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‘Seismic Shift’ in World’s Approach to Land Use, Wildlife, and Climate Action Needed to Avoid New ‘Era of Pandemics,’ Study Says

Deforestation is among the human activities which threaten to lead to another, more deadly pandemic, scientists say. (Photo: Matt Zimmerman/Flickr/cc) 

By Julia Conley | Common Dreams

Warning that without a “seismic shift” in how world governments approach the treatment of wildlife, land conservation, and public health, the planet could be entering an “era of pandemics,” a United Nations-backed report released Thursday emphasized that the ability to avoid more public health crises like Covid-19 is entirely within the human population’s control.

Resulting from an urgent virtual workshop attended by 22 experts from around the world, the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services notes that more than five new diseases emerge in people each year, and each of these has the potential to develop into a global pandemic as the coronavirus did.

“We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics—but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability.”
—Dr. Peter Daszak, EcoHealth Alliance

The novel coronavirus has origins in microbes detected in animal species and is believed to have “jumped” from an animal to the human population in Wuhan, China, and human activity has made it dangerously easy for this sort of jump to happen again and again.

Scientists estimate that 1.7 million unknown viruses currently exist in mammals and birds and that up to 850,000 of them could potentially infect humans.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic—or of any modern pandemic,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and chair of the IPBES workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use the land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production, and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife.”

To stop a new era of pandemics from emerging, the experts say, governments must work together to stop the exploitation of land and wildlife by profit-driven systems, which cause humans and animals to come into close enough contact for pathogens to jump to humans.

Unsafe contact between humans and wildlife would be reduced by conservation efforts to protect biodiversity and natural habitats, the promotion of “responsible consumption” and a reduction in “excessive consumption of meat from livestock production,” and climate action, the report reads.

“Climate change has been implicated in disease emergence (e.g. tick-borne encephalitis in Scandinavia) and will likely cause substantial future pandemic risk by the driving movement of people, wildlife, reservoirs, and vectors, and spread of their pathogens, in ways that lead to new contact among species, increased contact among species or otherwise disrupts natural host-pathogen dynamics,” the IPBES wrote.

According to the report, land-use change has been linked to the emergence of more than 30% of new diseases in the human population since 1960.

“Land-use change includes deforestation, human settlement is primarily wildlife habitat, the growth of crop and livestock production, and urbanization,” the report reads.

“The solution here seems pretty clear,” tweeted Dr. Scott Sampson, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, in response to the report’s section on land-use change.

The study includes a number of suggested reforms which could help to keep pathogens from spreading to humans, including:

  • Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases; predict high-risk areas; evaluate the economic impact of potential pandemics and to highlight research gaps.
  • Institutionalizing the ‘One Health’ approach in national governments to build pandemic preparedness, enhance pandemic prevention programs, and to investigate and control outbreaks across sectors.
  • Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
  • Enabling changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion, and trade that has led to pandemics—this could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production, and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities.
  • Reducing zoonotic disease risks in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental ‘health and trade’ partnership; reducing or removing high disease-risk species in the wildlife trade; enhancing law enforcement in all aspects of the illegal wildlife trade and improving community education in disease hotspots about the health risks of wildlife trade.
  • Valuing Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ engagement and knowledge in pandemic prevention programs, achieving greater food security, and reducing consumption of wildlife.

The cost of confronting global public health emergencies after they’ve arrived—including damage to economies around the world, healthcare costs, and vaccine research—is roughly 100 times what it would cost to prevent another pandemic, the IPBES said.

“We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics—but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” said Daszak. “Our approach has effectively stagnated—we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

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Finding Hope in Dark Times While Avoiding Environmentalists’ Mistakes of the Past

At first, it was an email pointing out that the pandemic would mean that global carbon emissions would be down… But then it got worse with people I respect circulating writings that embraced the pandemic as ultimately good for the environment by warning humanity to respect Mother Earth.” (Image: NASA)

By Carlos Davidson | Common Dreams

We are all struggling to find hope in the midst of the incredibly dark times of the coronavirus pandemic. Environmentalists have a leg up in that challenge, as our movement has struggled for more than half a century to find hope facing the biodiversity and climate crises and more. In the search for hope, I hope we don’t repeat the mistakes of our movement’s past by embracing misanthropic versions of hope in which we applaud the pandemics as somehow good for the planet. Unfortunately, this is already happening even though we can find hope without turning our back on human suffering.

There is a long and ugly history of the environmental movement ignoring, applauding, and even promoting human suffering in the name of protecting the Earth.

At first, it was an email pointing out that the pandemic would mean that global carbon emissions would be down. True enough. Then another with the powerful image of children in some parts of China seeing the blue sky for the first time in their lives as the pandemic shut down polluting factories. OK, fair enough. But then it got worse with people I respect circulating writings that embraced the pandemic as ultimately good for the environment by warning humanity to respect Mother Earth.

There is a long and ugly history of the environmental movement ignoring, applauding, and even promoting human suffering in the name of protecting the Earth. Some members of the activist group Earth First! openly cheered the AIDS epidemic as good for the environment. In 1973 Garrett Hardin published Exploring New Ethics for Survival, a fable in which he favorably describes a plan to poison the majority of humanity to stop environmental destruction.

While there will be short term reductions in carbon emissions and other environmental harms due to the pandemic, without systematic structural changes, these likely will be quickly erased when the pandemic ends and the economy rebounds. Sadly, much of the activist work needed to bring about structural change will be greatly slowed down by the pandemic. And the massive resources needed to fight the virus may make it harder to marshal resources to address climate change.

So where might we find hope in all this? I hope we learn that habitat destruction makes us more vulnerable to the pandemic. I hope the crisis weakens the power of free-market ideology and powerful economic interests which have convinced people that government is inept and to be feared, and therefore to be severely limited. I hope people come to see the value of strong, well-staffed, full funded, public institutions, whether that be a public health system or the environmental programs needed to fight climate change. I hope that people see that it does not serve us well to systematically dismiss science and expertise, and as a result lose the ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Whether these hopes are realized depends on the work we do going forward and that we keep in mind the key changes in the environmental movement of the last decade: today we recognize that protecting the environment is intimately tied to social well-being and social justice. Post pandemic we will need to fight for a green and just recovery that brings together addressing climate change and caring for those hurt by the crisis.

Carlos Davidson

Carlos Davidson is a professor of Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University

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23 Former Diplomats Urge Global Leaders to Adopt Paris-Style Agreement to Protect Biodiversity

The Barbary macaque (Macaca Sylvanus) is classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Photo: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay)

By Jessica Corbett | Common Dreams

Ahead of government negotiations scheduled for next week on a global plan to address the biodiversity crisis, 23 former foreign ministers from various countries released a statement on Tuesday urging world leaders to act “boldly” to protect nature.

“It is clear to us… that climate change, ecosystem degradation, and the excessive exploitation of natural resources are now threatening millions of species with extinction and jeopardizing the health of our planet,” says the statement. “The loss and degradation of nature jeopardize human health, livelihoods, safety, and prosperity. It disproportionately harms our poorest communities while undermining our ability to meet a broad range of targets set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

“The world has a moral imperative to collaborate on strong actions to mitigate and adapt to the current climate change and the biodiversity crisis. Ambitious targets for conservation of land and ocean ecosystems are vital components of the solution,” the statement continues. “Humanity sits on the precipice of irreversible loss of biodiversity and a climate crisis that imperils the future for our grandchildren and generations to come. The world must act boldly, and it must act now.”

A U.N. report released in May 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that, as Common Dreams reported at the time, “human exploitation of the natural world has pushed a million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction—with potentially devastating implications for the future of civilization.”

That report and a growing body of scientific research on rapidly declining biodiversity have led scientists and policymakers alike to raise the alarm about the consequences of not acting ambitiously enough to address what experts have called the “sixth mass extinction.” U.N. biodiversity chief Elizabeth Maruma Mrema told the Guardian last month that humanity risks being left to contend with an “empty world.”

The new statement from diplomats came before the Feb. 24–29 meeting of the Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which was recently moved from Kunming, China to Rome, Italy due to the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. The event will build on an August 2019 meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. The third meeting in Cali, Colombia is planned for July.

Those three events will culminate in the adoption of a “Paris-style U.N. agreement” to protect nature at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is still set to be held in Kunming in October. A 20-point draft plan to stop and reverse biodiversity loss worldwide, which will be a focus of the Rome talks, was unveiled last month.

The foreign ministers’ statement specifically expresses support for “setting a global target of strongly protecting at least 30 percent of the land and 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.” The 30 percent conservation target, as the statement notes, is backed by “a broad coalition—including youth, the business community, and representatives from the developing world.”

“We also support the finalization of a new international legally binding treaty in 2020 for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas currently being negotiated under the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea,” the statement says, noting that nearly two-thirds of the ocean is beyond the legal jurisdiction of any one nation.

The statement was released through the international nonprofit think tank the Aspen Institute by members of the Aspen Ministers Forum, which was founded in 2003 by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Along with Albright, the statement was signed by Lloyd Axworthy (Canada), Mohamed Benaissa (Morocco), Maria Eugenia Brizuela de Avila (El Salvador), Erik Derycke (Belgium), Lamberto Dini (Italy), Alexander Downer (Australia), Jan Eliasson (Sweden), Joschka Fischer (Germany), Jaime Gama (Portugal), Ibrahim Gambari (Nigeria), Marina Kaljurand (Estonia), Tzipi Livni (Israel), Susana Malcorra (Argentina), Donald McKinnon (New Zealand), Daniel Mitov (Bulgaria), Amre Moussa (Egypt), Marwan Muasher (Jordan), George Papandreou (Greece), Malcolm Rifkind (United Kingdom), Claudia Ruiz Massieu (Mexico), Javier Solana (Spain), and Knut Vollebæk (Norway).

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