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Lisa Jackson's Departure and the Irrelevance of the EPA to the Obama Team

Climate

Steven Cohen

U.S. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson

U.S. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's imminent departure from her position was a non-event in Washington D.C. in much the same way that the EPA has been an afterthought on the American political scene for at least a generation. I am far from an objective observer of the EPA. I worked for the agency in the late 1970s and early 1980s and worked as a consultant to the EPA for many years since then. It is a great agency filled with talented and dedicated people, but as Administrator Jackson's departure indicates, it is not a player in the power equation in the Obama administration.

While mayors such as Mike Bloomberg think of sustainability as a key element of New York's economic development and act as if they take it seriously, the Obama team is still trading off economic growth against environmental protection. They talk about sustainability, but do not act as if it is a priority. The EPA is still about "end of the pipeline" command and control regulation to make pollution illegal. It is not about figuring out how to make this planet productive enough to support all of us without self-destructing.

Like many lawyers, I assume the president and many of his closest advisors do not understand much about economics and probably even less about sustainability science. The economic policies of this administration have been both conventional and unimaginative. There has been no effort to integrate sustainable resource utilization and technological development into America's economic strategy. "Green jobs" has been a public relations ploy rather than an economic strategy.

Lisa Jackson was an excellent EPA administrator, and she remains a capable environmental professional. She pushed forward on climate change regulation under the Clean Air Act, brought about improved fuel efficiency standards and was an aggressive advocate for a clean environment. But the problem is that the EPA's approach to the environment is embedded in the environment-economic growth trade off. When the White House and the media (not to mention the House Republicans) think of the EPA, they think of it as the anti-growth, eat-your-spinach, don't use that plastic bag, Department of Things We Aren't Allowed to Do. Of course everyone knows that toxic air, water and land must be avoided. And no one wants to end up with the orange air they often have in China these days. So, yes, we have to follow the rules even if they cost us jobs and wealth, because we have to eat our spinach if we want to grow up big and strong.

The sustainability perspective turns all this on its head. The idea, based in part on an engineering field called industrial ecology, is to manufacture goods without emitting pollutants—through the use of closed systems that ensure that all resources end up in some form of production. Sustainability does not trade off environment and wealth, it is built on the premise that the environment is a major source of our wealth. Careful use of natural resources makes a company more efficient and more profitable. Wasting energy and water does not add to a company's profits, market share or return on equity. Walmart requires its vendors to demonstrate sustainability to keep costs down along with environmental impacts. When New York City plants a million trees, it reduces air pollution and global warming, but it also makes the city a more attractive place to live and lifts housing values and tax revenues. When HP collects your toner cartridge and re-manufactures it, it makes rather than loses money on the exchange. Much of New York City's water is filtered by our ecosystem rather than a multi-billion dollar filtration plant.

The paradigm that the EPA operates under assumes inefficient and polluting manufacturing as a given, and then designs retrofits to make sure that the pollution is either minimized or directed away from people. That policy approach made sense in the 20th century and it worked spectacularly well. Until the EPA was created, our pollution levels were rising at a faster rate than GDP growth. By 1980 that had shifted. Our GDP continued to grow, but our air, water and land were getting cleaner.

While the tourniquet stopped the bleeding, it did little to cure the disease. Pollution was exported to developing countries as a global economy and world-wide communication and transport system was put into place. Population, urbanization and economic development grew dramatically as nations such as China, India and Brazil became major economic powers. The issue of resource depletion and destruction moved from the fringes of world politics to the center—except here in the U.S.

This country, in some ways symbolized by the EPA itself, seems stuck in a time warp. In our political culture and media the commies are still fighting the capitalists and the greens are still fighting the growth and jobs crowd. Meanwhile, the Chinese communists are turning into global capitalists, buying up companies all over the world. While America whines about taxes, China builds the world's longest bullet train. More importantly, the emerging Chinese elite understand that for economic development to be sustainable, it must be accomplished without destroying the air, land and water. And it requires a partnership between the public and private sectors.

Here in the U.S. we do not seem to be able to make the leap from environmental protection to environmental and economic sustainability. So Lisa Jackson and her agency do not have a seat at the economic policy table. Her successor won't be invited to dine at the adult table either.

What should we do? Let's try a sustainability strategy. The EPA, parts of the National Science Foundation, and parts of the Departments of Energy, Interior and Agriculture need to be integrated into a single Department or a White House directed Sustainability Task Force. The goal of the new Department or Task Force would be to achieve a rapid transition to a green economy. We need an all hands, well financed effort focused on basic research, infrastructure investment, along with rigorous rules governing resource development, use and pollution. The nation's economic strategy should be built on the transition to a green economy, not undertaken as if the issue can be avoided or ignored.

I would be more than a little surprised to see an idea like this emerge from the ongoing horror movie now playing in our nation's capital. But it's time to move past just protecting the environment. We must protect the environment, because if we don't have clean air, water and food we will get sick and die. But we must also learn to use this planet more effectively for the well-being of all. America has no unit of government focused on integrating environmental protection with economic development. It's time to build one.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLEAN AIR ACT and CLEAN WATER ACT pages for more related news on this topic.

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Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is also Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Director of the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management at Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education.

 

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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.

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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

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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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"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."

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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.