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The U.S. Defense Department Is Losing the Battle Against Climate Change

Climate
Sgt. Jerry Rushing / U.S. Department of Defense

By Daniel Ross

A rock seawall protecting the Air Force's Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station on the North East Alaska coast is under increasing duress from extreme weather patterns affecting Arctic sea ice—nearly $50 million has been spent replacing vulnerable parts of the wall already.


In 2013, a late summer monsoon rainstorm struck Fort Irwin, in California, flooding more than 160 buildings and causing extensive damage that took weeks to clean up. Some buildings were out of commission for months.

The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado's history, only narrowly missed Peterson Air Force Base. The fire cost some $16 million to battle.

These are just some of the findings that make up a U.S. Department of Defense vulnerability report, published earlier this year, looking at the impact of climate change on more than 3,500 military installations. Its conclusion? That more than half of these installations are affected by flooding, drought, winds, wildfires, storm surges and extreme temperatures. Drought proved the single biggest challenge to the military, affecting nearly 800 bases. Next up was wind, which affected more than 750 bases, while non-storm surge-related flooding impacted a little more than 700 bases.

"As an institution, the military sees climate change as a threat to what they do on multiple levels," said Michael Klare, professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. "It's a threat to their bases. It's a threat to their operations. It creates insurgencies. t creates problems for them. They're aware of that, and they want to minimize those impediments."

Indeed, climate change has long been on the military's radar. It was the George W. Bush administration, for example, that required the Defense Department to procure 25 percent of its energy for its buildings from renewables by 2025. Even President Ronald Reagan received military memos warning of global warming. While in 2014, the department published a roadmap establishing an outline to deal with the threats from climate change within the military, as ordered by then-President Barack Obama.

Although President Trump's administration is known for its climate change denialism, major figures within the military are still noticeably vocal about the issue. In February, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned in a Worldwide Threat Assessment that the impacts from global warming—more air pollution, biodiversity loss and water scarcity—are "likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018." Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been called the "lone green hope" for his long-established views on the threat of global warming.

Given the immediate threat of rising sea levels, the U.S. Navy is leading the charge to better understand these impacts at the ground level. Last year, a Navy handbook provided a planning framework for incorporating the threat of climate change into development projects at Navy installations. To put this into context, a 2016 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis of 18 military installations along the U.S. East coast and the Gulf of Mexico found that by 2050, most of these bases will experience 10 times the number of floods than they do currently. In about 80 years, eight of the bases could lose as much as 50 percent of their land to rising seas. Naval Air Station Key West, in Florida, could be almost entirely underwater by the end of the century.

"We did use the high sea level rise scenario because generally, the military has a low tolerance for risk," said Shana Udvardy, UCS climate preparedness specialist and a co-author on the study. "And we're basically on track for the high scenario because of the rate of ice sheet melting. It's very likely to happen, and it's after mid-century that we'll really see the changes in the extent and frequency of tidal flooding."

According to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Curt Storlazzi, who has studied the effects of global warming on military installations on the Marshall Islands for the Defense Department, the twin impacts of rising sea levels and storm waves will increase the magnitude of flooding there by "double" in the next couple of decades. "That's going to negatively impact both the military and civilian populations," he said. "That's the big takeaway—most civilian and defense infrastructure doesn't do well with salt water."

The Center for Climate and Security, a non-partisan group of defense and national security experts, continues to study the myriad threats of climate change on the military. In this recent report, the group outlined how extreme weather patterns will expand the department's role in tackling national and global security threats, highlighting how humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions are "increasingly important responsibilities for military commanders around the world."

But former Rear Admiral David Titley, professor of meteorology at Penn State University and an expert in climate change, the Arctic and national security, argues that the military as a whole has yet to really grapple with the problem of climate change in any long-term strategic way, nor has it looked at how to cost-effectively prioritize resources—views mirrored in a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Change could be on its way in this regard. Rep. Jim Langevin, the ranking Democrat on the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, pushed through an amendment in the 2018 defense spending bill directing the Defense Department to identify the 10 military installations most vulnerable to climate change and to identify ways to mitigate the forecasted damage. "You would argue that that's where you put your first dollar towards buying down the risk," Titley said. "There may be bases that have higher climate vulnerability, but the impact may not be that big a deal relative to others."

Langevin also included a provision in the 2019 defense spending bill requiring the department to factor energy and climate resiliency efforts into major military installation plans. But Titley is circumspect about the Defense Department's overall ability and willingness to institutionally get to grips with the problems climate change poses. "We'll see whether the department of defense actually does that or not," said Titley. "There's no real leadership on this issue."

Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, said that the military's public overtures on climate change ring a little hollow when stacked up against the actual dollars directed toward green initiatives within the military—efforts like biofuel to power aircraft carriers and solar energy in combat zones.

According to an Institute report from last year, "Combat vs. Climate," the ratio in military spending in 2017 to deal with regular security threats versus climate change was 28:1—a slight improvement on the 2015 ratio of 30:1. But as the report finds, "spending 28 times as much on traditional military security as on climate security is hardly commensurate with the magnitude of this 'urgent and growing threat,' as the military has defined it."

Further, while the military's budget grew by $61 billion in 2018, the amount of money the department continues to funnel toward green initiatives and renewable energies hasn't grown proportionately, said Andrew Holland, the American Security Project's director of studies. Nor does the military, he said, see its primary mission as tackling climate change. Indeed, the military is the world's largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels. Last year, the department used more than 85 million barrels of fuel to power ships, aircraft, combat vehicles and contingency bases. The cost? Nearly $8.2 billion.

"We have a military whose job is to fight and win America's wars," Holland said. "But where you can take clean energy initiatives that fight climate change and also increase the military's operational ability to fight and win those wars, that's a double win."

Another obstacle is that there's no "line item for climate change" within the defense spending bill, said the UCS's Shana Udvardy. "So, it's really up to each installation to figure out where they're going to get the resources, and which resources they're going to allocate to these types of adaptation measures," she said. What's more, both Udvardy and Holland agree that the military has recently grown increasingly secretive about its green initiatives, for fear of retaliation by the White House.

Trump has already pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, for example, and signed an executive order rolling back all Obama-era climate change related actions within federal agencies. There are notable signs that this has trickled down to the Defense Department—the latest National Defense Strategy had been scrubbed clean of any reference to climate change, for example.

"None of us have any clue as to how bad it's going to be," said Michael Klare, about the impacts from global warming. "But this something that the military does understand better than most people—it's not the polar bears we should be worried about, it's about whole societies that are going to collapse and send out waves of migration, which we're seeing already."

Daniel Ross is an Los Angeles-based journalist with bylines in Truthout, the Guardian, FairWarning, Newsweek, YES! Magazine, Salon, Vice and a number of other publications.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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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.