Climate, health and the pandemic

Another extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, over the fold

Our carbon-based energy system has taken a toll on our life and health ever since we learned to use fire for warmth and cooking food. Smoke from wood fires, particularly in cramped homes, is a major source of illness and death to this day. But the damage accelerated with the exploitation of fossil carbon, in the form of coal and oil. In 1306, King Edward I issued a ban on the burning of sea coal, which was already polluting London, but the ban was ineffective. By the mid-19th century, “the Big Smoke” was a colloquial term used to describe many big cities, particularly including London but also (notably by Australian Aborigines) Sydney and Melbourne. The turning point, in the UK and perhaps globally was the Great Smog of London in 1952 when thousands died in a matter of weeks.

But even after the most obvious forms of pollution were removed, coal and oil have kept on killing. Millions of people die every year from particulate pollution caused by the burning of coal and oil.

The biggest death tolls are in large industrialising countries like China and India. But even in the US, it is estimated that pollution (mostly particulates) kills 100 000 people every year, about the same number who die in car crashes.

It seems likely that air pollution is exacerbating the deadliness of Covid.

Air pollution may be important in three ways, studies show. Higher death rates due to lungs and hearts weakened by dirty air is the best understood. Pollutants also inflame lungs, potentially making catching the virus more likely and raising concern about rising pollution levels after lockdowns are lifted. Finally, particles of pollution might even help carry the virus further afield.

Around 15 per cent of Covid deaths have been linked to long-term exposure to air pollution.

There are broader links between the pandemic and the destruction of the global environment Most of the recent pandemics have had their origin in zoonotic (animal) diseases. HIV which has killed millions, originated with a disease of monkeys which was transferred to humans through the bushmeat trade in Africa, then evolved into its current deadly form. Similar processes occurred with SARS, MERS, Ebola, and avian influenza.

The common theme here is a growing human population pressing ever closer on the remaining wild parts of the world and on domestic animals kept in increasingly crowded conditions and often slaughtered under similarly unsafe conditions

We still don’t know exactly where Covid-19 came from. Some doubt has been cast on the original hypothesis that the source was live animal markets in Wuhan, where the disease first broke out on a large scale, but it is certainly of recent animal origin, most likely originating in bats.

The pandemic is a warning that humans cannot treat the natural environment, or other animals, as a resource to be exploited in whatever way we choose. We must reconsider every aspect of our relationship with the natural world, from clearing forests to eating meat, and choose a path that is both humane and sustainable.

14 thoughts on “Climate, health and the pandemic

  1. (Memo to self: stop trying to write comments using hair-trigger smartphone)
    Well put.

    The estimates of deaths from air pollution keep rising, so those we have now are probably an underestimate, and they don’t include the burden of chronic non-fatal sickness. IIRC it’s only recently become feasible to investigate nanoparticles in the single-digit-micrometer range. In the sleepy and non-industrial Flemish college town of Hasselt, researchers found 10,000 nanoparticles per cubic *millimetre* in placentas from births to mothers in residential side-streets. The damage this causes is not yet included in the headline totals.

    I may have said this before, but allow me to advertise an excellent crowd-data initiative called PurpleAir ( For about $250, this American NGO will supply you with a compact automated air pollution monitoring station using lasers. The device is linked to your home wifi network, and uploads the readings automatically to a database in the cloud, available to researchers and rubberneckers. The readings aren’t up to the accuracy of professional monitoring stations using filters and high-precision scales, but these are too cumbersome for mass deployment. The network looks like a useful addition. Before spending the money, you will want to check the database first: the aim is coverage, not duplication.

    PurpleAir is based in Utah, and is shy about its origins and leadership. I speculate that it may be linked to Mormonism. If so, it’s like their work on genealogy, inspired by a weird quasi-mediaeval theory of intercession for the souls of known ancestors. Weird, but entirely harmless and well-intentioned, done professionally on a very large scale, and useful to non-believers.

  2. “There are broader links between the pandemic and the destruction of the global environment”

    Changed climate patterns, particularly of rainfall and droughts, adversely affect millions (billions?) of small farmers’ ability to grow food in third world countries. This in turn adversely affects the nutrition levels and immune systems of billions rendering them more susceptible to disease including infectious disease epidemics. This, along with first and second world monoculture commodity cropping multinational agribusiness increasingly usurping third world farmland thereby denying small farmers’ access to land, water, and finances forces people to the margins encroaching even more on wild natural resources which in turn removes forest and biodiversity, lowers rainfall further, and risks new diseases crossing to humans from the wild.

    This vicious circle could hardly be further opposed to that of a virtuous circle!

  3. Given the health burdens due to burning fossil fuels, a lot of the measures required for climate stabilisation will actually be negative cost even if you ignore the climate benefits. Also, switching from burning wood or dung for fuel isn’t necessarily a big climate win, but it is good in so many other ways.

    E.g. high enough fees to essentially ban ICE vehicles from built up areas, as people were discussing on the other thread, looks like something worth doing almost immediately, even ignoring climate change. Plenty of other indirect benefits too, in terms of increased enjoyment of spaces free from exhaust pollution, and significant reduction of noise.

    In cities in the global south, short-ranged 2- and 3- wheeled electric vehicles replacing dirty fossil things will be a huge low-cost win.

  4. Meanwhile, television and internet ads keep advertising Internal Combustion Engine Cars, big caravans, big holidays and more consumption of every type. While there is a “chattering classes” conversation about stopping global warming (and COVID-19), the corporations and the “advertised-at” masses continue on their merry way. This is not a criticism of J.Q. and his draft book. If Australia had followed J.Q.’s advice in the economic and social arenas for the last 30 years, Australia would be in a far better position than it is in now with respect to heath. welfare, education, employment policy and pollution. My question is “How do we prevent corporations stetting our political economy agenda?” In ABC/SBS-speak, how do we “change the conversation” around this issue?

    The big problems to me seem to be to do with corporate power, corporate advertising and corporate influence on politics. I use “corporate” as a short-hand for “corporate-oligarchic”. The revolving door access between government and corporate power needs to be locked shut. Corporations must be locked out of democratic governance. How we would ever get politicians to act against their own selfish interests in this regard and in the interests of the majority is a vexed question. I admit myself fairly bereft of tactical and strategic ideas on this matter.

    Democratic governance for the people and for the environment needs to break up the power of private media and advertising. That might well be the necessary first step. The hold of media and advertising over minds and behaviors, especially voting and consumption behaviors, is far too great. We talk about the necessity to more heavily regulate the finance industry. This is true. In turn we need to more heavily regulate concentration of media ownership and more heavily regulate media in terms of opinions which contain provable falsehoods as well as hate speech and incitements to violence. Advertising needs to be much more heavily regulated and limited as well. The advertising of junk foods, internal combustion engine vehicles, any fossil fuel products and incitements to excessive consumption of environmentally damaging items in general should all be banned outright.

    Donations and lobbying of politicians by other than individual private citizens should be banned. This would be difficult to legislate and enforce, especially the latter. However, a start could be made by only permitting private citizens to donate to political parties and limiting said donation to no more than $100 per person per year. Business, company and corporate donations should be expressly forbidden and subject to very large penalties if detected.

  5. China makes me laugh (in a grim, black humour way) as much as the West makes me laugh. All of China’s and the West’s protestations about greenhouse gas emissions sound like the bleatings of Saint Augustine on the matter of his libidinous desires: “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

    This is the prayer of the Great Powers: “Lord let us move to zero greenhouse emissions, but not yet. Let us first emit much more to attain, or attempt to retain, geostrategic supremacy and the ability to bend all other nations to our will. Then, and only then, do we pledge to become virtuous and emit no more greenhouse gases… (sotto voco) provided all other nations continue to bow before us and acknowledge our greatness and right to rule all.” Great power (or attempted great power) hubris afflicts China as much as it has historically afflicted the USA, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and so on back into history. China is no different. To believe so would be to subscribe in turn to Chinese exceptionalism.

    The inability to forswear geostrategic competition, even to save the planet, is foremost among our international problems. It will probably take, as I have said before, a terrifying natural event or burgeoning crisis to make nations fear nature more than they fear each other. That will take some doing but natural forces will inevitably rise to the challenge, not by intention of course, but simply by the playing out of the forces we have unleashed. I suspect the critical number of deaths could be excess global deaths per annum, over and above the current natural and COVID-19 deaths per annum of about 60 million per annum, and rising to about 2 to 4 times that number. Annual global deaths would probably need to rise to the vicinity of 120 million to 240 million for the nations to take notice and start cooperating rather than competing. 130 million is another critical number as it is the global birth rate per year. If that number were exceeded by deaths per year, again people might start to take notice. Or perhaps the number needs to be much greater. Perhaps 1/10th of the global human population needs to die in one year from natural disasters and attendant events. Perhaps people would take notice then? I am just wondering what it is going to take.

    This is bleak reasoning, but the inaction of almost all the people of the world forces me to contemplate it. What else is going to stop our deliberate march to doom?

  6. Perhaps a sentence could be included to summarise the history of disease that has jumped to humanity since we started farming animals ,with an estimate of the total lost (billions would be my guess) .Some (most ?) of histories biggest killers are there .Jarrod Diamonds book Guns ,Germs and Steel gives a detailed history.

  7. I mentioned in an earlier thread (Covid and the climate emergency) about a podcast titled “David Spratt talks about ‘Climate Reality Check 2020′”. Duration 40:10.

    David Spratt said (from time interval 06:56):

    “Well, this is abstract… I think, I think this becomes very abstract. They say: ‘We’ve got an agreement come out of Paris about how we’re are going to keep to 1.5 to 2.’ And then they repeat all the political talking points – the dot points around 1.5 to 2 – and none of them ever actually really think or look at the evidence and go: ‘Well, ah… 1.5 is now less than a decade away, it’s locked-in to the system, unless we were to do some dramatic cooling, which is not on the agenda, we are going to fly past 1.5’. I mean, every day, I see politicians say: ‘Yes, we are committed!’ – big companies: ‘We are committed to the Paris goals of 1.5’. And in reality, they are not in the ballpark!”

    Later (from time interval 08:38):

    “Maybe we need to talk less about numbers and more, and more about the consequences. I mean, one scientist was saying to me the other day that, if you get 2 degrees of global average warming – people say 2 isn’t very much – in a place like Australia, in the, in the really dry, arid ah… areas, the hottest days in heatwaves won’t be 2 degrees hotter, they’ll be 8 degrees hotter. And as you know in Australia, you know, we have temperatures of 47, 48, 49 degrees – I mean – if that becomes 55, 56, 57 degrees Celsius, that is, that is simply unsurvivable for people unless they are in an icebox. Um… You know, we have, we have figures now telling us that the water shortages in, in Asia, in the next 10 years, in India for example, would become so chronic that there will be mass migration due to, due to inability of people to either feed or water themselves. So, um… Maybe we need to talk less about abstract numbers, and more about real impacts.”
    Hear at:

    “High environmental temperatures can be dangerous to your body. In the range of 90˚ and 105˚F (32˚ and 40˚C), you can experience heat cramps and exhaustion. Between 105˚ and 130˚F (40˚ and 54˚C), heat exhaustion is more likely. You should limit your activities at this range. An environmental temperature over 130˚F (54˚C) often leads to heatstroke.”

    It seems to me politicians and policymakers don’t (or won’t) understand. Too much ‘hopium’ – not enough brutal honesty, analysis and effective mitigation action.

  8. Professional meteorologist Scott Duncan tweeted:

    “New South Wales in Australia has just recorded its hottest November day ever.

    + 46.9 °C in Smithville at 4:35 pm local time.”

    With global mean temperatures locked-in for and passing +1.5 °C, relative to pre-industrial age by 2030 (or perhaps earlier), and heading on the current GHG emissions trajectory for +2.0 °C before 2050, then will Smithville, NSW and surrounds likely see temperatures of 53, 54, 55 °C and become uninhabitable in less than 30 years?

    LifeNOVEMBER 16, 2020 6:52 AM AEDTShare

    Gas for export 12 times larger than gas for manufacturing

    “Research released today by The Australia Institute shows that the Federal Government’s “gas-fired recovery” will not assist Australia’s manufacturing industry. Increasing gas production is likely to benefit gas exporters, not manufacturers.

    Australian manufacturing used just 373 petajoules (PJ) of gas, while more than 4,500PJ went to exports in 2018-19. Just 56PJ, or 1% of Australian gas is used as feedstock in manufacturing.

    The gas industry also uses more gas just processing gas for export as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) than the entire manufacturing industry and twice as much as is used by Australian households.

    Other key findings:…”
    NOVEMBER 28, 2020 7:16 AM AEDTShare
    Renewable energy sector can create tens of thousands of secure jobs

    “Despite employing 27,000 people and being one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy, Australia’s renewables sector has so far created too many insecure jobs, and action needs to be taken to ensure that its potential as a source of secure employment is realised.

    The ACTU has released a new report, “Sharing the Benefits with Workers: A decent jobs agenda for the renewable energy industry”, which outlines the rapid changes occurring within Australia’s energy market and the need for national planning for the creation of secure employment.

    Many jobs in the renewables sector to date have been short-term, insecure, and poorly paid, compared to equivalent jobs in carbon-intensive energy production.

    The report details an agenda created by Australian unions which, if implemented, will improve the quality and security of jobs in the renewables sector and shift Australia towards a low carbon future – benefiting Australian workers and their families, as well as the environment.

    Australian unions are committed to working in partnership with the renewable energy sector to ensure a successful energy transition that creates and sustains good quality and secure employment for Australians….”
    About Us
    As a non-aligned, independent online media platform operating out of Wollongong NSW, Mirage News provides real-time coverage of newsworthy developments firsthand from primary and authoritative sources, with the main focus on the public interest, science, technology, health & government releases to deliver the news as it is with no comment or interpretation.

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  10. “Smoke from wood fires, particularly in cramped homes, is a major source of illness and death to this day.” – not to mention Adani’s adverse impacts on Bangladesh..
    NOVEMBER 29, 2020 9:42 PM AEDTShare
    UK-Bangladesh Climate Partnership Forum launches virtual series

    “…The event on 25 November featured opening remarks from British High Commissioner in Dhaka, Robert Chatterton Dickson; State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh, Md. Shahriar Alam; Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon; and UK International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience for the COP26 Presidency, MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

    Speaking about the partnership between the UK and Bangladesh, Lord Ahmad said

    “This UK-Bangladesh partnership on climate action is built on the strong links between our two countries and will last long beyond COP26…The UK as COP26 President Designate, and Bangladesh as chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, are uniquely placed to play leading roles in this critical year ahead for our planet.”

    Speaking on the topic of adaptation and resilience, Anne-Marie Trevelyan said

    “Bangladesh has not stopped being a highly climate vulnerable country, but it is also now a leader on adaptation and resilience. There is much that the UK, and other countries, can learn from Bangladesh’s experience.”…”
    “…The next events in the series will focus on nature-based solutions and will take place on 8 and 9 December. Find out more and register at the series event page …”

  11. An Earth System Dynamics discussion paper started on Sep 16 titled “Climate model projections from the Scenario Model Intercomparison Project (ScenarioMIP) of CMIP6″ includes a table on pages 17-18.

    ” Times (best estimate and range – in square brackets – based on the 5-95% range of the ensemble after smoothing the trajectories by eleven-year running means) at which various warming levels (defined as relative to 1850-1900) are reached according to simulations following, from left to right, SSP1-1.9, SSP1-2.6, SSP2-4.5, SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5. Crossing of these levels are defined by using anomalies wrt 1995-2014 for the model ensembles, and adding the offset of 0.84°C to derive warming from pre-industrial.”

    1.5 °C reached in the year range 2026 to 2028, best estimate (for all simulations);
    2.0 °C reached in the year range 2038 to 2058, best estimate (for most simulations, except SSP1-1.9);
    3.0 °C reached in the year range 2059 to 2090, best estimate (except SSP1-1.9, SSP1-2.6)

    Click to access esd-2020-68.pdf

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