By Susan Bass
While the exact origin and cause of the coronavirus continues to be debated, scientists are sounding the alarm that unless we take better care of the planet, we risk more and even deadlier viruses ravaging our communities. As the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) approaches, it is time to listen to the science and take stock of what we need to do — and not do — to heal our planet and prevent future pandemic outbreaks.
The transmission of viruses from wildlife to people rises as contact between people and wildlife increases. Trade in wildlife and live animal markets are identified as major suspects for virus transmission. However, contact is also increasing as a result of deforestation, habitat fragmentation and expanding agricultural borders.
Among the startling statistics that scientists are sharing is that “almost half of the zoonotic disease that have emerged in humans since 1940 resulted from changes in land use, from changes in agricultural or other food production practices or from wildlife hunting.” Zoonotic diseases are those jump from animals to humans. Among the diseases that fall in this category are SARS, Ebola, West Nile, Lyme, MERS.
A recent Stanford University study focused on contact between humans and primates in western Uganda confirmed that forest loss resulting in fragmented patches is increasing the likelihood of viruses jumping from wild animals to people. The key point here is that people are intruding on animal habitat, not vice versa.
You don’t need to travel to remote lands to encounter these viruses. Here in the United States, we are only too familiar with Lyme disease, which is linked to forest fragment in suburban and rural communities. Lyme disease is transmitted from wildlife to humans via ticks.
Biodiversity loss also contributes to the spread of disease. West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes with several bird species acting as host. There is a strong correlation between low bird diversity and increased human risk or incidence of West Nile encephalitis in the U.S.
Unfortunately, we are losing the battle globally on stemming deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Since humans have started cutting trees, the number of trees globally has dropped by 46% with 15 billion trees being felled every year.
In 2020, the World Economic Forum announced the launch of the One Trillion Tree Initiative platform for governments, businesses, and civil society in support of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. As of February 2020, 13 billion trees had been planted.
However, tree planting may be fraught with peril. Planting the wrong types of trees or planting trees in the wrong places may harm ecosystems and cause problems for local wildlife. Tree-planting programs may also distract from the priority of maintaining and protecting existing forest stands, which provide habitat and sequester significant amounts of carbon.
Global biodiversity – which serves as the safety-net for our health and welfare — is increasingly threatened. The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and EcoSystem Service found that one million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction. Native species populations in land-based habitats have fallen by 20%. The main culprits in order of impact are changes in land and sea us, direct exploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.
Visible from space, the historic bushfires this past year in Australia killed half a billion, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects, threating the survival of iconic species, such as koalas and kangaroos. An extreme drought and extended heat wave brought on by climate change contributed to the unprecedented magnitude and length of the fires.
In response to this dire situation, the U.N. is calling for the protection of at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans in order to prevent the loss of the world’s biodiversity. Governments were scheduled to meet later this year in China to adopt a new set of biodiversity goals, but the meeting has been postponed because of COVID-19.
Similarly, the global climate change conference scheduled for November in Glasgow has also been postponed, stalling further coordinated action on climate change.
Our Earth cannot wait for meetings. This year there are two Earth Days – one on April 22 and the other on Election Day in November. You can take action to help to help restore the Earth. Register to Vote. Commit to Vote. Vote Early. Vote Earth.
Bass is Senior Vice President of Programs and Operations at Earth Day Network.