More Viral Outbreaks Are Likely Coming Due to Climate Crisis, New Study Says

Climate change is driving animal migrations at an unprecedented level, bringing many species that were previously distant into close contact. This dramatically increases the chance of viruses leaping into new hosts, and sparking future pandemics. That’s according to a new study in the journal Nature, which predicts that climate-driven disruptions to Earth’s ecosystems will create thousands of cross-species viral transmissions in the coming decades. We speak with The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, who says this new era can be thought of as the “Pandemicene,” a time defined by the power of viruses over humanity and the wider world. “In a warming world, we’ll get lots of these spillover events in which viruses find new hosts, mostly transferring between animal to animal but increasing the odds that they will eventually then spill over into us,” says Yong.

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AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the U.S. COVIDWe now turn to the climate emergency to see how it could lead to the next pandemic. A new studyPublished in NatureThe climate crisis and urban sprawl are forcing wild mammals to move to new habitats, where they can interact with other species, including humans. This is causing more viruses to spread from one species to the next. Researchers say that this shifting of viruses in mammals has already begun and will continue to increase as the Earth warms.

We’re joined now by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong. He wrote about the study in his new book. pieceFor The Atlantic headlined “We Created the ‘Pandemicene.’”

Ed, welcome back! Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by just explaining: What do you mean by the Pandemicene? This is a frightening article.

ED YONG:The idea is quite simple and intuitive. As the world warms, the world’s animals are being forced to relocate into new habitats to track their preferred environmental conditions. This will lead to species that had never been close neighbors suddenly becoming closer. These viruses have the potential to spread to new hosts, and this gives them an opportunity to do so. So, in a warming world, we’ll get lots of these spillover events in which viruses find new hosts, mostly transferring between animal to animal but increasing the odds that they will eventually then spill over into us.

This new study, led by Colin Carlson and Greg Albery, shows that the extent of these events is huge and that they — crucially, that they have already been going on in a very substantial way and in a way that is going to be very difficult for us to address. So, we’re used to talking about the Anthropocene, this era of the planet’s history where it’s dominated by human influence. We are also living in the Pandemicene, an era where our lives will be impacted by new and recurrent diseases that will emerge more often due to the climatic changes we have also unleashed on the world.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you describe the simulation that scientists from this study created to demonstrate the potential hot spots for viral sharing in the future?

ED YONG: So, what they did was to look at maps of where some 3,000 mammal species are now and where they’re likely going to be in warmer worlds under various conditions of projected warming. And then they will take different pairs of mammals and look at where those ranges overlap in ways that they currently don’t, and then predict how often those overlaps will lead to the kinds of spillovers that I’ve talked about. It’s a huge effort. It is a new study that has never been done before. They took three years to complete it, during the current pandemic.

The results are quite stark and very grim. It turned out that the tropics, which are rich in biodiversity and are mountainous, are the most likely areas to see future spillovers. This includes a lot of Southeast Asia and tropical Africa. They’re going to proportionately happen in areas that are basically in humanity’s backyard, areas that are going to be heavily settled by people, that are already sites of human cities, or will be in the near-term future.

And I think the most worrying part of this is that the simulation showed that these trends have already been going on and that even if all greenhouse emissions — even if all carbon emissions cease today, that this is a train that, once set in motion, cannot be halted, that we have already started this, and it’s already underway in this world that has warmed by 1.2 degrees. Of course, there are many other great reasons to try and mitigate climate change as much as possible, but the Pandemicene, once released, cannot be easily unbottled, which means that we are now in a position where we have to expect more of what we’re currently going through and try and prepare for it and adapt for it.

AMY GOODMAN:Ed, could you talk about Ebola using the example of Ebola, and how climate change affects bats, and what it means to just Ebola?

ED YONG: So, bats are very good at — so, bats fly, obviously, and that allows them to travel over much longer distances than other mammals, which means that they are particular drivers for the kinds of spillover effects linked to climate change that I’ve talked about. No one really knows the exact reservoir species for Ebola in the wild, but it’s likely to be a bat, and there’s 13 possible species. Those species in the future are going to travel, and they’re going to create lots and lots of opportunities for their viruses to spill over into a lot of other mammals.

And what that means for Ebola, which is currently a problem mostly for western Africa and a little bit for the east, is that it’s likely going to be a problem for other parts of the continent, too. It might well become a problem that — a significant problem that eastern Africa also needs to worry about. And, you know, this is — this is Ebola. It’s one disease. This is likely going to be the case for every animal-borne virus that bothers us, including the many tens of thousands that we haven’t even discovered yet. This is a global problem. It is not just a problem driven by bats. It’s going to be in hot spots in places like Africa and Southeast Asia, but not just there. It’s a planetary problem. We really have rewired the network of animals and viruses in a very dramatic way and in a way that’s going to be to our detriment.

The way I think about this is, you know, for a virus — for a new virus to spill over into humans, a lot of things need to line up, all of which are quite unlikely. The viruses must find intermediate hosts. These intermediate hosts must be close to people. The viruses must be compatible enough to cause disease in us. All of these have quite low odds, so it’s like playing Russian roulette with a gun that has a million chambers in it. But because we’ve altered the climate, because we’ve warmed the world, we have effectively loaded bullets into more of those chambers, and we’re now starting to pull the trigger more frequently. We do that enough, we’re going to get shot.

AMY GOODMAN:What added terror to your piece? These scientists, you know, the ones who did it. Nature study, assumed the changes they simulated will occur in the later half of this century, but instead their simulations suggested — and they did it over and over — we could be living through the peak era of spillovers right now. Let’s talk more about this, and in particular about COVID.

ED YONG: Right. So, it’s very hard to take any particular virus, like SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVIDSay that this is a climate-related matter. It’s very hard to take the present and then backtrack into the past. These kinds of events are more likely than ever, according to the simulation. So, whether or not climate was the thing that — whether or not climate influenced the emergence of COVID as a disease, it’s going to influence the emergence of many similar kinds of events now and in the future.

These events have been happening, as we already said. The risk has been growing beneath our noses, which means that we’re now in a situation where we simply have to deal with it. This was possible only a few decades ago. What we have to — what we’re forced to do now is to cope with the consequences.

That means a few important things. Predictive and preventive work can be done. There are things that we — we can try and better understand and predict which kinds of viruses are going to spill over into us. We can prepare vaccines in advance. We can set up surveillance systems in future hot areas, as this study has shown. But no amount of that is going to mean that we — no amount of that will negate the risk of pandemics fully. We can expect new diseases to strike us in the near future. The fact that we’re going through one society-upending crisis that we all want to get past right now doesn’t give us a pass. We could start the next pandemic tomorrow or it could already have occurred.

This means that we must prepare in ways we are reluctant to do. We must improve our public healthcare infrastructure. We must ensure that our healthcare system is available. We need social safety nets, so that the most marginalized and vulnerable people don’t get disproportionately hit by whatever comes next, as they have by every epidemic in the recent past. All those things are needed. And we need — if we are blessed enough to get a lull from COVIDWe need to make sure that we are prepared for the next wave of epidemics. This study is clear and demonstrates that they will. People have always predicted that we’re going to live through an age of more and more epidemics and outbreaks. This study confirms that this is true. This study shows that many of our greatest existential threats, including climate change, new diseases and sixth mass extinction of animals, are actually all aspects of the same problem. It is important to view all of these issues in an interconnected way.

AMY GOODMAN:We want to thank Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist writer, for being here. The Atlantic. We will link to you piece, “We Created the ‘Pandemicene.’”

Coming up The Wobblies. May Day is Sunday. We’ll look at a classic film that tells the story of the IWWThe Industrial Workers of the World. Stay with Us.


AMY GOODMAN: “There Is Power in a Union,” written by Joe Hill, from the 1979 documentary The Wobblies. Among the voices that you heard in the musical break were Alice Gerrard and Joe Glazer. Mike Seeger is the half-brother to Pete Seeger.