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Stories to Watch in 2012

Climate

World Resources Institute

By Manish Bapna

What are the top environmental and development issues that will shape 2012? Jan. 10, I presented the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) 9th annual Stories to Watch at the National Press Club. While we can’t predict the future, here’s a rundown of the key issues to keep an eye on:

1. Environmental Issues in an Election Year

U.S. Climate Policy

In 2008, the Obama administration set a target that the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 17 percent by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels). According to WRI’s 2010 analysis, the 17 percent target is still within reach, but it will require a sustained effort in 2012 and beyond.

In 2012, the Obama administration has significant opportunities to cut emissions—but it remains to be seen how far it will be willing to go. This year you cannot answer the question of whether the administration will be aggressive without considering the political context even more than usual.

At the state level, California will be putting in place the foundation for their new cap-and-trade program, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states will be doing a program review in 2012.

U.S. Presidential Election

It's amazing how quickly things can change in politics. Back in 2008, both Democratic and Republican candidates supported national action to address climate change.

Now, the obvious story to watch is how environmental issues play out in the 2012 campaign. This will, in part, set the stage for what happens in the next presidential administration.

Will President Obama leverage his environment and public health record and position himself in contrast to the more extreme strains of the GOP? Will he lean into these issues or distance himself from them?

On the Republican side, will the presumed candidate embrace anti-EPA rhetoric, using it as a prime example of government overreach? Or will he pivot back toward more moderate positions as the general election begins?

2. Transitions in China

Solar and Wind Trade Issues between the U.S. and China

Recent trade cases have upped the ante in the clean energy trade dispute between the U.S. and China. Solarworld has brought a case forward on behalf of a coalition of U.S. manufacturers of solar panels. A group of solar buyers and installers have banded together to oppose the complaint. China’s Ministry of Commerce began a formal investigation of U.S. government support for the clean energy sector. And, just last week, a new trade case was filed in the U.S. challenging Chinese subsidies for steel towers used for wind turbines.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on this story. Some are suggesting that this dispute could become as heated as the trade wars on automobiles between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s.

National Energy Cap

For the first time, China is considering setting a national cap on energy use. Although we don’t know the details yet, it will likely be an annual limit on total energy consumption or coal consumption, probably through 2015 or through 2020. This would be a major step forward in helping China decouple energy consumption from Gross Domestic Product growth.

The ultimate impact of the cap will be to limit the use of coal in China, which currently makes up more than 70 percent of consumption. We’ll be watching to see how this plays out on the national and provincial level.

Carbon Trading Systems

China will be setting up provincial carbon trading systems in 2012. Interestingly, the pilots in different places will be constructed differently. Just as U.S. states act as laboratories of change, the Chinese government uses pilots at the provincial level to test new ideas before scaling up across the country.

3. Rising Food Demand and Opportunities

Demand for food is accelerating at a remarkable rate. The global middle class is expected to triple within the next 20 years, changing the types of food people eat. There will be pressure to convert many of the remaining, pristine natural landscapes to food production. How we respond to this demand will have profound implications for biodiversity, forests and the global climate.

One solution to this problem is to restore degraded or significantly underproductive lands. Although estimates vary, a key study last year published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that somewhere between 600-700 million acres of degraded cropland has been abandoned over the past century, and a huge amount of that land (about four times the size of Texas) could be brought back into production.

4. Renewable Energy—Boom or Bust

Global investment in renewable energy is already approaching global investments in fossil fuels. Could 2012 be the year in which renewable energy investment surpasses fossil fuels?

This depends in part on two issues. First is the effect of the shale gas boom. Abundant, cheap shale gas may make it even more difficult for renewables to break into the market.

Second are government policy decisions, especially in the U.S., China, Germany and India. These will likely determine the scale of future investment in renewable energy. Will countries commit to steady and well-telegraphed renewable policies, as Germany has done successfully over the past few years, or will they cut renewable support under political and fiscal pressures?

5. Rio+20

In June 2012, more than 40,000 people are expected to convene for the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil. This is the fourth historic global environmental summit, following Stockholm in 1972, Rio in 1992, and Johannesburg in 2002. But, with just six months to go, vision for the conference is only now beginning to emerge. I am therefore doubtful that major breakthroughs will emerge from the official process. That said, we may see exciting action emerge from the bottom up—via a subset of governments or from civil society or from the business sector or a combination of them.

For example, we expect to see governments make commitments to energy access, and around water security, food security and governance. If so, we could see some significant developments in Rio.

When we look to 2012, we see that a movement toward sustainability is underway in many places around the globe. It is collapsing the boundaries between economics and environment, and is re-defining concepts of what constitutes quality of life and national security. We observe it is being driven not just by altruism, but by necessity—long-term business strategies, political calculations, re-valuing natural resources and in many instances survival for many people.

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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.


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By Jake Johnson

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.