Copenhagen Was Not a Failure of Issues

Question: The Copenhagen summit was widely recognized as a failure. Do you believe that sustainability is dead?

Peter Brabeck: I think the climate change issue has been politicized from the very beginning.  And Copenhagen is not the failure of an issue; it's a political failure.

The climate change based on still not so much facts, but on computer models has led politicians to take several decisions, which I personally have a big problem with.  The most important one, of course, is biofuels.  Apparently to solve a problem of CO2, which was pointed out to be the most decisive aspect of climate change; which personally, I don't think it is.  It is one of many; I don't think it's the only one.  But by having concentrated on this only one, politicians took the decision that it was, for example, good to substitute oil through biofuel.  Now, if you look how much water you need in order to produce one liter of biodiesel, it's 9,100 liters of water to produce one liter of biodiesel.  it is 4,600 liters of water to produce one liter of pure ethanol.  If you see those figures, if you then see that 130,000 tons of maze were transformed where at the same time people didn't have enough to eat, you start to ask yourself whether those are the right decisions.  And I think as several of those decisions have been made on a political scene without really thinking it through what it means. 

The whole process has come under questioning.  And I think that's really what happened in Copenhagen.  It was a political failure; it was not, for me at least an issue.  I think the issue was there, I think it was wrongly presented.  I think climate change is much more complex than just CO2 and you see that now for example, finally people understand that methane is almost 20 times more aggressive than CO2 and then you will see that a lot of other greenhouse gases, may I remind you that there was once a Montreal, agreement before there was a Kyoto Agreement where we also talked about the greenhouse gases.  And then climate change has happened in the past and will happen in the future.  So, if you look at the big ports of the Roman Empire, they are today, all of them about 20 kilometers inside.  Okay, they are not anymore at the sea.  So, one could even say, well hopefully there would be a little bit of an increase of the water level because, as I said, we lost about 20 kilometers down there. 

Question: How do we remove the politics from climate change? 

Peter Brabeck: Well, you know it has become very difficult when a subject like climate change has been entering the political arena on such a high level.  It is very difficult for any politicians to stick their head out and say well, let's talk for a moment.  Let's get the fact down and be absolutely sure.  For me, it has been absolutely stunning to see that tens of thousands of scientists of this world make public statements, sign that and saying that they are not convinced that the data which is being used is absolutely correct and that there was manipulation of this data and that in spite of all of this, decisions are still being made.  I mean, just because public opinion has been influenced so far by now that it's difficult for a politician to stand back and say, let's wait a moment.  Let's have another look at this thing in order to be sure that the decision that we are taking is the right one.  The one I can absolutely be sure is not the right decision is to use food for fuel.  I think this is almost criminal.

Recorded on February 26, 2010

The climate change issue is much more complex than a low carbon economy.

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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.
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  • 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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.