Pandemics & Climate Change

Dr David Nabarro of the World Health Organization (WHO) speaking on September 29,2005 said “we can expect the next influenza pandemic to come anytime now, & it’s likely to be caused by a mutant of the virus that is currently causing bird flu in Asia. If the worst happens, the range of deaths could be anything between 5 million & 150 million”.

Human history teaches us that past pandemics have resulted in untold suffering and huge loss of lives. The flu pandemic of 1918 infected a third of the world’s population & is estimated to have killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. HIV is estimated to have killed more than 36 million since 1981, & the bubonic plague pandemic of the 13th century is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people.

The majority of pandemics and many infectious diseases have originated through transmission from animals to humans. However, for this sort of transmission to occur, a number of variables must combine, and the manner in which this occurs is not yet fully understood. Once the transmission from an animal to the human population occurs, however, the course that the pathogen takes varies; depending on the nature of the animal, the frequency of human-animal interaction, and a number of other factors. Further, the pathogen has to evolve to transmit to other human beings, without the need for the original animal host.

In this context, it is worth keeping in mind that the butchering of primates in the early 20th century was responsible for the introduction of the simian immunodeficiency virus into the human population. This ultimately resulted in the HIV pandemic.

All influenza pandemics since 1930 have originated in China. A combination of farming practices, climate and customs enable opportunities for transmission of virus from animals to human beings. The nature of human influenza viruses to mutate adds to the complexity.

Pandemics have adverse impacts, both on human health & economies, as the current pandemic has amply demonstrated. According to WHO, the frequency & diversity of new outbreaks is growing, with around 7000 signals being recorded every month.

Over time, socio-economic & environmental factors (human population growth, change in land use patterns, international trade, etc) have resulted in a significant increase in the probability of a pandemic breaking out.

Climate Change has an impact on the seasonality & intensity of vector-borne diseases. The local ecology & degree of warming are key variables in the spread of infectious diseases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that extreme weather events would become more frequent and widespread over the course of this century.

As the current outbreak of Covid-19 has shown, pathogens can travel around the world quickly, and cause significant disruptions. The scenes of scores of migrant labour walking hundreds of kilometers to their home locations from the National Capital Region & their forced stay in make-shift camps, & the large scale collapse of the informal sector are wake-up calls to address the social issues resulting not just from this pandemic, but also the potential collapse in social order on account of climate change. The past can provide us with clues : the 1918 flu pandemic too almost resulted in social collapse. The current outbreak has shown how vulnerable we are in terms of our inability to predict & prevent such events. The impact of Covid-19 has a similarity with that of climate change : the poor & the vulnerable are most impacted by it.

The science behind climate change is solid, and well-documented. It is also well-known that the meat industry is one of the largest emitters of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The tendency to not respect the traditional boundaries of nature, as evidenced by human practices that resulted in the flu pandemics since 1930 & also HIV, has had catastrophic consequences for all of mankind.

We have the opportunity to strengthen the institutions that are at the forefront of the fight against climate change, we have the opportunity to strengthen communities and build resilience, we have the opportunity to redefine what a sustainable lifestyle means for us and to work towards living it. We also have the opportunity to build early warning systems & to collaborate to make the world a better place for all. Advances in computing allow for real-time data collection on the pandemic, and to frame appropriate responses. Above all, this is also an opportunity to educate the world on the real dangers posed by climate change, and to build momentum towards a more sustainable & inclusive future; not just for our generation, but for generations to come.

References :

Andrew Holland & Xander Vagg (2013). Security perspectives on climate change from around the world. American Security Project. URL :

Brian L Pyke, Karen E Saylors, Joseph N Fair, Matthew LeBreton, Ubald Tamoufe, Cyrille F Djoko, Anne W Rinmoin, Nathan D Wolfe (2010). The origin & prevention of pandemics. Clinical Infectious Diseases. Vol 50, No 12, pp 1636-1640.

Camilla Born & Nick Mabey (2016). Conclusions : “United We Stand” Report. The 2015 mandate provides a lever for UN Reform. E3G. URL :

David C Morrison (2006). Pandemics & National Security. Great decisions, eat decisions; pp 93-102. Published by Foreign Policy Association. URL :

Francis T Pilch & Kenneth Grosselin (2008). Superbugs, resurgent & emergent diseases, & pandemics – a national security perspective. US Airforce Institute for National Security Studies, USAF Academy, Colorado.

Gerald Stang & Taylor Dimsdale (2017). The EU & Climate Security. E3G. URL :

Jamison Pike, Tifany Bogich, Sarah Elwood, David C Finnoff, Peter Daszak (2014). Economic optimization of a global strategy to address the pandemic threat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol 111, No 52, pp 18519-18523. URL :

Joshua W Busby (2007). Effects of climate change & implications for US national security. Council on foreign relations. URL :

Matthew M Kavangh, Harsha Thirumurthy, Rebecca Katz, Kristie L Ebi, Chris Breyer, Jamila Headley, Charles B Holmes, Chris Collins, Lawrence O Gostin (2019). Ending Pandemics. J. Int. Affairs. Vol 73, No 1, Climate Disruption, pp 49-68.

Robert G Webster (1997). Predictions for future human influenza pandemics. The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Vol 176, Supplement 1, pp S14-S19.

Xander Vagg (2012). American Security – The impact of climate change. American Security Project. URL :

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