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.