How You Get People to Take Climate Change Personally, with EPA Head Gina McCarthy

The administrator of the nation's top environmental agency discusses strategies for encouraging actionable responses to climate change.

Gina McCarthy: We are seeing now climate impacts that are tremendously costly and tremendously challenging. And EPA’s role is to try to turn that challenge into a positive message moving forward, give communities the tools they need to adapt, you know. Recognize that the time for action is now. So in many ways, the problem that we had in the past was two-fold. People didn’t see the impacts as much as they’re seeing them and feeling them today. It wasn’t already, "It’s happening; what do I do?" And so we were predicting things that might happen, but it’s taken so long to take action those predictions are already here. And frankly we never predicted the kind of impacts that we are seeing today. Climate is always portrayed on newscasts as being some kind of big debate, you know. The big debate among the scientists is that 97 percent of them know it’s happening and are really worried about it — 3 percent are skeptical. That’s not a balance. That’s an overwhelming majority and that needs to drive the decision, especially in a democracy. That’s how we work. We’re working really hard with faith leaders in this country because many of the people listen to their faith leaders for direction and the faith leaders are extremely concerned that climate change is an issue, which most importantly and more significantly impacts low-income and minority communities. The least of these are going to be the most impacted in a changing climate. So we are moving with an ecumenical constituency in the faith community to bring this message to their constituents.

It’s extremely important to recognize your own limitations about who you’re good at talking to and who’s going to believe you and who are the people you are trying to influence listen to. Because we can talk all we want about the science at EPA, but you need to put that into people’s homes and ears in a way that they’re going to listen, absorb, and know they can be part of the solutions moving forward. That gets them off the dime and builds the constituencies you need to succeed. And something that is really as big as this, the challenge of climate change is enormous for us and so you need to attack that from all different angles and make sure to get everybody engaged. I don’t need to fight the climate deniers now. That’s not what I think we need. The rallying cry needs to be: What actions do we take that are going to address climate both from, you know, we need to mitigate and make sure that we’re reducing those impacts, but also let’s do it in a way that grows a low-carbon economy. Let’s make the United States flourish because we stood up to this problem and we took action.

 

How to you get the notoriously inert American people invested in actionable responses to climate change? Gina McCarthy, the head of the nation's top environmental agency, discusses EPA strategies for bringing the climate conversation into the homes and meeting places of those likely to be most affected by severe shifts. These invariably include low-income and minority communities, which is why McCarthy wishes to see stronger outreach to educate the public and encourage participation in response to these issues.

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

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."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

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Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

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