How One State Bridged the Cultural Divide on Climate Change
By Cameron Wake
The year 2017 painted a grim picture of coastal storms in the eastern U.S. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were deadly and destructive harbingers of how climate change contributes to bigger storms with stronger winds, greater extreme precipitation, and higher storm surge due to rising seas.
Unfortunately, there's a long-standing cultural divide around climate change. On a political level, this has made it difficult for coastal states to act on—or even acknowledge—the growing risk of coastal flooding from climate change.
New Hampshire, however, is an exception. The state has passed legislation and made rule changes designed to better prepare the state for the damage from storm surge and rising seas. And several municipalities in coastal New Hampshire are integrating preparations for rising seas in their long-term master plans.
This progress occurred despite divisive political views on climate change in New Hampshire. As one of the scientists involved in reviewing the science related to coastal flooding, I discovered that this seemingly intractable cultural divide over climate change can be bridged—if scientists show up and build relationships with local decision-makers.
Challenge for Municipalities
Some large coastal cities, including Boston, New York, Norfolk and Miami, have decided to act now to build resilience to current and future coastal flooding. Upgrades include installing flood walls, elevating roads, improving stormwater systems and expanding open space.
Small coastal communities, meanwhile, tend to lack the financial and personnel resources to address the challenges presented by a changing climate, all while dealing with the cultural divide around the issue.
To address these challenges in New Hampshire's small coastal communities, concerned coastal citizens and politicians engaged a range of local voices in a state legislative process. It resulted in the 37-member NH Coastal Risk and Hazards Commission, which developed a set of unanimously agreed-upon recommendations in a report prepared by elected officials from both parties in the state legislature and representatives from the state's coastal municipalities. These recommendations provide guidance to prepare for projected increases in coastal flooding from storm surge, sea level rise and extreme precipitation.
Critically, early on the commission established a Science and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) to review existing scientific understanding of coastal hazards and flood risk in a separate report. The STAP report reflected the extensive body of scientific evidence, including that global sea levels have been rising and will continue rising for centuries. Also, extreme precipitation events across the northeast U.S. have increased and are projected to become more frequent.
After the release of the STAP report, one of the state legislators on the commission publicly questioned the findings in an email to the Commission Steering Committee that suggested we "not get into a battle over peer review."
This attempt to discredit the science could have derailed the commission's objectives and hindered discussion of climate change preparation in coastal New Hampshire. In response, I explained that peer review is one of the foundations of scientific inquiry and is meant to maintain disciplinary standards. It is a process that works to separate opinion from logical conclusions.
Fortunately, the enabling legislation for the commission had clearly indicated that its members were to "review National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other scientific agency projections." This language and the commission's broader desire to focus on the best available science were critical for working through this opposition. This stipulation that recommendations rely on federal agency research and peer-reviewed research helped ensure the recommendations were based on scientific analysis rather than individual beliefs.
The STAP report provided guidance on projected sea level rise that communities can use to inform local action. For example, the report notes that critical infrastructure, such as major roads, police stations, hospitals and power plants, should be designed to withstand a moderate-high sea level rise scenario of 3.9 feet by 2100 and be prepared for a high sea level rise scenario of 6.6 feet.
Based on the STAP report, the commission developed a suite of recommendations that ranged from improving our understanding of critical infrastructure vulnerability to amending state statutes and preparing businesses. There were also recommendations to acquire properties at risk of flooding.
The FDR Drive flooded after Hurricane Sandy.David Shankbone / Flickr
Perhaps most importantly, the commission recommended that the STAP science summary be updated regularly to keep up with changing science. The fact that we agreed to revisit the science regularly was a major reason commission members felt comfortable supporting the recommendations, as it allows subsequent action to reflect conditions on the coast as they unfold.
The recommendations largely represent common sense, flexible and "no-regrets" approaches to address coastal flood risk. The recommendations are also voluntary and reflect the strong New Hampshire value of local control. It is up to the municipalities and state agencies to decide how best to proceed.
However, he did believe that the recommendations represented a contingency plan in case there are destructive effects from climate change. And they served as important guidelines for seacoast municipalities to consider as they prepare for the future.
It has been over a year since the commission recommendations were released. Over that time, there has been action at the state and municipal levels.
There have been new laws, including ones that require state agencies to enable appropriate actions and to update coastal flooding trends. Several (but not all) coastal municipalities are addressing the growing risk of coastal flooding in various ways, including master plans, hazard mitigation plans, floodplain freeboard requirements and stormwater management strategies. They are also upgrading infrastructure, installing living shorelines and engaging in community outreach.
How was the commission able to reach consensus in the climate change culture divide era? At least three reasons come to mind.
One—process matters. In July 2013 the state legislature enacted bipartisan Senate Bill 163, which established the commission. The commission provided the urgency and critical mass to develop recommendations to address coastal risk and hazards in a structured effort with clear and consequential deliverables. Our process also included strong and balanced political leadership, especially from our two New Hampshire state senators.
Two—facts still matter. Much of the deliberation was based on science-based information and analysis (STAP report and vulnerability assessments for the Atlantic coast and Great Bay regions). The inclusion of several scientists on the commission also helped ensure that science remained a central tenet of our dialogue. Language in the enabling legislation was referenced on several occasions to restrict scientific analysis to federal agency reports and peer-reviewed science.
Three—relationships matter. Several individuals who served on the commission included current members of the Coastal Adaptation Workgroup (formed in 2010 following completion of New Hampshire's Climate Action Plan). The trust we developed over years of working together on coastal flood issues was critical for maintaining progress. Also, the commission's three-year term included sufficient time to get to know each other better and time for individuals with a variety of perspectives to share their concerns and respectfully listen to others. This time also allowed us to develop a shared vision for a resilient coast.
Several major challenges remain for building resilience to coastal flooding in New Hampshire and preparing for the next big hurricane or nor'easter. However, the state has taken some important steps and made important strides. The acknowledgment of risk is bipartisan and rhetoric from the climate cultural divide is more muted. It's an encouraging level of activity and engagement, as we wrestle with what it means to be resilient.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
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>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(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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