Coronavirus, climate and our futures

Commentary by Marc LeeChairman, Cityforum

On 13 April the New York Times (NYT) published two separate articles – a page 1 opinion piece and a short article on zoonotic disease and humanity in the business section.  Together they provide a powerful challenge to the argument that, after the coronavirus crisis, the world can return to the ways in which it was being run before Covid19 happened.

In the opinion piece[1], the writer and academic Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of “The Refugees”, makes a strong argument against envisaging a society that would look just as it did before the present crisis began.  “… if our society looks the same after the defeat of Covid-19, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.  We can expect a sequel, and not just one sequel, but many, until we reach the finale: climate catastrophe”.  He points to the fumbling of recent weeks, particularly in the United States, and sees it as a harbinger of the doom that would befall us in the event of climate disaster.

The business pages of the NYT the very same day include a short, but highly pertinent, article that quotes a Stanford University study[2] and a Royal Society (British) report[3] that examine what humans are doing to forests and how the balance of life between people and animals is being affected, particularly by forest destruction which is generally seen as a significant contributor to climate change.  These reports worry about the encroachment of subsistence farming on territory that was once the exclusive domain of wild animals and from where zoonotic diseases are emerging that endanger human health and place vulnerable parts of humanity at particular risk.  Laura Bloomfield of Stanford is quoted in the article in the following words “if we can decrease the potential for people to come into contact with wild animals, that is one way to decrease the likelihood of having recurrent pandemics”.  The Stanford Professor Eric Lambin observes “we are intruding on their habitats”.  Primates, rodents and bats (particularly linked to the current crisis) are all transmission dangers in the view of the Stanford study which makes a call for the large, healthy and diverse habitats for animals which are impossible to envisage under the pressure to promote the kind of economic development in which certain countries are engaged.

The ‘gung ho’ attitude to deforestation shown by Brazil exemplifies, in the view of Cityforum, the risks from zoonotic disease as well as the erosion of climate protection that is offered by pristine forests.

The Royal Society report cited by the NYT warns that the risk from zoonoses is insufficiently understood and the present dangers inadequately reported.  “Infectious diseases that originate from animals and infect people comprise the majority of recurrent and emerging infectious disease threats and are widely considered to be one of the greatest challenges facing public health”.

Will we be able to take timely action in the light of the linkage between economic development, viruses and climatic disaster or are we hurtling towards the catastrophe envisaged by Mr Nguyen?  The challenges of the last few weeks have shown the ability of societies to accept measures and constraints which would have been unimaginable until this year and it ought to be possible to avoid the threats from fire, flood and now fever that would be part of the catastrophe most likely to follow any return to ‘business as usual’.


[2] Bloomfield, L.S.P., McIntosh, T.L. & Lambin, E.F. Habitat fragmentation, livelihood behaviors, and contact between people and nonhuman primates in Africa. Landscape Ecol 35, 985–1000 (2020).

[3] Christine K. Johnson, Peta L. Hitchens, Pranav S. Pandit, Julie Rushmore, Tierra Smiley Evans, Cristin C. W. Young and Megan M. Doyle 2020 Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover riskProc. R. Soc. B.28720192736