By Rosimar Bernal, Elisa Ledermann, Clara Seitz and Michael Palocz-Andresen
Pandemics have shown to be a great threat to the health, wellbeing, and development of Mankind around the world. The novel Coronavirus, Covid-19 has put into check the daily life and evidenced the many gaps and inequalities existing around the globe. It has been proven to be one of the most important factors of climate change is the changing developing and spreading viruses and bacteria. This report considers the triggering elements of the climate, the environment and the society for the pandemic and try to give an answer, how humans could avoid future catastrophic situation.
Many of the viruses, parasites, and bacteria that may affect humans have an animal origin. Diseases or infections of animal origin which are naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans are known as Zoonosis, they constitute a large amount of the known and unknown diseases. About 70% of arising infections are caused by microbes from an animal source, as examples could be named Ebola, Zika, HIV/AIDS, Dengue, and Coronaviruses (e.g., SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV). About 1.7 million viruses are thought to habit mammal and avian hosts; among those, between 631 000 and 827 000 could infect humans. In the same way, an increase of disease outbreaks from approximately five infectious diseases a year has been registered, each one with pandemic potential  .
An outbreak or epidemic is defined as “a sudden rise of cases of a disease, injury or other health condition than expected in a given area among a specific group of people and a particular period with cases being related to each other” .
Figure 1: Future strategies for avoiding pandemic situations
Triggering Factors for Future Pandemics
Microbial Adaptation and Change
Microorganisms inhabit human hosts, both internally and externally. They play a key role in the human ecosystem as natural flora, which acts as a defense barrier. Microbes can evolve, adapt and survive. Especially, acute respiratory viruses are among the viruses that continue to emerge and reemerge due to the great burden they are able to produce . Mutations and genetic variations are also expected to occur. A more tangible example is Influenza, which from a virological perspective, evolves constantly into new strains, bringing with it an ongoing development of vaccines against new influenza strains. Yet, outbreaks from influenza are very common . Even though there are no known new strains from the novel Coronavirus, multiple variants have been identified. The one that drawn more attention to them was one variant identified in the U.K. (B.1.1.7), another in South Africa (B.1.351), and in Japan/Brazil (P.1). To what extent the new variants may or may not affect the spreads and progression of the disease in an organism is being researched.
Human Susceptibility to Infection
Depending on our way of nutrition or usage of different medications, the balance of the defenses in the human body may be altered, making them more susceptible to get sick. Risk groups consisting of people with preexisting conditions suffering from diabetes, neurological disorders, liver, and chronic kidney disease or immuno-compromised patients were given special attention. How Covid-19 may affect the organism is being researched.
Climate and Weather
The physical environment and the changes that occur in it, influence to a wide extent how a microorganism may or may not affect its host. In the same way, the conditions outside the “host” may be decisive on the survival of the microbes and how they could be transmitted between different hosts, including from one animal species to another.
Ecological and environmental factors have a leading role in the rise of diseases and therefore from epidemics. They determine the speed of transmissibility and persistence of zoonotic infections. It directly affects human exposure to vector-borne diseases through distribution change, abundance, habitat associations, and in general the vector population, thus making it easier for a human being to be affected.
Human Demographics and Behavior
Growing and aging population, urbanization, immunocompromised groups, and “high-risk behavior” contribute to a great extent to the spread of viruses by facilitating the mobilization from one host to another. It is expected that with population growth, more RNA viruses like Ebola, hantavirus, and AIDS, will keep emerging because of the need to keep producing food from animal origin and cultivation fields . Furthermore, directly related to the growing population amplified by climate change, water scarcity and insecurity are an existing threat.
The United Nations estimates that over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress . Regions facing water restrictions, where handwashing and poor sanitation are present and affected by water-borne diseases such as Cholera, Hepatitis A and E, are prone to have a higher lethality and the spread of viruses like Covid-19 increases.
Economic Development and Land Use
Business as usual and the way humans use natural resources without giving them enough time to replenish and therefore exceed the planetary boundaries have had detrimental effects in different spheres of life as we know it on Earth.
According to the scenarios defined by the IPCC, there are four basic models for predicting the future development :
- Scenario group A1: The world of global economic growth
- Scenario group A2: The “Everyone-fights-for-himself-world”
- Scenario group B1: The planned green world
- Scenario group B2: The world of green regions
Despite of Covid-19 impacts the worldwide development shows a growing tendency according to the A1-A2 scenarios. One factor in this development is the land-use change. As the name describes it, is a transformation from one use of the soil to another one. For example, to turn forests into agricultural fields, for human settlement and/or urbanization. This kind of spatial overlap enables different species to get in touch with each other. It means, the natural interactions from animals, microbes, in an ecosystem are altered and lightens a virus or disease to reach new hosts, amplifying the risk of transmission if humans are also in the equation. By clearing up forests for cattle use, the livestock comes in contact with wildlife. If an infected animal or a virus is searching for a host, it can likely mature in the available body, providing new pathways for pathogens to propagate. Various diseases have merged in the last decades as a consequence, mainly, from land-use change, among them, the SARS-CoV-2 , but also agricultural intensification and large-scale livestock farming have had a crucial role in other virus outbreaks .
International Travel and Commerce
Global mobilization has been an enabler for economic development in the last years and has eased a cross-border exchange of goods, services, and technologies. To the same extent in which international mobilization has been helpful for the development of many societies, it has facilitated a rapid spread of epidemics. One of the first measurements that governments took to avoid disseminating the novel Coronavirus was travel restrictions and closing borders. Tendentially, the increase in the number of passengers is highly correlated with the quickness in which a virus can spread. These observations are not new but are dated to countless other outbreaks and introductions of diseases in new regions.
Two global Threats: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Climate Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate change impacts bare a lot of difference and similarities. Both pose a threat to humanity and its life-sustaining systems and are in need of a direct response under uncertainty, affect the world’s population and need corporate action to be tackled .
Life Changing Trends
Climate change and Coronavirus pandemic affect everyday life and work. Their expansion dynamics challenge intuition and short-term thinking and are hard to understand and relate to . Nevertheless, public understanding is crucial in order to push policy makers and accept decisions and measures . The danger of understanding the gravity of the situation too late to prevent the catastrophe is inherent in both the Coronavirus pandemic and Climate change. Therefore, in both crises the opportunity to take early actions was missed .
Both bare global threats which can lead to irreversible change when exceeding a critical point. The control of the Coronavirus becomes highly difficult when reaching a certain abundance within a population. Similarly, huge changes may arise once temperatures have warmed beyond certain critical thresholds . Processes like the changes in the polar jet stream or release of methane by melting permafrost will lead to great consequences .
Inequality across Global and Social Sphere
Climate change and Coronavirus pandemic have unequal impacts across countries and social groups . This is due to individual health conditions, differences in wealth and therefore ability to invest in safety measures and due to location and therefore greater exposure to for example extreme weather conditions . Such an increase in inequality is endangering the global economic system as countries depend on each other.
Testing International Solidarity
As climate change and the Coronavirus affect the globalized world, they will test international solidarity. Competitions for limited resources arise. Countries rather protect their own population. During the Coronavirus pandemic such behaviors could be observed in for example restricted export of sanitary material or the distribution of vaccines . (ibid.). It is likely that we will not only experience similar behaviors during climate change but that the competition intensifies and extends to a larger scale .
Costs and Communication
In crisis situations early action is essential. It is important to communicate risks and foster public engagement . (ibid.). As Coronavirus is a health issue affecting everyone the urgency can be communicated comprehensible. Nevertheless, those countries which communicated the danger of the pandemic clearly and seriously were far more efficient in containing the disease than those sending inconsistent messages or trivializing the threats. Communicating the personal consequences from climate change is critical in activating public understanding and action . Another challenge of communication is to deliver the urgency of preventing disasters which lie in the future as in most cases the prevention is less costly than cure . Nevertheless, the costs of limiting the individual freedom for the global common good often seem too great, whereas the benefits appear to be uncertain and lie in the future . Therefore, it is of high importance that the right degree of political regulations, education and communication is found to foster preventive behavior and shift incentives .
Figure 2: Similarity and difference of influencing factors in the pandemic and in the climate change
Even though there are a lot of aspects combining the pandemic and climate change they are still handled and perceived differently. The Coronavirus pandemic seems to be “clear and compelling” whereas climate change is “indirect and diffuse” . Measures like social distancing are clear, understandable and for a foreseeable period of time. Further the solution for Coronavirus, introducing the right vaccines, is much easier. “Any activities aiming for the reversal of climate change would likely take decades” and are much more complex . Further, the time frame differs. “Humans are great at solving immediate problems, less so ones that feel distant” . The consequences of the climate crisis reveal over an extended time period and have a rather indirect effect on everyday life . The Coronavirus pandemic is at the moment on people’s minds and therefore the temporal distance is very small .
How can Human avoid Future Pandemics?
To assess how future infectious diseases develop and spread in the future, it is important to summarize again how infections spread in the first place. Infectious diseases can be classified into two categories; infections spreading directly through contact or droplet exposure, and those infections that spread indirectly through vector organisms. Vector organisms are for example mosquitos and ticks. The transmission through the food chain, soil, and water is possible as well, although it is rather rare. Infectious diseases can be further classified by their natural origin; whether they had their origin in a human reservoir, called anthroponoses, or if they had their origin in an animal reservoir, called zoonoses. .
In regard to the transmission of infectious diseases, three components are especially important. One needs a pathogen, a vector, and the transmission environment. The pathogen is the bacteria or virus itself. Certain climate conditions are necessary for the survival, reproduction, distribution and transmission of these pathogens and vectors. The climate conditions are responsible for the geographical and seasonal distribution of infectious diseases. Further, weather conditions, hence short-term or current conditions, can affect the timing and intensity of disease outbreaks. .
Climate change is the consequence of cumulation of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere. Tendencies are showing a continuous increasing development, despite of the Covid-19 pandemic caused interim negative impacts, see Fig. 3.
Figure 3: Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration
Global warming is favoring the geographical expansion of infectious diseases. Furthermore, extreme weather events may lead to more intense and clustered disease outbreaks, in addition to outbreaks at non-traditional places and times . In the following the two main climate conditions: precipitation and temperature will be discussed in regard to their influence on vectors and pathogens. This will demonstrate the sensitivity of disease vectors and pathogens towards changing conditions.
The Factor Precipitation
Reduced precipitation is connected to increased emergence of water-borne pathogens, due to lower river flows, which leads to a higher concentration of the pathogens. Heavy rainfalls, however, will also lead to an increase in fecal pathogens. Rain is stirring up the sediments in the ground, leading to the accumulation of fecal microorganisms . Furthermore, humidity plays a crucial role in the distribution of air-borne diseases. For example, the survival and transmission of the human influenza were found to be bound to temperature and humidity, whereas low humidity leads to a quicker distribution .
The larval development of some vectors accelerates with an increase in rainfall in connection to an increase in temperature. The vector mosquito relies on stagnant water for its breeding site. Increased drought in wet regions might increase the rate of stagnant water . Therefore, in some cases, climate change and the general increase of temperature and precipitation favors the development of disease vectors. Humidity plays a large role when it comes to the distribution of disease vectors. Therefore, if the average monthly humidity rate is under 60% the vector will struggle with survival. However, due to climate change, the temperature and humidity have been increasing in usually colder and dry countries, leading to a distribution of unlike diseases, such as West Nile Virus and Lyme disease .
The Factor Temperature
The temperature is affecting the life cycle of a pathogen. Thereby, every pathogen has two temperature thresholds; the minimum and the maximum temperature in which it will be able to survive and reproduce. Therefore, the changing temperature is changing the life cycle of a pathogen. Furthermore, the reproduction rate increased to higher temperatures. For example, one parasite causing malaria, the plasmodium falciparum, will reproduce in 26 days at 20 °C and only 13 days at 25 °C. Rising temperature in water bodies and food environments might increase the living areas for pathogens. .
Temperature affects the spatial-temporal distribution of disease vectors. Vectors, which are usually found in low-latitude regions may habitat in mid- or high-latitude regions due to higher temperatures. Hence, this will lead to a higher expansion, in addition to a general geographical shift in diseases. Many well-known viruses, such as malaria, yellow fever and Lyme disease have already expanded their distribution to higher latitude areas due to higher temperatures .
Figure 3: Impacts of increasing CO2 emission and mile stones of the climate protection measures
- 2012 – End of the 1st period of the Kyoto Protocol
- 2020 – End of the 2nd period of the Kyoto Protocol
- 2016 – Paris Agreement signed
- 2020-2021 Covid.19 pandemic
- 2050 Predicted population in the World in 2050: 8.7 billion.
Distribution and Spreading Infectious Diseases through Climate Change
As seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, through urbanization, global connectivity, international travel, and trade, invasive pathogens and vectors have a new ability to spread widely and cause transcontinental pandemics with public health, social and economic consequences . In general, climate change impacts the transmission of infectious diseases through the altering of contact patterns of human – to – pathogen, human – to – vector, and human – to – host. There have been reports of higher outbreaks of infectious diseases when humans come in contact with pathogens or vectors due to changing weather conditions. For example, higher reports of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome have been registered, when mice enter urbanized areas searching for food during hazard season and transmitting hantavirus. .
Political Coping Mechanisms and Climate Change
Climate change us expected worsen the control effects of pandemics. Even more, this process will lead to ecosystem degradation, which will then put pressure on food security, causing problems, such as malnutrition. Thereby political instability and population displacement are caused.
This might further lead to the breakdown of civil order, in addition to large-scale migration and regional conflicts. It is believed that this has the ability to weaken the global level coping mechanisms to pandemics. . Therefore, countries need to act proactive towards the climate change crisis, and crises caused by climate change. Otherwise, the global connectivity will be destroyed, leading to an “everyone for themselves” policy, which is fatal in solving global problems collectively. In order to avoid future pandemics, humans need to become aware of the impacts changing climate conditions can have on infectious agents.
Therefore, recognizing that climate change is indeed a factor of disease distribution, political decision-makers need to make the fight against the climate crisis. In addition to that, factors like Antibiotic resistance, the melting of the permafrost, and extreme weather events need to be highlighted and monitored, in order to circumvent negative developments in pandemics.
Figure 4: Strategies of mitigation and adaptation, regarding future pandemics
What can humans learn from the Covid-19 pandemic? It is important to listen early to scientific calls for action as ignoring them will be much costlier in the long-run . The Coronavirus pandemic highlights the importance of integrating scientists in local and global policy making but also in the media to influence the public opinion . The Covid-19 pandemic showed that countries and policy makers are able to copy policies and actions made by front runners which have proven to be successful like for example social distancing. Similarly, there are also pioneer countries in terms of climate solutions which could also act as a role model for other governments .
International agreements could decrease the chances of nationalistic or egocentric behaviors and placing powerful or wealthy parts of society over the world’s general population. Policymakers should be motivated to prioritize long-term safety and wealth over short-term costs and economic gain .. As already discussed, communication is essential. Formulating communication strategies, maintaining the trust in scientists and promoting the understanding and handling of risk situations can create a social push for preventative action .
Peer pressure can generate behavioral changes. The effectiveness of individual behavior needs to be more visible and tangible so people are willing to accept the individual costs . Communication is not only important for informing the public but also within international institutions to exchange knowledge and share best practices . Further, the public is a powerful supporter in pushing actions from policy makers by putting them under pressure. How early and strict measures are introduced by policy makers is dependent on how the public perceives the severity of the threats . Education is crucial as society needs to understand the consequences of the catastrophe and the uneven distribution of such across social and special spheres . Nevertheless, politics must create a system where benefits are connected to sustainable behavior.
The recent report analyses three questions:
- How do current behaviors in crises shape the future strategies towards the climate change and future pandemics
- How does the current life style favor the emergence of pandemics?
- How will infectious diseases develop with influence of climate protection measures?
The Coronavirus pandemic gives human an advantage in how to handle global crises and the opportunity to reflect upon the challenges and the steps needed to prevent or prepare strategies for such events in the future. In conclusion, the most important lesson learned is that future international agreements are essentially important and climate protection measures must deeply consider the danger and the impacts of pandemics. Beside them, behavioral changes in crisis are necessary. Education and communication are the basic elements for avoiding future disasters.
In conclusion, the most important lesson learned is that behavioral changes in crisis are necessary. “The longer we wait to adapt our behavior, the more drastic the changes will have to be made in the future” .
About the Authors
Rosimar Bernal has started her Bachelor at the Leuphana University Lüneburg in 2019 as an International Student from Panama. B.Sc Environmental Sciences as major and Spatial Sciences as Minor. Currently, working for the Institute of Ecology from her University.
Elisa Ledermann has started her Bachelor in B.Sc Environmental sciences and economics at the Leuphana University Lüneburg in 2018. She is currently working different internships in order to find the workplace where she can bridge her strong conviction to nature preservation with her business sense.
Clara Seitz has been studying the B.Sc Environmental Science and Law at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg since 2018. After finishing her Bachelor studies in 2021 she pursues on working towards the legal bar exam in Germany. She is currently working in the wind energy industry where she collaborates with a company on writing her bachelor thesis in the field of compliance and supply chain management.
Michael Palocz-Andresen has been working as a full professor for Sustainable Mobility since 2018, supported by the DAAD at the TEC Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores in Mexico. He became a guest professor at the TU Budapest, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, and at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a Humboldt scientist and instructor of the SAE International in the USA.
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