Climate, health and the pandemic

by John Quiggin on November 28, 2020

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.



Mike Huben 11.28.20 at 12:59 pm

“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.”

That means trampling on the traditions of indigenous cultures who have always used such sources of protein for survival. Keep in mind that Ebola has erupted multiple times in such cultures.

It also means trampling on the cultures of even our largest cultures. Chinese traditional ideas of medicine, cuisine, and conspicuous consumption would need to be reined in, since they drive the wet markets (and trade in shark fins, ivory and rhino horn which can lead to extinction.)

Making tradeoffs for these prohibitions will be very difficult, and likely result in oppression for the smaller groups.


Omega Centauri 11.28.20 at 3:31 pm

The traffic accident death rate in the US is more like 40K/year.


Don A in Pennsyltucky 11.29.20 at 12:25 am

I wonder if there is a path that is both humane and sustainable. We have been told since the late 1960s that there are too many people. We manage that population with inputs that are causing the globe to heat up. Sea levels rise and people die in storms that are more violent and produce more flooding. Excess heat increases fire risk and people die and/or lose their homes. Perhaps a sudden change to solar/wind/geothermal or other forms of sustainable energy can be accomplished soon enough but, as we have seen since we knew about The Tragedy of the Commons, everyone wants to have just a little more which is how we got here.


J-D 11.29.20 at 8:17 am

That means trampling on the traditions of indigenous cultures …

Sometimes cultural traditions should be trampled on (indigenous or non-indigenous).


bad Jim 11.29.20 at 8:18 am

My nephew, 13, as often as not cooks the main dish for our Sunday dinner. He does not take kindly to the suggestion that cooking over an open flame is to be deprecated, or prohibited. His mother, when he’s cooking, opens the window and cranks up the fan; it’s annoying, but she has the right of this. The open flame emits carbon dioxide, the sizzling fats emit god knows what, and it’s generally recognized that there are health risks involved in the process.

Several municipalities have stipulated that, from now on, new houses will have only electric service. This will not only reduce their carbon footprint; it will also reduce the exposure of their inhabitants to combustion products.


Matt 11.29.20 at 9:31 am

I’m not sure if it helps or hurts the case that you’re trying to make, John, but Omega C is right that the number on traffic deaths in the US is off by a fair amount. (even OC overstates it a bit.) They are close to 36K/year, and going down as a percentage of the population. See here:

The discussion of pandemics and “destruction of the global environment” moves very quickly. I assume (or hope) this is to be fleshed out more. What does bush meat (which has been eaten for very long periods of time) have to do with the “destruction of the global environment”? Or eating bats, if that was the origin of Covid? This is at least not obvious. It feels like you’re trying to tie together things that are important, and of interest to you, but in a way that doesn’t have any rigor here, and certainly not any causality shown. (I suppose you could say, “eating meat is bad for the environment. Bush meat and bats are meat. Those things lead to (maybe) pandemics. Therefore, there is a connection between pandemics and environmental degradation.” But, I have to admit I wouldn’t find that to be a great argument. Otherwise, I’m not super clear what the argument here is supposed to be.)


Hidari 11.29.20 at 9:55 am

Unless we do something about it (and spoiler alert!, we ain’t gonna do shit) climate change will soon be killing at least 250,000 people a year, and possibly much more than this, by about 2040, 2050.

This is on top of the deaths from pollution listed in the OP, although (again as noted in the OP) there are probably elements of synergy here.

It’s a shame I’m not allowed to draw any inferences about the continued viability (or otherwise) of industrial capitalism from this because, y’know, reasons.

However, imagine it was the other way round, and the Soviet Union etc. still existed. And these were the death tolls in the Eastern Bloc from pollution. What conclusions would we draw from this about the ethics (or otherwise) of the Soviet system?


Tim Worstall 11.29.20 at 1:58 pm

“Millions of people die every year from particulate pollution caused by the burning of coal and oil.”

At your own link there they point out that there’s “household” and “ambient” such pollution which both kill. It’s arguable which kills more but indoor cooking with wood/dung – that is, not using the more modern gas or fossil derived electricity – certainly kills swathes.

Thee are costs and benefits to everything…..


William Meyer 11.29.20 at 3:12 pm

Yeah, the global warming thing isn’t going to go well. The problem is that humans are status-hierarchy apes, and one consequence of our huge contemporary human population (relative to any historical baseline) is that we have far too many apes struggling to sit at the top of the hierarchy, and willing to do or say anything whatever to get there, and hordes of their followers (utilizing the dubious but ultra-common ape strategy of lining up with the centers of power) taking their leader’s ridiculous nonsense on board in order to assure themselves a reasonable (not at the bottom) place in the hierarchy of their “tribe.” No actual good planning or capable execution will be possible on this problem because the needs of far too many wanna-be hierarchs must be met first, and by the time all that’s sorted out large, large numbers of people will be dead. Oh well, the gross overpopulation of humanity needed to be reduced–really not compatible with any kind of stable environment–and I guess, if you can’t rationally plan such a reduction, this is how it has to go.


notGoodenough 11.29.20 at 3:55 pm

This is a very good point – from London’s Great Smog of ’52 to Deepwater Horizon, the costs of environmental damage are increasingly self-evident and, as is so often is the case, mostly endured by those least able to do so.

“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.”

Indeed. It is critical to plan for ways of life which are in-keeping with our environment. We are a part of the natural world, and in many ways much of our troubles represent what is likely one of the greatest self-inflicted wounds in the history of life on our planet.

Incorperating sustainability into our civilisations was critical 50 years ago – now, it should be one of the most pressing concerns for us all.


John Quiggin 11.30.20 at 2:00 am

Thanks @2 and @5 for the correction on traffic deaths. I don’t know where I got that one. As an aside, it looks as though improvements on most measures (deaths/population or deaths/VMT) ended a decade or so ago.

Thanks all for useful comments


Kiwanda 11.30.20 at 3:55 am

Here’s a discussion of more evidence of the harms of air pollution: a study finding an improvement in infant health in areas near toll booths, after the introduction of EZ-pass; studies finding increased mistakes by chess players and at call centers, with increased pollution, and so on. On life expectancy: air pollution reduces it by two years, globally, and by six years, in parts of India and China.


Hidari 11.30.20 at 8:55 am

Since we are on the subject of deaths from capitalism (well we aren’t but we should be)
remember that it is perfectly legal to sell an addictive drug with no medicinal (or, actually, any) purposes, the only purpose of which (so to speak) is to kill people. And it does:

8 million people every year. *

As with all these issues (global warming, air pollution, other forms of pollution) tobacco kills people disproportionately in the global South. It is impossible to talk about these things without talking about the ethics (or otherwise) of capitalism, and also social class.

*One could also talk here about how many people are killed from alcohol but at least alcohol has some redeeming social/aesthetic value, although whether it’s worth all the dead people is a moot point.


notGoodenough 11.30.20 at 10:12 am

Hidari @ 7

“It’s a shame I’m not allowed to draw any inferences about the continued viability (or otherwise) of industrial capitalism from this because, y’know, reasons.”

Out of interest, who (or what) is preventing you?


notGoodenough 11.30.20 at 11:05 am

Matt @ 6

While I´m not JQ (nor do I have any wish to speak for him!), I think the general overarching idea is based on the principle that the thoughtless way in which humanity in general tends to treat the environment (as if we are somehow separate from it!) has significant consequences in many different ways – some eminently predictable, some less so. While not all are directly related to general health, many will impact it (even if only tangentially or subsequently).

For example:

People carelessly exploiting the use of carbon-based energy = climate change, pollution, etc., which negatively impact our health

People carelessly encroaching into the “natural world” = exposure to virulent diseases which, combined with our lack of previous experience and poor preparation, can lead to global health crises

People carelessly upsetting ecosystems with ill-judged exploitation (as opposed to more sustainable approaches) = vast changes within those ecosystems, which can then dramatically impact us (and, subsequently, our health)


Again, I´ve no wish to put words in JQ´s mouth (and I could be completely wrong on this, of course!), but that was my general takeaway of the theme…


steven t johnson 11.30.20 at 8:58 pm

It seems to me that, in the real world, economic production for profit sees raw materials as basically only worth what it takes to acquire them for the production process itself, yet their utility in production can be enormous, which means their use must often be maximized in a way that use of labor is not. That in the social division of labor, raw materials do not contribute directly to profit and therefore there is no intrinsic need to conserve them. That their utility in social reproduction is irrelevant to production for profit. Raw materials means the environment, the biosphere.

Nor is it clear to me that any free market in capital will ever be able to find the correct price of raw materials to, so to speak, clear not current markets, but future markets. The von Misesian calculation problem, it seems to me, applies not just to a human, social economy, but to nature’s economy, the ecology, too. If you are convinced von Mises was the great man who refuted the utopian dream of socialism, he has also I think refuted the utopian dream of the endless survival of humanity, at least on a mass scale.

The number of comments that are hostile to the existence of large numbers of people is dispiriting.

It is not at all clear to me that vegan diets are good for children. Nor is it clear to me that even if a sufficient vegan diet for children (and sick people and old people and people with annoyingly non-uniform needs and wants,) could be devised that the production of the proper foods could necessarily be scaled up enough to feed the young of the world. Is it really guaranteed that enough raspberries and coconut and acorn squash and palm hearts can be grown for all children? Even if one can so easily assume children will joyfully eat their spinach in the future?


J-D 11.30.20 at 11:13 pm

“It’s a shame I’m not allowed to draw any inferences about the continued viability (or otherwise) of industrial capitalism from this because, y’know, reasons.”

Out of interest, who (or what) is preventing you?

Nothing is preventing Hidari from drawing inferences. A more appropriate response to Hidari’s statement than yours would have been this:

You are allowed to draw inferences, and therefore your statement is a falsehood.


John Quiggin 12.01.20 at 2:10 am

Matt@6 NotGoodEnough@15 gets my point, but it appears I was a bit too telegraphic for you. I will take another look and see if I can make it a bit clearer.


Matt 12.01.20 at 7:26 am

John and NotGoodEnough – yes, I assumed something like that was the point, but it seems very loosely argued to me – more “a lot of bad things seem to go together in a lose way” rather than something that can convince people to make changes when they don’t want to, or convince policy makers. Each thing mentioned may be important, but I’m not sure they really go together in any significant way. Trying to put them all together makes the case weaker, it seems to me. I’d either leave some of them out (I think the connection w/ HIV is pretty weak, for example – I think it’s very hard to make the case that people eating bush meat involves “carelessly encroaching into the natural world” or “carelessly upsetting ecosystems”, at least not in principle or as it would have been done in the 1950s or so when HIV emerged.) or else make each one much more rigorously.

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