6 Tough Questions Needing Answers at Tonight's Democratic Presidential Debate
From Pope Francis’ historic visit and climate advocacy to President Obama’s groundbreaking Clean Power Plan, momentum for climate action and an economy powered by clean energy is building at a rapid pace. Just last week, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF—the world’s most important international economic institution), called action on climate change a “macro-critical” issue that will determine the long term stability and vitality of all countries around the world.
The good news is that the world is acting and in a big way. China just joined the U.S. in leading the way forward on climate with historic commitments to curbing its carbon pollution and installing huge amounts of wind and solar. More than 151 countries, including more than 100 developing countries, have submitted plans for cutting and limiting their carbon pollution and ramping up clean energy.
As the Democratic party chooses its next nominee for president, action on climate and climate-smart policies, advocacy for the booming clean energy economy and ensuring we all have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink will be top priorities—and must be top topics of discussion. Recent polling shows that more than eight-in-ten registered voters nationwide (84 percent) favor “taking action to accelerate the development and use of clean energy in the U.S.,” including 72 percent of Republican voters and even 68 percent of self-identified conservative Republican voters. It is important that candidates address these issues and that debate moderators, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Juan Carlos Lopez, ensure these key issues are highlighted through debate questions.
These are some of the issues Sierra Club and our millions of members and supporters will be looking for the candidates to provide more detailed views and leadership on:
1. The Clean Power Plan & Beyond
The Clean Power Plan is the single most important action any president has ever taken to address the climate crisis. The plan implements the first ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants and will help America reduce our carbon pollution by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. As a result, it will help prevent up to 6,600 deaths and up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children every year. The next president must ensure that we actually achieve these reductions through strong enforcement while putting in place even stronger climate and clean air protections as our progress advances.
2. U.S. Leadership on International Climate Action in Paris
This year, the nations of the world aim to achieve a meaningful international agreement on climate action for the first time. While widespread state and local grassroots advocacy is pushing us beyond dirty fuels to clean energy, the U.S. has already shown that it is serious about leading the way forward through the Clean Power Plan. Leadership from the next president of the U.S. will be essential to implementing that agreement, as well as ensuring the world continues to act together and increase its ambitions over the next two decades—the make-or-break timeframe for Earth’s climate.
3. A Path Toward a 100 Percent Clean Energy Economy
We know that a 100 percent clean energy economy is inevitable, the only questions are how long it will take us to get there and whether we do so on time. Already, wind and solar are taking off across the country. Today, Iowa gets 28 percent of its electricity from wind and is anticipated to get 40 percent from wind just five years from now. The next president must be a stalwart advocate for wind and solar energy, as well as energy efficiency measures that save all families money. At the same time, it’s important to ensure that changes in the way we power our lives also benefit the workers and communities that have traditionally been reliant on dirty fuels. We need a president who gets it on clean energy and will be an ambitious leader with strong targets and goals for clean energy.
4. Opposition to the Dirtiest Fossil Fuel Projects
The dirty fuel industry loves nothing more than profits and it’s more than willing to sacrifice clean water, clean air and our entire climate for the sake of more. Two projects and proposals stand out for their outsized impact on creating huge amounts of carbon pollution while destroying some of the most incredible places on Earth.
- The Keystone XL Pipeline, which is designed to pipe “the dirtiest oil on Earth” from the heart of Canada’s Boreal Forest and leave behind total destruction. Referred to as “the lungs of the planet,” this ancient forest of coniferous trees features a diverse array of plant and animal species among extensive wetlands and ranks only behind the Amazon Rainforest as the second-largest carbon storehouse in the world.
- Drilling in the Arctic, one of the last great wild places on the planet (and the final frontier in American conservation), would mean a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill and 100 percent chance of major carbon pollution.
5. Promoting Responsible Trade and Opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership
There are many environmental and other reasons candidates for president must oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership, but top among them is the fact that it includes provisions giving corporations the right to sue a government for unlimited cash compensation—in private and non-transparent tribunals—over nearly any law or policy that a corporation alleges will reduce its profits. Using similar rules in other free trade agreements, corporations such as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical have launched more than 600 cases against more than 100 governments. Dozens of cases attack common-sense environmental laws and regulations, such as regulations to protect communities and the environment from harmful chemicals or mining practices.
6. Protecting Our Wild Places
America's public lands are held in "public trust" for and by all Americans, providing opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors and come together to share experiences. That’s why it’s important to double down on the fight to preserve our wild heritage in the face of threats from mining, drilling and climate disruption. The next president must follow the bipartisan leadership of past administrations on conservation of our natural places. It’s more critical than ever that we protect vulnerable wildlife through preserving and expanding habitat; protect and restore wild forests and marine sanctuaries; and expand opportunities for all Americans to explore and enjoy nature by conserving and restoring tracts of natural lands near densely-populated areas.
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When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
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(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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