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Feeling Blue About Climate Change? You’re Not Alone

Insights + Opinion
Kristina Dahl

By Kristina Dahl

It's been a tough year for those of us in the climate change community. Each week has seemed to bring either a fresh report reminding us of how precious little time we have left to try to turn this ship around or a disaster that has climate change's fingerprints all over it. Friends, family, colleagues and reporters have all asked whether I'm optimistic or hopeful about our ability to limit the severity of future climate change. And I'll be honest: I'm not. But that doesn't mean we should give up—in fact that would be among the worst things we could do. Rather, we need to hold fiercely to a vision of the future we want to see and work like hell to make it a reality.


Major Climate Events in 2018 Made It a Particularly Grim Year

During 2017—the year in which Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement, three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. for the first time ever, and my home state of California witnessed its most destructive wildfire in recorded history—I found myself faced with the reality that we were witnessing the very events that climate scientists had long been saying we'd see as our climate warmed. And that was jarring. But 2018 marks the year that I truly started to grieve for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

There has been much to fuel that grief this year. So much, in fact, that words on a screen and cells in a spreadsheet didn't feel real enough. Instead, I had to write and draw about this in my notebook to make sense of it all, letting it pour out dot by dot into what I call my "Grief Graph."

My 2018 Climate Grief Graph. My son might call this a grief-o-MOM-eter. Not shown here are the many, many short spikes in grief triggered by the Trump administration's efforts to dismantle environmental regulations and prop up the fossil fuel industry. Kristina Dahl

For the first half of the year, the intensity of generating the data for our Underwater report mostly prevented the climate change arrows that were being slung from piercing my armor. Oh, blessed, messy data, thank you for distracting me from whatever was going on during those months. I trust that it was all unicorns and fairy dust.

But for the second half of the year the blinders were off. Shortly after taking my own turn at unleashing a new set of data showing just how profoundly changed our country will be if we continue along this path, and as wildfire smoke created a blanket of doom over the Bay Area, I had more time to ingest everyone else's dire reports. Oh, and there were two devastating hurricanes.

So What Happened in 2018?

Readers, because I care about your well-being, if you are immersed in this stuff day in and day out, go ahead and skip to the next section. Yes, I'm issuing a trigger warning regarding the following list, which highlights a few of the lowlights shown in the graph above.

1. "Losing Earth." On August 1, the New York Times devoted its entire weekly magazine to a piece by Nathaniel Rich called Losing Earth. In it, Rich provided a captivating history and timeline of the realization by scientists and politicians that climate change presented tremendous dangers to society and that we were responsible for it. The timeline covers my childhood from ages 1 through 11 (1979-1989). I realized as I read this how quickly climate change became entrenched in politics and how unable scientists were to get out of the trap of discussing levels of uncertainty so that policy headway could be made. The fact that so much was known so long ago means that we've wasted basically my entire lifetime debating whether climate change is real or not and whether or not we should do something about it.

2. In early November, my colleagues here at UCS provided a briefing of the recently-released IPCC 1.5 Report for our Climate and Energy program. I had read portions of the report on my own and taken in the incredibly sobering messages of its Summary for Policymakers. But hearing my colleagues succinctly describe how little time we have left to drastically reduce our emissions if we want to stay below 1.5°C of warming was devastating. To stay below 1.5°C , we'll need to reduce coal use by about 60-75 percent by 2030. Every tenth of a degree above that gets us a little closer to the 2 °C mark, at which coral reefs are a thing of the past.All the potential pathways that limit warming to 1.5 °C without overshooting that mark at all will require us to be actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I look at those timelines and feel like I'm having one of those anxiety dreams in which you realize you have a final exam in 5 minutes, but you didn't know you were registered for the class. The challenge before us is simply monumental.

3. Then came the Camp Fire near Paradise, California, and the horror of watching the death toll creep up to nearly 90 while we hunkered indoors for nearly two weeks because the air quality was so unhealthy. School was cancelled here in the Bay Area, and going outside felt like stepping into the pages of a dystopian novel.The sidewalks in my neighborhood, which usually host a steady stream of pedestrians? Empty. The hardware stores were out of N95 masks, and there were no air purifiers to be purchased within a 200-mile radius. Just the right time for the release of another sobering climate report! This time, the National Climate Assessment.

4. My grief ebbed a teeny bit during the COP24 talks in Poland–despite the Trump administration's chummy behavior with the world's major fossil fuel producing countries—because some progress was made in defining the rules by which countries will report their progress on reducing carbon emissions. But that was bracketed by the news that carbon emissions rose substantially faster in 2018 than they had in the two previous years for both the globe as a whole as well for the U.S.

A selfie from November's dystopia. Kristina Dahl

And that doesn't even begin to wade into the heartbreaking impacts of extreme weather all around the world.

The Two Solutions to Climate Grief: Hard Work and a Positive Vision for the Future

The grief graph above demonstrates the grief-stemming power of two activities: being hard at work on activities that one hopes will make a difference and taking the time to think about the future you're working for. I'd like to focus on the latter here because the former is productive, for sure, but in terms of emotions, it is little more than a distraction from the grief.

In late August, my colleagues and I had a free-form conversation about what we're really excited to work on as a group. What energized us most focused not on climate impacts—our bread and butter—but on climate opportunities.

For a few weeks, when I closed my eyes, I envisioned a world in which our coasts are transformed by wide swaths of beautiful wetlands that have the space they need to migrate inland. A world in which the people who used to live on the land the wetlands inhabit have found new opportunities on higher ground and are thriving because they had the support and resources they needed to relocate. A world in which we can turn on A/C that's powered without carbon-based fuels and we no longer have that nagging feeling that by making ourselves comfortable, we are ultimately making the heat worse.

This sort of thought exercise can be much more than that. Competitions like Resilient by Design challenge us to envision what our communities could be like, and present us with beautiful, sustainable options that are even more appealing than what we see around us today. Similarly, the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network and the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene initiative have developed frameworks for workshops in which participants develop positive visions for a future in which the climate is warmer and extremes are more frequent.

We may not be able to decrease our emissions fast enough to keep warming to below 1.5°C. My children will likely see the extinction of species, the deterioration of coral reefs and ice-free summers in the Arctic. And with all of that, grief feels justified.

But I can also see a future in which we have done everything within our power to make our world as beautiful and healthy as it can be for our children and grandchildren. If hope and optimism aren't in your toolkit right now, I think that's ok. They're not in mine. But the last thing we're going to do is give up, right? So let's hold that beautiful future in our hearts and minds so that it can give us the courage, the ambition and the endurance to keep up the fight.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.