Is it too late to halt climate change? No, no, and no.

The impact of giving up is exactly the same as the impact of denying climate change.

Image source: Bedrin/Shutterstock
  • Disheartened, many are convinced there's no fighting climate change at this point.
  • There's no single on/off switch, however, so we can still lessen its effects.
  • It's up to us to make the crisis our leaders' priority.

With unprecedented extreme weather buffeting basically everyone everywhere, with places like idyllic Kirbati disappearing beneath the rising seas, and with Australia on fire for goodness sake, it's easy to get the feeling that humanity has already failed to meet the greatest challenge we've ever collectively faced: Climate change. The mental image is one from movies: An explosive's timer ticking inexorably down to zero and, in fact, sitting on zero right now, flashing as we await the final boom. In reality, though, the image presents a misleading metaphor, since there is no single triggering deadline. There's a better visual metaphor: Punching ourselves in the face.

Ow. Stop.

(Adam "Climate Adam" Levy is a University of Oxford doctor in atmospheric physics)

Climate experts have drawn various red lines in the sand that we dare not cross lest we trigger some terrible effect. By and large, their predictions have been, if anything, too optimistic. Climate change is not coming — it's here, even if the scientific community thought, or maybe hoped, it might not land its first punches so soon.

"Climate change has already killed hundreds or thousands — or more — of people, through malaria, through dengue, through a hundred other avenues that we're only now starting to be able to quantify." — Colin Carlson, Georgetown University, speaking to LiveScience.

The most universally accepted red line was drawn by the U.N.'s 2018 IPCC report. It prescribed limiting the Earth's increase in temperature to 1.5° C (2.6° Fahrenheit) by the year 2100, a feat that would require cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 45% before 2030, just a decade from now. Yet here we are, two years later and emissions are still going up. 2018 set a new record high which was promptly exceeded in 2019. Stanford University's Rob Jackson tells the Washington Post, "We're blowing through our carbon budget the way an addict blows through cash."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the Green New Deal Initiative, recalls that for many of her constituents, the U.N. report created a sense of urgency that mystifyingly appeared to escape, and continues to escape, Washington: "Millennials and Gen Z and all these folks that come after us are looking up, and we're like, 'The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?'"

The truth is, however, that missing the 2030 deadline doesn't mean we all suddenly die and society instantly crumbles. Not necessarily, anyway. That 1.5° mark is definitely the threshold for terrible consequences, but it's just the nearest nightmare, and there are plenty more following close behind it, each of which makes things worse.

Can we completely avoid climate change's irreversible effects? Too late. Can we avoid its worst-case scenarios? Absolutely yes.

9 ticking clocks

Image source: Stockholm Resilience

Experts cite nine such deadlines looming, as shown in this gif from Stockholm Resilience.

There's work to be done, and two types of people stand in the way of continuing to try and make things better, or at least less worse:

  1. Climate-change deniers — mostly people with a vested financial interest in fossil fuels, joined by people who just don't want to face the confirmed scientific truth.
  2. People who are ready to give up trying.

"Some people — I'm hazarding industry and those focused on maintaining a growth-focused economy — would argue that we don't want to sacrifice things in the short term," says Lini Wollenberg of the University of Vermont, "and that society will figure out the technology to deal with it later."

Wishful thinking that technology can come up with some fix later on is childish. Maybe it'll happen, but meanwhile it bestows permission on humanity to do nothing now, even as the effects of our procrastination are already being felt. What's worse, the dreamed-of solutions would have only larger and increasingly more difficult problems to remedy if the solutions materialize at all.

Scientists agree that we can best put the brakes on climate change by doing two things:

  • Immediately cutting back carbon emissions.
  • Developing a workable system for pulling excess carbon from the atmosphere using currently available technology. The most realistic approach appears to be the strategic planting of more trees.

Make no mistake, though, this is a long-term fight, and rather than continuing to punch ourselves in the face believing there's no way to make it stop, we simply cannot lose heart. This is not some abstract, feel-good affirmation, either. We need to recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to support efforts to turn this around.

Of course we can help by considering our own carbon footprints, but the big steps are in the hands of governmental leaders, like it or not — individuals' contributions to emissions add up, but they pale in comparison to the amount of institutional, industrial carbon being set aloft. As the Earth burns, it becomes ever-more clear that only regulatory mechanisms have the muscle to force positive action. It will require a commitment on our part to ensure that power to make the necessary large-scale changes is in the hands of people who get it. Each of us has to prioritize electing and supporting leaders who get it. Vote, march, reduce. All of it can help. And it's not too late.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

10 Examples of Settled Science that Are 'Controversial'

Many Americans are being misled on serious scientific issues, and science journalists have to spend an inordinate amount of time debunking myths which seemingly never die.

popular

Many Americans are being misled on serious scientific issues, and science journalists have to spend an inordinate amount of time debunking myths which seemingly never die.

Keep reading Show less

Engineers 3D print soft, rubbery brain implants

Technique may enable speedy, on-demand design of softer, safer neural devices.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Surprising Science

The brain is one of our most vulnerable organs, as soft as the softest tofu. Brain implants, on the other hand, are typically made from metal and other rigid materials that over time can cause inflammation and the buildup of scar tissue.

Keep reading Show less

The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Scroll down to load more…