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Climate Scientists: Nature's Destruction Makes Humans More Vulnerable To Disease


As President Biden and world leaders talk about climate change this week, they face pressure to act on a related crisis - the loss of nature. For evidence of what's at stake, scientists point to the pandemic we're living through right now. NPR's Nathan Rott has the story.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Not long after the world went from asking what is COVID-19, a lot of scientists turned towards asking the next obvious question - where did it come from? A wet market? A lab? A bat? Most scientists agree it almost certainly came from nature. It lived in an animal, maybe multiple. That's where most new diseases come from. And with that, a kind of narrative emerged.

FELICIA KEESING: The dominant story that we've been hearing...

ROTT: This is ecologist Felicia Keesing.

KEESING: ...Is that diverse natural areas harbor lots of pathogens - right? - that they have lots of viruses, for example, that can make us sick.

ROTT: In that telling, Keesing says biodiversity is dangerous. If there are a lot of critters running around, there's a greater chance one of them will have a disease that can become the next pandemic. But in research published earlier this month, Keesing found the opposite was true.

KEESING: Biodiversity is actually protecting us because when we lose biodiversity, the species most likely to give us those dangerous pathogens thrive.

ROTT: Here is looking at you mosquitoes, rodents and livestock. The finding was one of many in the last year that links deforestation and the destruction of nature to increased risk of animal borne diseases like COVID-19, which, when you look at the trends, is not great news.

EDUARDO BRONDIZIO: Virtually, all the indicators of nature broadly are in decline.

ROTT: Eduardo Brondizio is an environmental anthropologist. He helped author a groundbreaking report a few years ago that found a million species are at risk of extinction worldwide because of human activities.

BRONDIZIO: We have reconfigured the planet.

ROTT: Brondizio is one of many urging the U.S. and the international community to do better for our own safety. It's a message some scientists have been saying since the first Earth Day nearly 50 years ago when countries like the U.S. passed protections for clean air, water and endangered species. Brondizio says it wasn't nearly enough.

BRONDIZIO: The early '70s helped to reverse trends that were dramatic here in terms of environmental issues and social issues, exporting those threats elsewhere.

ROTT: Basically, first-world countries like the U.S. exported their pollution overseas. And as we've seen with climate change and now COVID-19, what happens elsewhere affects all of us.

BRAULIO FERREIRA DE SOUZA DIAS: This pandemic is caused because of the way we treat nature.

ROTT: Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias is with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Later this year, the international community is going to meet in China to make a nature protecting roadmap for the next decade. It's like the Paris Climate Agreement for biodiversity. And countries are expected to set ambitious and expensive goals. Though cost, Ferreira de Souza Dias says, is relative.

FERREIRA DE SOUZA DIAS: The cost to fully implement nature conservation objectives would be 100 to 1,000 times less costly than the cost of just one single pandemic like this one.

ROTT: Ahead of the international convention, Eric Dinerstein, a scientist with the conservation group Resolve, is calling for protecting 50% of the Earth's land to fight biodiversity loss and climate change.

ERIC DINERSTEIN: We realize now that the best science is telling us that good climate science and good biodiversity science have to go together, that they're interdependent.

ROTT: That's why he wants to see Biden talk about his conservation goal - protecting 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 - whenever he brings up climate because one thing is very clear.

DINERSTEIN: We have very little time left.

ROTT: Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.