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Why Does Climate Change Matter to the Columbia River?

Lance Koudele / Columbia Riverkeeper

By Miles Johnson

Why does a river organization like Columbia Riverkeeper dedicate so much energy to fighting fossil fuel projects?

First, fossil fuels threaten clean water. Think oil spills, pipelines that degrade salmon streams, coal dust in the river, and aerial deposition of mercury from coal-burning power plants. But we have additional motivation to fight fossil fuel infrastructure: climate change is harming the Columbia River and our communities right now. And giant fossil fuel corporations want to build more infrastructure—pipelines, fracked gas refineries, shipping terminals—to lock our region into continued reliance on dirty energy. Together, we are taking a stand to protect clean water and our climate.

With each victory over fracked gas, oil and coal, we are protecting clean water and our climate. This article explores four (of the many) impacts of climate change—salmon in hot water, extreme heat waves, fire danger and streams running dry—harming the people, animals and plants in our region right now. In addition, the article describes scientists' projections of future impacts. Our work is urgent and full of hope. By defeating fossil fuel infrastructure today, we support the rapid transition to clean energy, which will increase prosperity in the Pacific Northwest.

Four impacts of climate change in the Pacific Northwest:

Salmon in Hot Water

The mighty Columbia River is synonymous with salmon. When tribes alone inhabited the Columbia River Basin, as many as 30 million salmon returned to the river each year. Despite significant declines, these salmon runs hold tremendous cultural and economic value for tribes and other river communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. While we struggle to restore the Columbia's imperiled salmon runs, climate change is warming the river, making it even harder for salmon to survive.

Salmon leaping of Lyle FallsColumbia Riverkeeper

Salmon need cool water. Warm water encourages disease-causing bacteria and fungi, delays salmon migration and depletes salmon's energy reserves. How warm is too warm? Adult salmon have difficulty swimming upstream when water temperatures approach 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Salmon that have stopped or slowed their migration, and languish for days or weeks in warm water, begin dying from stress and disease before they can return to their home streams to spawn.

Average summer water temperatures in the Columbia River have steadily increased over the past 60 years, and will only get hotter if climate change intensifies. Fifty years ago, the Columbia was too hot for salmon migration for only a week or two during the very peak of the summer. Now the Columbia frequently remains above 68 degrees Fahrenheit from mid-July until mid-September, making salmon migration during that time difficult or impossible. The Fish Passage Center, a federal science agency, explained that "under a climate change scenario, the long-recognized and largely unaddressed problem of high water temperatures ... becomes an ever-increasing threat to the survival of salmon in the Columbia River Basin."

That threat became a stark reality in the summer of 2015. Roughly 250,000 adult sockeye salmon, including 96 percent of the critically endangered Snake River sockeye run, died prematurely in the Columbia and lower Snake because the rivers were too hot. Though it's convenient to call 2015 an outlier, climate scientists predict that the air and water temperatures that killed so many salmon in 2015 will become increasingly common.

To protect salmon, we must stop burning fossil fuels. In addition, altering and removing dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers can help solve water temperature problems. The Columbia and Snake dams create large, shallow reservoirs that trap the sun's heat and warm up the rivers. If we operated the dams differently, and removed the lower four Snake River dams, we could directly address the hot water crisis that threatens salmon survival.

Free the Snake 2015 by Ben Moon for Patagonia

Extreme Heat Waves

Across the Pacific Northwest, hotter days and nights are growing more common. Climate change will increase the intensity, frequency and duration of extreme heat waves during the summer, with dangerous consequences. Heat kills more people in the U.S. in most years than floods, tornadoes or hurricanes. Our region's cool, rainy reputation leaves many people unprepared to deal with extreme temperatures and heat waves.

The Pacific Northwest—like many other parts of the world—has seen record hot spells in recent summers. Climate change has already doubled the frequency of heat waves in some regions. And more extreme heat is on the way, even if we substantially reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. Government scientists predict that heat waves in the Pacific Northwest over the next 30 to 60 years will be roughly twice as common as they are now and last twice as long. Summer temperatures that would have been extreme in the 1950s will become commonplace in coming decades, and we will see more record-high temperatures.

Extreme heat waves are dangerous. Heat is among the top weather-related causes of death in the U.S., responsible for an average of 1,500 fatalities per year. One recent study in Washington state found a 50-percent increase in heat-related hospitalizations during summers with serious heat waves. Residents of the Pacific Northwest may be at particular risk, even though heat waves here are less severe than in other regions. Many Oregonians and Washingtonians don't think of heat as a health risk, may not know the signs of heat stroke, and may not have access to air conditioning. A nationwide study found that "areas along the West Coast showed very high vulnerability [to heat waves], even though their current climates are temperate.

Like many other consequences of climate change, extreme heat waves will cause the most harm to the most vulnerable members of our society. Because urban areas collect additional heat, elderly and poor people living in large cities face the greatest risks. Older people tend to be less resilient to the physical stress of prolonged heat waves. And in the Pacific Northwest, where many homes lack air conditioning, low-income communities may not have access to, or the ability to pay for, relief from the heat.

Fire Danger

Residents of the Columbia River Gorge and the Portland metro area won't soon forget last summer's Eagle Creek Fire: weeks of smoke and haze; road closures; evacuation alerts and vacant downtowns in Gorge communities that usually bustle with summer visitors. And while we had it bad, the deadly fires that ravaged California communities later in 2017 were downright catastrophic.

Across the nation and the globe, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Large wildfires in the U.S. currently burn more than twice as many acres each year as they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season now lasts two-and-a-half months longer. Less snow, earlier snowmelt and warmer air temperatures—all linked to climate change—lead to the hot, dry conditions that boost fire activity. Warmer, drier conditions also make fires harder to put out.

The Pacific Northwest's forests will be especially susceptible to wildfires as our climate changes. In Oregon and Washington, the mountains of the Cascade and Coast ranges traditionally have wet winters and relatively cool summers, leading to infrequent forest fires. But if the average temperature increases by one degree Celsius in this region—including the Gorge—the number of acres burned each year could rise by more than 400 percent. In the forests of northeastern Oregon, the number of acres burned each year could increase by more than 500 percent.

While we fight climate change, we'll also need to change the ways we manage and live with wildfire. Old ideas about wildfire suppression should be discarded; immediately putting out every forest fire, no matter the location, is incredibly expensive and allows dangerous amounts of fuel to build up over time. Forest management, like thinning around rural communities, may play a limited role. But powerful timber corporations and elected leaders should not use fire danger as an excuse to increase clearcutting and salvage logging that harm water quality, fish and wildlife.

Streams Running Dry

Washington, Oregon and Idaho are famous for beautiful, wild rivers and streams. The Wenatchee, Yakima, Deschutes, Clackamas and Selway—just to name a few in the Columbia Basin—evoke a powerful connection and sense of pride for many Pacific Northwest residents. We boat, fish, swim, and draw drinking water from our many rivers. Properly restored, these streams can once more support healthy salmon runs. But only if there's enough water to keep our rivers and streams flowing.

Climate change threatens to decrease water levels in western rivers, especially during the summer. Most surface water in the West comes from snowmelt, but snowfall is declining and projected to decline faster if climate change continues. With less snowmelt to feed rivers throughout the summer, and warmer air temperatures increasing evaporation, many rivers won't have much water left in the summer and fall. Some streams in the Columbia Basin may run dry altogether.

In response to declining snowpack, some suggest building new dams to trap rainfall and spring runoff. But dam construction would sacrifice the very rivers we seek to protect and restore. We already live with the legacy of thousands of large and small dams throughout the Columbia Basin. Dam construction is the past; dam removal and healthy, free-flowing rivers are our present and future.

One Columbia Basin stream already facing acute water shortages is Fifteenmile Creek. From its headwaters in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the creek flows into the Columbia River near The Dalles, OR, and provides an important spawning area for threatened steelhead. Fifteenmile Creek receives about 70 inches of precipitation each year—mostly as snowmelt—but irrigation already competes for scarce water in the summer, sometimes running the stream dry and killing young fish. Further decreases in snowfall and precipitation could push this imperiled population of steelhead over the brink of extinction.

Hope for a Brighter, Cooler Future

The threats from climate change are real and daunting, yet we see reasons for hope all around us. The Pacific Northwest is combating climate change by refusing to host coal and oil export terminals and by decreasing our reliance on fracked gas for power. Instead, your voice is driving a transition to clean, renewable energy and setting an example for the rest of the U.S. and beyond. Together, we can protect the Columbia Basin's people and places from the worst impacts of climate change while protecting clean water.

Miles Johnson is senior attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper.

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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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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.