Back to Forum

Climate Change and Covid-19

Retaining perspective 

With all the disruption to our lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important not to lose perspective. Unless it compels us to change our lifestyles radically, the pandemic will ultimately prove to be a “blip” in global history, a footnote to the “Anthropocene,” and a mere inconvenience compared to the devastation wrought by global climate change. Of course, we are not hard-wired to view our daily experiences sub specie aeternitatis, but it is important sometimes to step back and view the larger picture. The pandemic should be seen against the background of the much larger, chronic global crisis, which is arguably the “greatest existential threat of our time,”[1] and which has unfortunately been eclipsed in the popular imagination.

Global climate change is making it morally impossible for societies around the world to continue with their current lifestyles “as normal.” The so-called Greenhouse Gases that are emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial-scale livestock husbandry, construction, burning of forests, etc. – all activities associated with the modern lifestyle[2] – are trapping heat within the earth’s atmosphere, and causing a slow but inexorable rise in global surface temperatures. If these activities continue unchecked, the world is set to experience a continued rise in the annual mean global temperature. The World Meteorological Organization is already predicting that “there is a ~20% chance that one of the next 5 years will be at least 1.5ºC warmer than pre-industrial levels.”[3] Through its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations is engaging its forces to limit the temperature rise to 1.5ºC. At the historic December 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, which took place a few months after the publication of Laudato Si’,[4] all nations of the world undertook to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.

Yet climate change is, and will continue to, affect the poor disproportionately: In Africa, for example, where so many people are directly dependent on nature for their livelihood, the disruption of natural cycles is particularly life-threatening.[5] Large swathes of the continent are becoming hotter and drier, making it more difficult to raise crops and livestock. Specifically, droughts, which have been a historic feature of the climate of parts of the continent, are now more devastating. The African Development Bank predicts that: “Africa is … already disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change because of its… dependence on the agricultural sector. African farmlands and rangelands are increasingly degraded, causing farmers to face declining yields.”[6]

With Cyclone Idai, which hit Southern Africa from 13 to 21 March 2020, for the first time we have seen a coastal city almost completely destroyed. The damage done to Beira in Southern Mozambique is almost irreparable. Rising sea levels, and increasingly ferocious tropical storms suggest that Beira might not be the last to suffer this fate. In recent times, Eastern Africa has been victim to devastating higher-than-average rainfalls, and to plagues of locusts which have crossed into the continent from the Arabian Peninsula. As ocean and lake waters increase in temperature, the stocks of fish are not as plentiful as they have been. In addition, the spread in aquatic plants like water hyacinth is making it more difficult to earn a livelihood from fishing.

People around the continent are being displaced and becoming “climate refugees” in search of greater food security and shelter from the elements. These movements of populations are a threat to fragile security and stability, as there is greater competition for limited resources. To satisfy their hunger, people are turning in greater numbers to harvesting existing natural resources: plants and animals for food and medicine, trees for firewood, etc. The increased consumption of natural products (like “bushmeat”) beyond sustainable levels, and the changing use of land as deserts spread, forests and wetlands are converted to agricultural or urban landscapes, etc., all contribute to biodiversity loss.  

A possible nexus between climate change and Covid-19

As humans spread further into ranges previously occupied primarily by animals, there are more interactions between humans and animals. As these interactions take place, there is increased likelihood of pathogens transferring from animals to humans and vice versa. It is arguable that HIV, SARS and MERS epidemics are all caused by these so-called “zoonoses” migrating to the human species which has no previous experience of the pathogens, and therefore no native immunity to them.

There is widespread suspicion that the Covid-19 virus came into humans as a zoonosis in the “wet market” in the Chinese city of Huanan.[7] At this Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, fresh produce and seafood were sold in addition to wild animals that were slaughtered on site. The ‘wet’ mixture of people, meat, wild and domestic mammals, fish, poultry, reptiles, water, blood, and innards, is a veritable superhighway for the transmission of microbes from one species to another.[8] This theory about the zoonotic origin of 2019-nCoV (to give the virus its proper name) has not received universal scientific endorsement. The virus may have originated elsewhere, with the market being a super-spreader location.

In most African countries, strict measures have been put in place aiming to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These measures have meant the effects of climate change are being felt more acutely: Food insecurity is exacerbated as many economies have been shut down for months.[9] People depending on daily wages have not been earning and unable to feed their families every day. In addition, shutdowns have caused so much more food to be wasted as it is not reaching markets or the table. Biodiversity loss is being exacerbated as rangers and officers normally engaged in the protection of natural areas and plant and animal resources have been off the job, so that these resources are being plundered at a greater rate, both for survival at a domestic level, and for commercial purposes.[10] Once again, it is the poorest, and a defenceless planet that will feel the effects hardest.

[1] cf. The Elders, “Five Reasons Climate Change Is the Greatest Existential Threat of Our Time,” accessed 15 August 2020. .

[2] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is “categorical in its conclusion that climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.” cf. IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: IPCC, WMO, UNEP, 2013).

[3] World Meteorological Organization, “New Climate Predictions Assess Global Temperatures in Coming Five Years,” accessed 15 August 2020.

[4] cf. Francis, Laudato Si’: Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015).

[5] “In 2014, over 60% of people in Africa lived in rural areas and relied on agriculture for their livelihoods, and women in Africa made up at least half of the agricultural labor force.” cf. African Development Bank, Feed Africa: Strategy for Agricultural Transformation in Africa 2016-2020 (Abidjan: AfDB, 2016), vii. The statistic is quoted from the World Bank Databank 2015. The proportion of people living in the cities is increasing rapidly.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] For example the World Health Organization published on 23 April 2020: “All available evidence for COVID-19 suggests that SARS-CoV-2 has a zoonotic source.” World Health Organization, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report-94,” accessed 15 August 2020.

[8] Dina Fine Maron, “‘Wet Markets’ Likely Launched the Coronavirus. Here’s What You Need to Know,” accessed 8 August 2020.

[9] With decreased levels of international trade, Africa is particularly vulnerable. The OECD reports: “From 2016 to 2018, Africa imported about 85% of its food from outside the continent… This heavy reliance on world markets is detrimental to food security, especially at a time of acute crisis.” cf. Paul Akiwumi, “COVID-19: A Threat to Food Security in Africa,” OECD Development Matters  (11 August 2020),

[10] cf BBC News “How the Covid-19 Pandemic is Threatening Africa’s Wildlife” 7 May 2020,