World Scientists: Climate Change as Serious a Risk as Nuclear War
The UK government says that climate change poses risks that demand to be treated as seriously as the threat of nuclear war.
Scientists from the UK, U.S., India and China say in a report commissioned by the UK that deciding what to do about climate change depends on the value we put on human life, both now and in years to come.
One of the lead authors of the report is Sir David King, formerly the UK government’s chief scientist, who last month co-authored a report on the scale of investment that should be made to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2025.
In a foreword to the latest report, Baroness Anelay, a minister at the British foreign office, writes that assessing the risks surrounding nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation means understanding inter-dependent elements—including what science says is possible, what other countries may intend, and systemic factors such as regional power dynamics.
“The risk of climate change demands a similarly holistic assessment,” she says.
Value Human Life
She concludes: “How much do we care about the effects of climate change? How important is it that we act to avoid them? What probability of their occurrence can we tolerate? … The answers to these questions depend in part on how we value human life—both now, and in the future.”
The report is not the first to put climate chaos and nuclear devastation in the same category of risk, but its sponsorship by one of the world’s nuclear powers is eloquent.
It says the most important political decision is how much effort to exert on countering climate change, taking into account what we are doing to the climate, how it may respond, what that could do to us, and what we might then do to each other.
The authors’ best guess, based on current policies and trends, is that greenhouse gas emissions will keep going up for another few decades, and then either level off or slowly decline.
This, they say, is for two reasons: governments are not making maximum use of the technologies already available; and technology is not yet progressing fast enough to give governments the policy options they will need. In the worst case, emissions could keep on rising throughout the century.
They warn that how the climate may change, and what that could do to us, are both highly uncertain. “The important thing to understand is that uncertainty is not our friend,” the report says. “There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky.”
High Emissions Pathway
The report foresees wide ranges of possible global temperature and sea level increase. On a high emissions pathway, it says, where the most likely temperature rise is estimated at 5°C by 2100, anything from 3°C to 7°C may be possible.
On this pathway, the chances of staying below 3°C will become “vanishingly small,” but the chances of exceeding 7°C will increase and could become more likely than not within the next century.
The authors see very little chance that global sea level rise will slow down, and every chance that it will accelerate. The only question is by how much.
“While an increase of somewhere between 40cm and 1m looks likely this century, the delayed response of huge ice-sheets to warming means we may already be committed to more than 10m over the longer term. We just do not know whether that will take centuries or millennia.”
A temperature increase of 4°C or more could pose very large risks to global food security, and to people.
Humans have limited tolerance for combinations of high temperature and humidity. Their upper limits of tolerance are rarely if ever exceeded by climatic conditions alone, but with temperature increase somewhere between 5°C and 7°C, it starts to become likely that hot places will experience conditions that are fatal even for people lying down in the shade.
Population growth alone is also likely to double the number of people living below a threshold of extreme water shortage by mid-century.
Sea Level Thresholds
Coastal cities, according to the report, probably have thresholds in terms of the rate and extent of sea level rise that they can deal with, but we have very little idea where those thresholds are.
The authors say that even the 0.8°C of climate change experienced so far is now causing us significant problems, and that “it seems likely that high degrees of climate change would pose enormous risks to national and international security”—for example, through extreme water stress and competition for productive land.
In a highly topical passage, they say migration from some regions may become more a necessity than a choice, and could happen on a historically unprecedented scale.
“The capacity of the international community for humanitarian assistance, already at full stretch, could easily be overwhelmed,” the report warns.
The risks of state failure could rise significantly, affecting many countries simultaneously, and even threatening those currently considered developed and stable.
But the report is not relentlessly downbeat. “An honest assessment of risk is no reason for fatalism,” it says. “Just as small changes in climate can have very large effects, the same can be true for changes in government policy, technological capability, and financial regulation … the goal of preserving a safe climate for the future need not be beyond our reach.”
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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