Think Today’s Refugee Crisis is Bad? Climate Change Will Make it a Lot Worse
By Elliott Negin
Last year was the worst year on record for refugees. The number of people fleeing war and persecution jumped to nearly 60 million, the highest figure since the United Nations' refugee agency began keeping records 50 years ago, and that doesn't even include people driven from their homes by poverty, gang violence or natural disasters.
By all accounts, it's a mess. But it's likely only a harbinger of things to come if industrialized nations don't dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Drought and desertification already ruin thousands of square miles of productive land annually in China and a number of African countries, while rising sea levels triggered by warmer global temperatures could eventually force tens if not hundreds of millions of people from their coastal homes.
Smugglers are preying on refugees, social services in poor Middle Eastern and African countries have been stretched to the limit, and Europe and Australia are turning back exiles at their borders. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, acknowledged that relief agencies are overwhelmed. "We don't have the capacity and we don't have the resources to support all the victims of conflict around the world to provide them with the very minimal level of protection and assistance," he told reporters at a mid-June press conference.
"One of the drivers of displacement and potential conflict over the next 10 to 20 years will be climate [change]-resource scarcity," David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a former UK foreign minister, said recently. "Climate change is going to compound the cocktail that's driving war and displacement."
Global Sea Levels Are Rising Faster
The global average sea level has gone up approximately 8 inches since 1880, but scientists expect it to rise at a much faster rate over the next century. Projections of sea level rise by 2100 range from 1 and a half feet to 6 and a half feet, depending on how quickly land-based glaciers melt and how quickly industrialized countries rein in carbon emissions.
Based on that range, a 2011 study in the British Royal Society's scientific journal estimated that 72 million to 187 million people would be displaced by 2100 if no action were taken to upgrade coastal defenses. The study projects that small islands and coastal communities in Africa and parts of Asia, which are less likely to have the resources to install costly barriers, are the places most likely to be abandoned.
A 2007 study in Environment and Urbanization, meanwhile, used satellite data to identify coastal areas less than 30 feet above sea level. The study authors then analyzed census figures from 224 countries. Their finding? Some 634 million people inhabit these low-lying areas. That's 10 percent of the world's population crammed into only 2 percent of the world's land mass. Two-thirds of the world's largest cities—those with more than 5 million residents—are at least partially located there.
The study also found the 10 countries with the largest share of their populations in low-elevation coastal zones are Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Gambia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States. Climate exile is already a reality in Bangladesh, where millions of people have emigrated northward to escape chronic flooding in the Bay of Bengal's low-lying river deltas. Scientists predict the country will lose 17 percent of its land to rising sea levels by 2050, potentially displacing as many as 20 million people.
Climate exile is also front and center for a number of small island nations, including the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The Carteret Islands, a part of Papua New Guinea, began evacuating back in 2009. The Maldives government, meanwhile, is still trying to find a suitable place to move its 380,000 residents before rising sea levels overwhelm its 26 atolls.
Flooding Now the Norm on U.S. East and Gulf Coasts
The United States is bound to have its share of refugees, too, given everybody wants to live near the water. In 2010, more than 123 million people—39 percent of the U.S. population—lived in coastal counties, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And NOAA expects the U.S. coastal population to jump 8 percent, to 133 million, by 2020.
Sea level rise isn't uniform along coastlines, and over the last century or so a number of East Coast locations have experienced greater than average increases. New York City, for example, has seen a 17-inch rise since 1856, while the sea level off Baltimore's coast has gone up 13 inches since 1902. These higher levels have led to regular flooding in cities up and down the coast.
Right now most of that flooding is relatively minor, but scientists say it is going to get a lot worse. An October 2014 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report that looked at NOAA tide gauges in 52 municipalities along the East and Gulf coasts found that most could experience three times as many high-tide floods annually in the next 15 years and 10 times as many in 30 years. By 2045, many coastal communities are expected to see a sea level rise of about a foot. If that happens, a third of the 52 locations in the UCS study—including Baltimore, Miami and Philadelphia—would begin to average more than 180 tidal floods a year. Nine cities, including Annapolis, Atlantic City and Washington, DC, would suffer more than 240 tidal floods annually, some quite damaging.
Alaskans are already facing a much more dire situation. The Arctic is warming at a rate of nearly twice the global average, and over the last 50 years Alaska has warmed 3.4 degrees F, which has thawed permafrost and triggered shore erosion.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2009 that most of the more than 200 native villages in Alaska had been experiencing flooding and erosion due to climate change for some time. Government officials have identified 31 villages that are particularly at risk, and at least eight of them have elected to relocate or explore relocation options, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Home to about 350 people, Newtok is furthest along with its relocation efforts. The village, which sits on the Bering Sea coast, found a new site roughly 9 miles away and has obtained some state and federal funds to begin construction there. Even so, cost is a major sticking point. The GAO estimates the price tag for moving the village could run as high as $130 million.
How to Best Protect Coastal Communities
Carbon stays in the atmosphere for decades, so even if every country switched completely to carbon-free energy sources today, sea level rise and tidal flooding would continue to worsen. We can only hope that the world's industrialized nations can reach an agreement on curbing emissions at the upcoming international climate meeting in Paris. Even if they do, nations, states and localities will face a formidable task in protecting their coasts.
A number of U.S. cities and government agencies are taking steps to safeguard communities. Miami Beach and Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia, for example, are upgrading their drainage systems to prevent seawater from backing up and overflowing streets. Norfolk, Virginia, is turning some of its coastal parks into wetlands to buffer storms. And the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, has installed "door dams" to shield building entrances from flooding.
UCS's 2014 report focused on U.S. coasts, but its recommendations for defending coastlines can be applied just about anywhere. They include flood-proofing homes, neighborhoods, and sewer and stormwater systems; curbing development in areas susceptible to tidal flooding; and installing sea walls, natural buffers and other infrastructure. Many of those measures are going to be very expensive, however, so there's no way local communities can go it alone. State, national and even international funding will have to play a major role.
There has been much hand wringing of late about the plight of U.S. infrastructure. Years of neglect have resulted in crumbling roads and bridges, outdated airports, broken water systems, and accident-prone mass transit. Curiously, the debate over this long-festering problem does not include the looming threat of climate change-induced sea level rise. It's a scenario that is playing itself out here and around the world, and some say it will change the face of the planet.
"This will be the largest migration in history," predicts Edward Cameron, a former director of the World Resources Institute's International Climate Initiative who has advised the Maldives. "This is not a migration as we've known it before."
With potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees seeking safe haven in the decades to come, the time to address this impending crisis is now.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
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