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“We Created the Pandemicene”: Ed Yong on How the Climate Crisis Could Spark the Next Pandemic

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Climate change is forcing animal migrations at an unprecedented scale, bringing many previously disconnected species into close contact and dramatically raising the likelihood 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!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the U.S. COVID death toll approaches 1 million, we turn now to look at how the climate emergency could spark the next pandemic. A new study published in Nature shows the climate crisis and urban sprawl is forcing many wild mammals to relocate to new habitats where they interact with new species, including humans, leading to more viruses spilling over from one species to another. The researchers say this shuffling of viruses in mammals has already started and will increase as the Earth continues to warm.

We’re joined now by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong. He writes about the study in his new piece for The Atlantic headlined “We Created the 'Pandemicene.'”

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

ED YONG: Yeah, so, the idea is actually pretty straightforward and intuitive. As the world warms, the world’s animals are being forced to relocate into new habitats to track their preferred environmental conditions. As they do this, species that never before coexisted will suddenly find themselves close neighbors. And that gives the viruses that those species carry opportunities to hop into new hosts. 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 then living through the Pandemicene, this era where our lives are going to be repeatedly affected by new and reemergent diseases that will come more frequently because of the climatic changes that we have also unleashed upon the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the simulation that the scientists of this study created to show the potential hot spots of future viral sharing, as they put it?

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. No study like this has been attempted before, and it took them three years, over the course of the current pandemic, to do it.

But the results are very stark and quite grim. So, for example, it turned out that the hot spots for future spillovers are going to lay in the tropics, areas that are diverse in species and tend to be quite mountainous, so a lot of tropical Africa and Southeast Asia. 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: So, Ed, if you can use the example of Ebola and talk about bats and how they are affected by climate change, and what it means for 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 a problem not just driven particularly by bats, but not just of 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 need to find intermediate hosts. Those intermediate hosts need to be near people. The viruses need to be compatible enough to affect 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: So, what added to the terror in your piece, I mean, these guys, the scientists who did the 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. So, talk more about that, and specifically about COVID.

ED YONG: Right. So, it’s very hard to take any particular virus, like SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID, and say this is a climate-related thing. It’s very hard to take the present and then backtrack into the past. But what the simulation shows is that these kind of events are just going to be more likely. 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.

And as we said, these events have been going on. 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. The moment for averting this was a few decades ago. What we have to — what we’re forced to do now is to cope with the consequences.

And that means a few things. We can do predictive and preventive work. 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 ahead of time. We can set up surveillance systems in the kind of future hot spots that this study identified. But no amount of that is going to mean that we — no amount of that will negate the risk of pandemics fully. We must expect new diseases to hit us, and hit us in the imminent 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 have happened already.

And that means that we need to prepare in ways that we seem to be loath to do. We need to shore up our public health infrastructure. We need to make sure that our healthcare system is ready. 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. We need to do all those things. And we need — if we are blessed enough to get a lull from COVID, we need to use that time to prepare for future onslaughts of other epidemics, because what this study makes very abundantly clear is that those will happen. People have always predicted that we’re going to live through an age of more and more epidemics and outbreaks. This study confirms that that is true. And I think what it absolutely does is show that many of the greatest existential threats to our world right now, like climate change, the rise of new diseases and the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, are really all facets of the same problem. And we need to think of that in that same interconnected way.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed Yong, we want to thank you for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer at The Atlantic. We will link to your 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 IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. Stay with us.

[break]

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

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