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For Many Reporters Covering Climate, Population Remains the Elephant in the Room

Insights + Opinion
Vera_Petrunina / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Wudan Yan

In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."


But that's not true. In 2017, Seth Wynes of Lund University in Sweden and Kimberly Nicholas of the University of British Columbia estimated the carbon emissions that various individual lifestyle choices would have. The foremost way to reduce climate change, their report said, would be to have one fewer child (which would otherwise annually contribute an additional 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide, on average in developed countries, according to the researchers' estimates). The runner-ups were living car free (2.4 tons of carbon dioxide per year), and not taking one transatlantic flight (1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year).

Newman told me that, although he fact-checked his article meticulously, neither he nor his editors caught the error on which he established the premise of his story. (In emailed comments, Newman wrote that not having a child "wasn't in the story simply because it did not occur to me while I was writing the story," though he questioned whether one should consider having a child "a single action." "It's the millions of activities that occur in the life of that human you've created that generate the CO2," he wrote. "To me it doesn't seem fair to compare taking a flight—a self-contained event that occupies only a few hours—with an entire lifetime of carbon emission.")

On the heels of Newman's piece, The Guardian published an interactive story focused exclusively on how much carbon dioxide is emitted per flight. A month on from Newman's story, Quartz published a story titled, "If you care about your impact on the planet you should stop flying." For that story, Quartz replicated a graph from the Wynes and Nicholas study, but failed to include the impact that not having another child would have. When I asked the reporter, Natasha Frost, why Quartz decided to omit part of the data, she said the graphing software couldn't fit the data properly on the graph.

If any article is only talking about flying less, or eating less meat, "it's borderline dangerous and misleading," Erica Gies, an independent journalist who has written about population and her personal decision not to have children, says. "Or the writer is ill-informed, doesn't want to look at the reality, or open themselves up to the personal attack that is writing about it."

If not having another child saves more than 20 times more carbon per year, why aren't more journalists talking about human population in proportion to the climate impact that it can have?

Environmentalists believe that overpopulation is how we arrived at our current climate crisis. To explain the impact humans have on the environment, they use the formula I = PAT: the human impact on the environment (I) is the product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). "Changing population is the one factor—the one that's most movable — that will have the most impact," activist and documentary filmmaker Terry Spahr says.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben, who, in 1999, wrote Maybe One about his decision to have just one kid due to the climate crisis, believes population is not discussed as much because population growth is not immediate and birth rates in America are already at an all-time low. "If indeed we have a decade to make transformative change, there are other things"—such as taking on the giant institutions of the fossil fuel industry—"that are more crucial," McKibben told me.

The issue of population was more widely discussed in the 1970s, after biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a warning that the world population was spiraling out of control. Population growth then led India to implement a program to forcibly sterilize men, and China to introduce its one-child policy.

Around the same time, mainstream environmental organizations in the U.S. such as the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Foundation, and Audubon Society, all embraced policies and platforms that would limit population growth. (The Sierra Club, for instance, believed that the population of the U.S. should be stabilized by limiting immigration.) But they eventually got rid of it. "It got twisted by people," says Spahr. That is, "if you believed in population policies, you were racist, or colonialist, imperialistic, or a believer in euthanasia and all kinds of crazy things." As a result, says Spahr, population control "lost its presence as a real, viable and important part of the conversation."

That backlash can intimidate writers keen to discuss how population and reproductive choice are tied into climate impact. Ash Sanders, who recently published an essay in BuzzFeed about why she chose not to have children, was initially nervous to pitch the story for those very reasons.

Gies wrote her first piece about population control for Forbes in 2011. For a long time, she says, it felt like no one else was willing to write about it.

"I got a lot of shame," she says. "People told me: if you're so concerned, you should kill yourself. And having a child in most cultures is an automatic good, so people hear you criticizing them and their choices when you talk about your own choices." But at the same time, Gies says, she received heartfelt messages from people who felt similarly, supported, and seen.

Although journalists are reaching a consensus on the gravity of the climate crisis, there is no such consensus on how to link the issue of population with climate change—or whether the link should be made at all. Talking about not having children, Frost says via email, raises "complicated ethical questions about the difference between actions where if everyone took them, the world would likely be a better place (like not eating meat), and ones where everyone doing them would make the world worse (like not having children, if you think the human race is a valuable thing to protect)."

David Roberts, an environmental journalist with Vox wrote in a 2017 article that he refused to talk about overpopulation because it was morally and politically fraught. In that article, he explains that discussing things such as empowering women would be an indirect way to get at population. (I.e., if you educate women on family planning and give them opportunities for income, they will opt to have fewer children.)

Gies, meanwhile, says population needs to be discussed directly. "That's the problem: we haven't been talking about it directly," she says.

Spahr says he's seen the conversation about population and climate change become more public over the last five years. Prince Harry recently announced that he and his partner, Meghan, will only be having two children because of climate change (although having two children will merely hit the replacement rate and not actually reduce climate impact). In February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked whether or not it's ethical to have children given the climate crisis.

Given the urgency of crisis, says Sanders, "we need to attack climate change from so many different structural and cultural angles. I don't think population is the silver bullet, but I think it's the one tool we have that we're not talking about enough. I think there are ways to have this conversation ethically that will lead to freedom and choice."

Wudan Yan is an independent journalist in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in California Sunday Magazine, Discover, Harper's, High Country News, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated for clarity.

This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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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. Niq Steele / Getty Images

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.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

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.