Are we prepared for climate change? Health experts say no

Health experts told Congress that we're woefully unprepared for the coming realities of climate change. Will we listen?

For years, climate change has been treated as an impending disaster in the not-too-distant future. Yet every season we seem to kick the can down the road even though the effects of climate change are here. As a group of public health officials told Congress last week, Americans are not ready to deal with this fact.


University of Maryland assistant professor Marcus Hendricks pointed out a few inconvenient realities to congressional lawmakers, including the surge and strength of Western wildfires (sections of Yosemite Park were closed this week, and wildfires are predicted to get worse), Houston’s intense flooding, and storms in Florida and Puerto Rico. These are only the beginning. The prospect for this autumn is rather dim, as he notes:

Unfortunately, federal forecasters say there’s a 75 percent chance the upcoming hurricane season will produce between five and nine hurricanes, making the prospect of another catastrophe on the island very real.

Over 4,600 deaths have been attributed to Hurricane Maria, according to Harvard. Besides the massive destruction of infrastructure, many other problems have manifested, including an uptick in domestic abuse, contaminated drinking water, and the inability for medical professionals to reach and treat those in need.

The New Republic has further bad news:

A record-breaking heat wave killed 65 people in Japan this week, just weeks after record flooding there killed more than 200. Record-breaking heat is also wreaking havoc in California, where the wildfire season is already worse than usual. In Greece, fast-moving fires have killed at least 80 people, and Sweden is struggling to contain more than 50 fires amid its worst drought in 74 years. Both countries have experienced all-time record-breaking temperatures this summer, as has most of the rest of the world.

Yet, as the magazine continues, the media continues to portray these changes as nature just acting up (or worse, as if a god is causing them). Of 127 segments on global heat on major broadcast networks, only one segment even connected temperature increase to climate change. In 2017, no major network studied mentioned a link between the increasing strength of hurricanes and our contribution to it.

How do we deal with this new reality? One expert suggests fleeing the coasts. While those in Miami might not have a choice, is that even feasible for the rest of the population? Then again, what if we too have no choice?

Like political exhaustion, Americans have been experiencing climate exhaustion for decades. We’ve grown immune to doomsday scenarios, thinking, “Sure, that fire was bad, or that hurricane did some damage, but we made it through.” Yet for the people who lived through that fire or hurricane (or lost family along the way), reality is quite different. We can’t become too exhausted to conjure appropriate levels of empathy and compassion to make serious changes, yet that’s exactly what’s occurring. If we’re not directly affected, we scroll to another story.

That won’t hold, says National Association of County & City Health Officials senior program analyst Chelsea Gridley-Smith. Knowledge of risk is useless without active public planning.

In health departments across the country, more than half of the health directors acknowledge the health impacts of climate change. Less than 20 percent of them have the resources and expertise needed to assess the potential impacts, create effective plans and protect communities from these impacts.

Preparation, she says, is key. A disaster is often labeled such only because we didn’t apply the available foresight. John McPhee warned of a hurricane flooding New Orleans in 1987. His reporting included public officials that knew what they were facing. Yet much of America acted shocked when Katrina arrived in 2005. How could we have not seen that coming? Some did, but they could not influence the government to do anything about it.

Humans are reactive animals. We have a unique ability to portend the future, but unless we act proactively, this skill is useless. We know some of the dangers of climate change. There are many that will take us by surprise. But not all of them should.

The only blame is on our lack of imagination, which, according to the experts on Capitol Hill, is sadly what we've created. With a president who won't even entertain the fact that climate change exists, our imaginations will have to grow, and quickly.

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Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.