time motivating and mobilizing the masses. Nonetheless, the current crisis has underscored that our society is indeed capable of responding to climate change quickly and at-scale; it has also highlighted the need to better prepare our communities and to create more equitable systems under a status quo with more frequent disasters.