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COVID and climate change shrunk our world and will shape our actions – The Arizona Republic


Visitors look at the Magic Planet, a digital video globe inside the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 on Arizona State University's Tempe campus, on the day of its dedication, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. The $185 million building is the largest single research building at ASU, and the most expensive one to date, and houses some of the university's signature programs including the School of Earth & Science Exploration.

More than 2,000 years ago, somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea, a mathematician named Eratosthenes used a shadow cast at noon on the equinox to calculate the circumference of the Earth. The answer he got was 28,735 miles.

In modern times, with the aid of GPS units and satellites, scientists know the true answer to be 24,850 miles. Basic math hasn’t changed much since Eratosthenes’ day, and his conclusion was impressively close. But since then, communication technology, global travel and especially the COVID-19 pandemic have made the distance around the planet feel much smaller.

Air travel can now transport a human around the world, through the atmosphere shared by Earth’s 7.9 billion other humans, in just a few days. In 2020, it became obvious that viruses can make that trip too.

The lesson to be learned from this, according to scientist authors of recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other publications, is that pandemics, like climate change, are a shared, global problem. They argue that solutions must be pursued with a global focus as well. And they’re outlining ways we can tackle both issues at the same time.

Around the world in 91 days

It took 91 days from when symptoms of the illness now known as COVID-19 were first documented among a group of patients in Wuhan, China, on December 12, 2019, until the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

It has been much longer since scientists started issuing warnings about how climate change accelerates the risk of widespread disease outbreaks.

In 2016, a team of scientists published a review paper in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International, synthesizing knowledge on, as they titled the summary, the “Impact of climate change on human infectious diseases.” To bring the picture of the intersection between climate and disease risk into focus, they pulled together insights from 131 research articles dating back to 1990, some of which detailed transmission events linked to climatic abnormalities occurring as early as the mid-1500s.

“Studies have found that long-term climate warming tends to favor the geographic expansion of several infectious diseases, and that extreme weather events may help create the opportunities for more clustered disease outbreaks or outbreaks at non-traditional places and time,” the paper reads.

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In other words, signals of climate change like warming temperatures and increased flooding create the conditions disease vectors like mosquitoes and ticks require to spread into areas where they were not previously common. Wildlife or livestock in these regions, many already stressed by the same habitat changes, can then become intermediate hosts for new pathogens these vectors introduce.

Add in a skyrocketing human population, increasing international travel and activities like deforestation, bushmeat hunting and the wildlife trade — which lead to novel interactions between animals and people — and you have a perfect recipe for worldwide viral invasion.

“Pandemics don’t respect geographic boundaries,” said Timothy Lant, a mathematician and director of program development for Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise. “We know that global climate change and globalization have caused an increase in risk of the emergence of new diseases that can quickly become global pandemics. The ecologists and the public health people, they’ve all known about this for decades.”

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Lant has more than 20 years of experience using math, computers and policy knowledge to conduct risk assessments for pandemics “and other frightening things” in government, academic, think-tank, corporate and nonprofit settings. In 2014, he led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Ebola Modeling Coordination Group. At ASU, he helps science and engineering teams manage diverse research projects.

When he steps back and looks at the big picture, he sees clearly the influence of global climate change in many of the public health threats the world is experiencing today.

“In a very real way, I have started to think of climate change as actually being the risk itself instead of having pandemic risk. They’re so close that pandemics are just another risk factor of climate change,” Lant said.

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In the May 2021 issue of the scientific journal Nature Medicine, others with this viewpoint also drew a strong parallel between the necessary response to climate and pandemic threats by calling for an Intergovernmental Panel on Pandemic Risk that would be “akin to the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

Following the model of the IPCC, the authors view an international research body dedicated to pandemics as the best way for the world to keep up with the evolving science of pandemics, inform responsive policy and address socio-economic risks, shield conclusions from various local political pressures and keep the topic on the world’s agenda rather than casting it as “a problem for another generation.”

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A year later, in May 2022, two more scientific articles called for global coordination in simultaneous pandemic and climate mitigation. A comment in the journal Nature demanded more attention to pandemic and climate change prevention, rather than just response, pushing for nongovernmental action to address dual risk factors like deforestation and poverty. And a review paper published in the medical journal The Lancet pointed to actions like curbing urban meat demand and addressing biodiversity decline as ways the human community could keep climate impacts and pandemic risk in check if those actions can span international borders.

“Entire economies are based on (deforestation for) agriculture or hunting bushmeat,” Lant said. “You can talk about all these problems in Southeast Asia and these problems in Central Africa and in Amazon systems. We look at these issues as though (they’re) on the other side of the world, in a remote, underprivileged village where a primitive society is engaged with risky activities. But if we make investments in helping them to advance in sustainable ways, that reduces the risk of emerging infectious diseases and we can also address climate change.”

A formally sunken boat sits on cracked earth hundreds of feet from what is now the shoreline on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Monday, May 9, 2022, near Boulder City, Nev.

It’s equally important to research local risk factors and work on improving understanding about how things like Arizona’s changing climate and “the relationship of health and water quality and heat” influence movements of local disease vectors like bird populations, Lant said. It’s about thinking globally and locally at the same time.

In February, the IPCC’s Working Group II agreed that, in a pandemic and climate-ravaged world, action must be locally specific while being globally coordinated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the value of coordinated planning across sectors, safety nets, and other capacities in societies to cope with a range of shocks and stresses and to alleviate systems-wide risks to health,” read the technical summary report authored by 270 top climate scientists from 67 countries.

Math as a way to coordinate local and global action

At ASU, an interdisciplinary group of researchers are trying to think globally while working locally to leverage their diverse areas of expertise for improved pandemic preparedness.

In April 2020, the team received nearly $200,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research fund to use data and computer models to explore how COVID-19 spread through locations over time and what that had to do with local policy measures.

“It’s a pretty cool collaboration between people in the arts and media, policy, geography, computer science and math,” said Gautam Dasarathy, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering who is leading the effort. “We were brainstorming about how we could use data science and our policy insights to understand something about the pandemic.”

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That project is still underway and climate change wasn’t explicitly part of the initial proposal. But it’s something they are thinking about more and more seriously as a necessary component of the pandemic equation.

“There are several exacerbations that climate change brings to this problem,” Dasarathy said. “One of them is it drastically changes the interspecies transmission landscape. There are more species that are moving beyond the traditional habitats to come into contact with other species. And this could seriously change the statistics of when such infections happens.”

In a previous project that published in June 2021, Dasarathy worked with ASU collaborator Patricia Solis, an associate professor of geography in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, to consider how uneven outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States are explained by state-level policy decisions. It underscored for them the importance of paying attention to geography and local circumstances when trying to develop best practices for pandemic response.

“In a place like Arizona, where it gets so hot, (shutdowns) definitely resulted in a disparate impact for people who are less fortunate, because people living without as much air conditioning, they couldn’t just go pop into a mall for a few hours in a day,” Dasarathy said of that paper’s findings. “We’re not equipped to deal with suddenly the entire population staying at home.”

Pandemics and climate:Scientists want to stop the next pandemic before it starts. Here are the tests they’re building to do it

As of May 31 2022, the World Health Organization had recorded more than 6.2 million deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least some of those deaths were exacerbated by local climate impacts, like heat exposure in Arizona. The data is messy and complex, but is tracked daily and displayed neatly thanks to supercomputers that likely exceed the wildest dreams of ancient mathematicians like Eratosthenes, who managed to calculate the earth’s circumference using just a shadow and geometry in 200 B.C. 

The challenge now, according to climate and disease scientists around the entire 24,850-mile expanse of the globe, is to take advantage of modern technological advances to find the new right answer.

Joan Meiners is the Climate News and Storytelling Reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a Ph.D. in Ecology. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at joan.meiners@arizonarepublic.com.

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