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10/18/2018 11:43 EDT | Updated 10/24/2018 09:55 EDT

This Yeast Experiment Should Make Us Rethink Climate Change Policies

The research team wanted to find out how each individual cell within a community reacted to a stress event.

If you have paid attention to the news over the last few months, you probably have seen some rather drastic climate-related events. Forest fires have been rampant in British Columbia as well as parts of Ontario. The National Capital Region area has been hit with a blast of tornadoes that would be expected in a different Ottawa located in Kansas. The Florida Panhandle has been ravaged by Hurricane Michael while Spain and Portugal have encountered their first hurricane in over 150 years. Then there are the incredibly high temperatures that have soared into record territory all across the world.

Although some may argue these are just isolated weather events, there is little scientific doubt that climate change has contributed to these happenings. For almost 50 years – long before Al Gore made climate change a household word – scientists have been determining what the effects of climate change are and will be in the future. In the process, they have made countless attempts to warn the public of the impending consequences.

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A man works around debris tossed into the water by Hurricane Michael as he fishes in East Bay on Oct. 17, 2018 in Panama City, Florida.

Sadly, these efforts continue to be ignored by many. A 2018 survey in Canada on climate change has shown less than a third of us believe conclusively that humans are involved. A similar number feel the exact opposite, that humans play no role. The rest feel there is some solid evidence but it's not a smoking gun.

There was another component to the survey that was even more concerning for anyone worried about climate change. People are becoming less interested in governmental approaches to help reduce the scientifically agreed upon causes of climate change. Here in Canada, the most well-known of these policies is the carbon tax.

Based on the survey, 60 per cent still want to see some action including a measure such as taxing emissions. However, this has been steadily declining over the years. The effort is being hampered to a greater extent by some provincial governments who wish to block or reject the implementation of any economic burden on corporations and taxpayers. To put it lightly, it's not going well for the federal government.

The stark chasm between the realities of climate change consequences and the interest in trying to prevent may seem difficult to explain. Yet, there may be an answer that's not political or economical in nature. Instead, it's biological.

Back in May of this year, a European group of researchers attempted to determine how a community deals with environmental changes and whether they can lead to a community-wide change in behaviour. In this case, the test subjects were not human. Instead the subject was baker's yeast.

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At first, this organism selection may seem like a poor model to describe human actions. Yet as the results show, there is quite a bit of similarity between the microbial species and us. Perhaps more importantly, the findings may provide some useful insight moving forward and possibly could offer a path forward for better climate change policies.

The research team wanted to find out how each individual cell within a community reacted to a stress event. The cells were classified into one of two categories, specialists, which respond specifically to the environmental change and generalists, which react as if the particular stress was no different from any other.

After subjecting the microbes to a variety of stressful events, the team found a rather strange occurrence. Generalists would only react to massive changes in the environment, much like a natural disaster. Specialists on the other hand were more likely to act in situations when the stress was small but an omen of worse things to come.

This one result revealed a rather disturbing reality. Even though a major shift may be impending as indicated by those small but noticeable changes in the environment, the majority of cells didn't take notice. Only when the situation was dire was there action taken by all the cells. Unfortunately, in many cases, the shift came too late.

This wasn't the most troubling outcome. The researchers wanted to know why generalists did nothing when faced with the smaller stressors. The answer came down to growth. As long as there was economic growth and jobs for the various molecules inside the cell, they were happy and continued living as if nothing was happening. When specialists tried to warn the generalists using chemical signals, the attempts were ignored. Instead, the generalists focused on their own internal signals and created what might be considered an intracellular echo chamber.

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This microbial example appears to be well reflected in the human community when it comes to climate change action. Research has revealed that unless there are direct and immediate threats at hand, the majority of people do not feel the need to change their way of life. Only those who are able to read and decipher the signs realize something needs to be done. They do so for themselves and try to warn others. But, as the above survey suggests, that message is not being heard and actions are losing support. Then, when disaster strikes, it's seen as a surprise and unexpected as if the warnings had never been heard.

The results of this experiment in bacteria may offer a possible direction in policy to try and deal with climate change in the present. The approach would be to forgo any attempt to convince the public of a need to slow down a threat they do not perceive exists. It simply will not work.

Instead, the government may wish to develop a mitigation fund that will support those who find themselves in crises as a result of climate change. It would be paid by corporations and individuals to ensure the government is prepared to help them while staying economically strong. To make it even more applicable to climate change, credits could be offered to those who prove their actions are aimed at reducing their use or emissions of contributing factors such as pollutants, carbon dioxide, plastics, and eventually fossil fuels. This way the public can save money if they wish even if the actions don't support their views on the changing climate.

Granted, proposing government policy based on experiments with yeast might seem a bit of a stretch. However, in light of the continuing struggles with getting people to accept and play a role in dealing with climate change, any potential resolution is worth sharing. After all, we can be sure more disasters will be coming. We all need to be prepared for what is to come even if we choose to focus entirely on ourselves.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the blog's subtitle misstated that the experiment was on bacteria, falsely implying that yeast are bacteria.

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