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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 9, 2001

Air Date: March 9, 2001

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Energy Plan

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Moss Landing

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Animal Update

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Mad Cow

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Cloning

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Changing Tone on Climate Change

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Health Update

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Letters

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Sea Turtles

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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Energy Plan

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. California's energy crisis has dominated headlines for weeks. And throughout the winter, households across the nation have been struggling to keep up with skyrocketing heating oil and natural gas prices. Now, market analysts speculate that a gallon of gas may rise above the two-dollar mark by summer. It's no surprise, then, that the White House and the Congress are turning their attention to the growing concerns about energy. Joining me is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hey, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: I want to ask you now, you've had two months to look at the administration of George Bush, and what does he look like when it comes to energy?

HERTSGAARD: I think there's a couple of faces here. On the one hand we've got Christine Todd Whitman over at EPA, who's been very surprising. For someone who, in her first interview as a nominee, did not know the difference between climate change and the ozone hole, she's now talking a lot about climate change, saying it's a real problem. And indeed, that the Bush administration may begin to regulate carbon dioxide. That would be a major step forward. Carbon dioxide, of course, being the major greenhouse gas. So, that's one side of the administration. On the other hand, it makes a certain bizarre sense that they're going to regulate carbon dioxide because Bush's energy plan is going to produce a lot of it.

CURWOOD: Let's look at their energy proposals, just to get this straight. So far, if I have it right, the Bush Administration actually hasn't put forward an energy policy, but Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska has a comprehensive bill. Do I have this right?

HERTSGAARD: That's correct, Steve. Murkowski has submitted his bill, and there is a bill coming from the administration, specifically from Vice President Cheney's office. We talked to Cheney's office. They said that they're on the same page as Murkowski. In addition, we have some sense of what Bush will be doing because of the budget that he's proposed to Congress.

CURWOOD: So then, let's take a closer look at Senator Murkowski's bill. The reaction to it, both from the media, and also from major environmental advocacy groups, has pretty much focused on the very controversial proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. What else is in this bill?

HERTSGAARD: Well, the first thing you have to say about this bill, Steve, is that it is overwhelmingly oriented toward increasing production. Both the President and Senator Murkowski have talked about their desire to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, and their way to do that is, essentially, to drill for more of it here in the United States. So, in addition to drilling inside of the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, they also want to begin drilling on a lot of public land, especially throughout the West. And this is something very important: They're going to turn over the regulatory authority on these issues to the individual states rather than the federal government. And that worries environmentalists because states traditionally have been much more lenient when it comes to regulating these kinds of activities. And then finally, in a real favor to the oil industry, Murkowski's bill wants to reduce the royalty rates that oil companies pay when they drill on public lands. That, of course, is something that big oil has been after for a very long time. They tried to get it with a Congressional rider last year, didn't, and, I think, this is really where you can see that the new administration is headed up by a couple of old oilmen.

CURWOOD: What else is in this bill, aside from these matters for oil?

HERTSGAARD: Two other big areas of research and subsidies are nuclear and coal. Coal is the most potent greenhouse gas source, but it is also the energy source that we have the most of in the United States, and that's why the Bush administration is trying to push it. They are pushing something they call clean coal technology. This is research that is aimed, on the one hand, at increasing the efficiency of power plants that burn coal. Right now, the best plants burn at about a 45 percent efficiency rate. They're talking about taking that up to 60 percent. And the advocates of this say, well, that will not only reduce the amount of coal we need but reduce the amount of pollution up in the air. Environmentalists are very skeptical of that. They say there is no such thing as clean coal technology, and that coal, in any case, will always produce carbon dioxide. Taxpayer groups also, Steve, are skeptical of this. They point out that the federal government has spent six billion dollars on this research so far, over 20 years, and today they're hardly any further along than when they started. So, you might see some interesting attacks on this from the right wing. In addition, nuclear. This is a 20-year dream, to try to get the nuclear industry back up and running. They want to put over a billion dollars into nuclear power. So again, environmentalists see this as really going in the wrong direction.

CURWOOD: Mark, what about conservation and renewable energy?

HERTSGAARD: There is some mention of it, and I think the most important thing there are the tax credits that the administration wants to give for rooftop solar, and also, over ten years, $1.4 billion to help low-income people weatherize their houses. The only other real reference to alternative energy is a $1.2 billion budget item, and that's for solar research. But there's a very big caveat there. That extra billion dollars for solar is specifically tied to drilling in Alaska. It's the licensing fees that oil companies will pay to drill in Alaska that will provide that $1.2 billion. No drilling in Alaska, no $1.2 billion for solar.

CURWOOD: What does all this add up to, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: I think, in a sense, Steve, there have been a lot of environmentalists who said "Wow, Christine Todd Whitman is sounding like she's a real environmentalist." And indeed, Time Magazine this week is asking will Bush turn green, because of what Whitman has said. But when you look at where the money is really going with this budget, with Murkowski's bill, it's pretty clear that Whitman may be providing the fig leaf of environmental respectability here with her rhetoric, but the dollars still reflect the fact that this is an oil man's administration.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political commentator. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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Moss Landing

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. California's energy crisis has dominated headlines for weeks. And throughout the winter, households across the nation have been struggling to keep up with skyrocketing heating oil and natural gas prices. Now, market analysts speculate that a gallon of gas may rise above the two-dollar mark by summer. It's no surprise, then, that the White House and the Congress are turning their attention to the growing concerns about energy. Joining me is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hey, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: I want to ask you now, you've had two months to look at the administration of George Bush, and what does he look like when it comes to energy?

HERTSGAARD: I think there's a couple of faces here. On the one hand we've got Christine Todd Whitman over at EPA, who's been very surprising. For someone who, in her first interview as a nominee, did not know the difference between climate change and the ozone hole, she's now talking a lot about climate change, saying it's a real problem. And indeed, that the Bush administration may begin to regulate carbon dioxide. That would be a major step forward. Carbon dioxide, of course, being the major greenhouse gas. So, that's one side of the administration. On the other hand, it makes a certain bizarre sense that they're going to regulate carbon dioxide because Bush's energy plan is going to produce a lot of it.

CURWOOD: Let's look at their energy proposals, just to get this straight. So far, if I have it right, the Bush Administration actually hasn't put forward an energy policy, but Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska has a comprehensive bill. Do I have this right?

HERTSGAARD: That's correct, Steve. Murkowski has submitted his bill, and there is a bill coming from the administration, specifically from Vice President Cheney's office. We talked to Cheney's office. They said that they're on the same page as Murkowski. In addition, we have some sense of what Bush will be doing because of the budget that he's proposed to Congress.

CURWOOD: So then, let's take a closer look at Senator Murkowski's bill. The reaction to it, both from the media, and also from major environmental advocacy groups, has pretty much focused on the very controversial proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. What else is in this bill?

HERTSGAARD: Well, the first thing you have to say about this bill, Steve, is that it is overwhelmingly oriented toward increasing production. Both the President and Senator Murkowski have talked about their desire to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, and their way to do that is, essentially, to drill for more of it here in the United States. So, in addition to drilling inside of the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, they also want to begin drilling on a lot of public land, especially throughout the West. And this is something very important: They're going to turn over the regulatory authority on these issues to the individual states rather than the federal government. And that worries environmentalists because states traditionally have been much more lenient when it comes to regulating these kinds of activities. And then finally, in a real favor to the oil industry, Murkowski's bill wants to reduce the royalty rates that oil companies pay when they drill on public lands. That, of course, is something that big oil has been after for a very long time. They tried to get it with a Congressional rider last year, didn't, and, I think, this is really where you can see that the new administration is headed up by a couple of old oilmen.

CURWOOD: What else is in this bill, aside from these matters for oil?

HERTSGAARD: Two other big areas of research and subsidies are nuclear and coal. Coal is the most potent greenhouse gas source, but it is also the energy source that we have the most of in the United States, and that's why the Bush administration is trying to push it. They are pushing something they call clean coal technology. This is research that is aimed, on the one hand, at increasing the efficiency of power plants that burn coal. Right now, the best plants burn at about a 45 percent efficiency rate. They're talking about taking that up to 60 percent. And the advocates of this say, well, that will not only reduce the amount of coal we need but reduce the amount of pollution up in the air. Environmentalists are very skeptical of that. They say there is no such thing as clean coal technology, and that coal, in any case, will always produce carbon dioxide. Taxpayer groups also, Steve, are skeptical of this. They point out that the federal government has spent six billion dollars on this research so far, over 20 years, and today they're hardly any further along than when they started. So, you might see some interesting attacks on this from the right wing. In addition, nuclear. This is a 20-year dream, to try to get the nuclear industry back up and running. They want to put over a billion dollars into nuclear power. So again, environmentalists see this as really going in the wrong direction.

CURWOOD: Mark, what about conservation and renewable energy?

HERTSGAARD: There is some mention of it, and I think the most important thing there are the tax credits that the administration wants to give for rooftop solar, and also, over ten years, $1.4 billion to help low-income people weatherize their houses. The only other real reference to alternative energy is a $1.2 billion budget item, and that's for solar research. But there's a very big caveat there. That extra billion dollars for solar is specifically tied to drilling in Alaska. It's the licensing fees that oil companies will pay to drill in Alaska that will provide that $1.2 billion. No drilling in Alaska, no $1.2 billion for solar.

CURWOOD: What does all this add up to, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: I think, in a sense, Steve, there have been a lot of environmentalists who said "Wow, Christine Todd Whitman is sounding like she's a real environmentalist." And indeed, Time Magazine this week is asking will Bush turn green, because of what Whitman has said. But when you look at where the money is really going with this budget, with Murkowski's bill, it's pretty clear that Whitman may be providing the fig leaf of environmental respectability here with her rhetoric, but the dollars still reflect the fact that this is an oil man's administration.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political commentator. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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Animal Update

VILLIGER: Humpback whales look like the pimply teenagers of the marine world. Big lumps called "tubercles" bulge out all over their head and fins. Some range up to six inches across. Humpbacks are the only whales with tubercles, and scientists have long wondered why. Now researchers say tubercles on the leading edge of the whales' fins help with maneuverability. That's important since humpbacks need to make tight about-face turns when hunting prey. In lab simulations, it seems these tubercles increase lift, which is the buoyant force of the water pushing upwards. The bumps also decrease drag, which is the force of the water pushing backwards. Engineers are experimenting with bumps modeled on the humpback tubercles to make airplane wings and ship rudders more maneuverable. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Mad Cow

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since 1986, the European Union has seen nearly 200,000 cattle come down with the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy called TSE, or mad cow disease. So far, the United States has escaped mad cow disease and its human counterpart, new variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease. That's largely because U.S. farmers are prohibited from feeding cows food that contain ground-up grazing animals, a practice scientists think kicked off the epidemic in Britain. The U.S. also doesn't import cows or cattle feed from Europe, and the federal government tests for the disease. But such precautions haven't convinced Americans it won't happen here. Author Richard Rhodes's book "Deadly Feasts" chronicles research into mad cow disease. Mr. Rhodes, why worry about mad cow disease hitting the U.S. when we have all these safety precautions in place?

RHODES: Well, first of all, because there have been, in humans, cases that appear to emerge spontaneously. It happens in humans to the extent of about one per million population throughout the entire world. If that were so with cattle, then one in every million head of cattle might have the spontaneous form of this disease, which, however, is transmissible. If that animal, then, in the course of normal slaughtering, goes to market, is slaughtered, its waste is cooked up and processed into meat and bone meal and fed back to other cattle, then there's a mechanism inherent in the thing for the disease to emerge here as well as elsewhere. Now, the answer to that, our U.S. Department of Agriculture has felt, has been to ban the feeding of ruminant protein, meaning protein from any animal with hooves, back to ruminants. Thus, they hope, blocking the possibility of this spontaneous form of the disease getting into the cycle of animal feed. The problem is, recently the USDA checked several hundred rendering companies in the United States and found that most of them weren't following the rule.

CURWOOD: What more should the United States government be doing to make sure that an epidemic of mad cow disease doesn't break out here in the United States?

RHODES: I think most of all what the United States meat inspection agencies need to do is to enforce the ban on feeding ruminant protein back to ruminants. And I think it's cheering that the beef cattle industry has finally taken this disease possibility seriously, and has been pressing the USDA to inspect those rendering plants and to convince them that they should indeed enforce the rule. What we need to do is be very aware that there are really insidious ways that this organism gets around. In laboratory experiments it's been shown to be transmissible through blood transfusion in mice, which is why the Red Cross has banned blood donations by people who have lived in England, and has recently banned them by people who lived in Europe for as much as ten years, because now other countries in Europe besides England are starting to see outbreaks of mad cow disease. That, presumably, is the result of the British decision, which I think was criminal. When they realized that their meat and bone meal was infected, they stopped feeding it to British cattle but they shipped it abroad, and it was fed in Germany and France and Italy and other countries, where there is now the beginning of a small-scale, at least, mad cow disease epidemic.

CURWOOD: Richard Rhodes, how worried are you about a breakout of mad cow disease here in this country?

RHODES: Not very.

CURWOOD: Why?

RHODES: There's been no outbreak in our cattle. If there had been, it would be obvious. So it's clear that the disease is lurking in the background, but I don't think it's anything that anybody needs to give up beef for. That's not the case in England, however.

CURWOOD: Where do you think we are in the time course of the epidemic in the European Union?

RHODES: Well, if we assume that the European outbreaks are the result of the kind of tailing off of meat and bone meal from England in the late 80s, then those outbreaks should not be nearly as large as the one was in England, which was where the whole problem began. What's more worrisome, I think, is how many people in England are going to eventually come down with new variant CJD and die, because I don't think there's any question that almost the entire population, at least all those who ate beef, and that's an English tradition, were probably exposed. So, the question now is really, how virulent is the disease agent? The only historical experience we have with an epidemic of TSE in humans is the cannibal tribe in New Guinea, the Fore. At the height of their epidemic, they were losing one percent of their population per year. One percent of the British population would be half a million people. So that's probably the outside limit of a possible epidemic within England. The other insidious thing about this disease organism is that it can incubate silently with no physical symptoms whatsoever, no sign of its presence, for up to 40 years, perhaps even longer. So, the British inadvertently conducted a huge natural experiment on their population, and it remains to be seen how many people will die as a result.

CURWOOD: Richard Rhodes is an investigative reporter whose book about the emergence of mad cow disease is called "Deadly Feasts." Thanks for bringing us up to date, Mr. Rhodes.

RHODES: Thank you.

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Cloning

CURWOOD: As a homicide detective in St. Louis, writer M.W. Guzy often dealt with life, death, and morality. He's left police work, but finds these themes follow him while commenting on Britain's recent decision to allow limited human cloning.

GUZY: The battle between religion and humanism has moved to the British Parliament, where limited human cloning was recently legalized for the purpose of medical research. There was little practical cause for friction between these two schools of thought until technology entered the picture. Modern advances in the biological sciences have called into question the very nature of existence, thereby giving concrete applications to what had previously been philosophical differences.

British law will not provide for full human cloning. It allows only for the cloning of human embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells from them. The artificially-created embryos must be destroyed within 14 days. The stem cells they yield will be used to develop treatments for leukemia, Parkinson's disease, and cancer. Anyone who has seen a loved one suffer from one of these debilitating maladies can appreciate the humanitarian benefit of this effort.

Religious conservatives, however, harbor grave reservations about such research. They argue that scientists are playing God by manufacturing living beings for their own purposes, then terminating the resulting lives at their own convenience. In their view, the lab embryos merit the same concern as the anguished patients who inspired their creation.

The moral quandaries here would drive Solomon to drink. For instance, an argument can be made that these clones were never really conceived because they are the product of only one genetic donor. Technicalities, however, are unlikely to persuade critics. At issue here is the fundamental conception of what it means to be human. Religion views temporal life as a transient state to be endured in hope of eternal salvation. Humanism, on the other hand, seeks to ameliorate the pain of existence by perfecting the world we know. Is it moral to create and then destroy a human embryo in order to relieve the torment of a human being? Regardless of the merits of the debate, the humanists will triumph because of the commercial application of their research. The cure for cancer will come with a hefty price tag. Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted as much when he gushed that approval of the cloning bill "would allow Britain to stay at the forefront of the booming biotechnology industry."

Lurking in the shadows of this bright dawn is the dark prospect of drone organisms bred solely to provide replacement organs. Reflecting on the first man-lunar landing, Norman Mailer observed that "Mankind was no longer willing to share the drudge of the Lord." He felt that our fascination with technological conquest would supplant the ancient reverence that inspires religious fervor. Perhaps. Yet, as we enter the brave new world of better living through fabricated embryos and pirated stem cells, it's only human to feel a certain dread.

(Music up and under: Atomic Babies, "Clones")

CURWOOD: Writer M.W. Guzy is a former homicide detective with the St. Louis Police Department. He comes to us via TomPaine.com.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: The Bush administration warms up to the idea of fighting climate change. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: XTC, "Stupidly Happy")

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's almost spring. And for northerners, those are sweet words indeed, because this is the time of year when maple trees thaw and that sweet sap flows. The indispensable pancake topping has its roots in Native American culture. Villagers would pierce the base of maple trees, fashion a wood chip to route the sap into a birch bark bucket, and then wait. Sap holds, on average, about two percent sugar so you have to boil 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. There is an Indian legend about how this came to be. One day, a prince woke to find his village empty. He searched the nearby wood and came upon a maple grove. There he found his missing villagers, sprawled across the forest floor, their mouths open to the golden liquid flowing from every tree. The prince ordered them back to work, but his people were held captive by the sweet taste of syrup. Enraged, the prince spilled an enormous basin with water and poured it over every tree. The water forever diluted the syrup and required that from then on people have to sweat for their sweets and boil their sap. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Changing Tone on Climate Change

CURWOOD: The Kyoto Accord to combat global warming may be down, but it's not out, thanks to recent statements from the Bush administration. You may recall that talks broke down a few months ago, after the U.S. couldn't agree with the Europeans and developing nations on implementation details. During the campaign, President Bush expressed doubts about the science behind global warming, and called the Kyoto Protocol unfair to U.S. interests. But that changed at a recent meeting in Italy of the environment ministers of the eight major industrialized nations. U.S. EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman declared the Bush administration would like to move the Kyoto process forward. Joining me is Jennifer Morgan, the director of the World Wildlife Fund's Climate Change Campaign. Jennifer, you were at the session in Italy. What exactly did Ms. Whitman say?

MORGAN: Well, Administrator Whitman sent a very clear and welcome signal that the Bush administration considers climate change to be one of the greatest environmental challenges we all face, and also stated that they are looking at a domestic plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and that they're reviewing their position on the Kyoto Protocol. So, she neither accepted nor rejected Kyoto Protocol at this time.

CURWOOD: Ms. Whitman did sign a statement, along with the other G8 environment ministers, regarding reduction of emissions. What exactly was that statement?

MORGAN: Administrator Whitman signed a statement that said that all of the G8 partners were going to strive to conclude the Kyoto Protocol negotiations this summer in Bonn. That they would put in new domestic measures to reduce emissions. And also, that they would continue negotiations on these rules of the Kyoto Protocol, the emissions trading rules and other mechanisms that are included in the Kyoto Protocol.

CURWOOD: How big a deal is it, do you think, her signing this statement?

MORGAN: The fact that President Bush, who merely a year ago was doubting the science of climate change, has now embraced the science, and is looking at mandatory caps on power plants, I think that's a welcome change, and, honestly, was a bit of a surprise to some of the environment ministers from Europe. Obviously, WWF will be looking at what the levels of those cuts might be. And once again, of course, the devil is in the details to see how serious President Bush is about tackling this problem.

CURWOOD: This is a breakaway from the Clinton and Gore administration, if I understand this correctly.

MORGAN: President Clinton and Vice President Gore were certainly committed and understood the great threat that climate change poses. But they did not implement any really serious policies in either the utility or the power sector, or in the automobile sector.

CURWOOD: What's your perspective as to why these negotiations over this agreement got stuck just before Christmas in the Hague, and how Administrator Whitman's statements might unstick that process or might not?

MORGAN: I think that the agreement and the negotiations got stuck partially because it's an immensely complex agreement. And a two-week time period wasn't enough time to do it. But it also, I believe, got stuck because the United States and some of its allies came in asking for some fairly significant loopholes to open up the agreement, and weaken the emission reduction targets. And the Europeans and the developing countries rejected that approach. Now, Ms. Whitman, I think, has indicated a new commitment to reduce emissions in the United States, something that, you know, would say that President Clinton and Vice President Gore didn't provide clear signals onto the rest of the world. And that, perhaps, will show some good faith in negotiations when the Bush team comes to the table.

CURWOOD: What kind of pressure do you think the Bush administration got in advance of this meeting? I'm thinking in particular that Tony Blair visited with President Bush shortly before Administrator Whitman went to Italy and these discussions took place.

MORGAN: To my knowledge, Blair did raise this issue with President Bush, and other foreign ministers from around the world, from Japan, from the United Kingdom, and from Germany, raised this issue with Powell when they met with him, to say this is a very serious foreign policy issue for us, and you need to take that into account, that your key trading and foreign policy allies really want the Kyoto Protocol to be the basis for tackling climate change.

CURWOOD: Now, the next attempt to reach agreement on the Kyoto Protocol will happen in Bonn at the end of this July. But there are talks, I guess it will take place leading up to that, some informal talks among some of the principal countries involved here. What's your take on how ready the Bush administration will be for those negotiations?

MORGAN: Well, I think that this meeting in Italy was the first step. Now, what needs to happen fairly rapidly is, the Bush administration needs to do the review by these April ministerial meetings in New York, because as I said, these are immensely complex negotiations, and their partners are ready to get going. So, we would urge them to, you know, roll up their sleeves and engage with their partners by April.

CURWOOD: Jennifer Morgan runs the Climate Change Campaign for the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

MORGAN: Sure. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Just ahead, we open up the mailbag for your comments about our program. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: Doctors say your chance of getting stomach cancer is affected by what you eat. For instance, eating smoked and pickled foods may increase your risk of getting that disease. And it's been suspected that green tea might protect against stomach cancer, but few studies have actually followed green tea drinkers over a long period of time. Until now. Japanese scientists studied more than 26,000 people for eight years, and they found that even people who drink a lot of green tea, five or more cups a day, did not have lower rates of stomach cancer. In reaching their conclusion, researchers took into account people's diet and lifestyle. But the analysis was complicated by a number of confounding factors. For instance, people who drink the most green tea were also more likely to smoke, and smoking is a known risk factor for stomach cancer. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under: Doves, "Break Me Gently")

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up: Saving sea turtles from becoming turtle soup. But first...

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Letters

CURWOOD: Time for comments from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Mark Frey heard our story on monk parakeets. The South American birds were shipped to the States as pets, but some escaped or were released and now they're establishing colonies here. Mr. Frey in Worcester, Ohio, listens to WKSU, and he writes "I have great respect for the two birders you interviewed. However, I was appalled at their lack of concern over the problems associated with non-native species. I agree that a small percentage of introduced species become pests, but that is no reason for complacence. There's only a small chance of being hit by a car when I cross the road, but I still look both ways."

Kevin Gregory from Sunnyvale, California, listens to us on KQED in San Francisco. His ears pricked up when he heard our story about the connection between suburban sprawl and sprawling waistlines. "I especially appreciated the comments about walkers in our auto-dependent suburbs being seen as suspicious characters," writes Mr. Gregory. "It's ironic, too, that an SUV-driving male probably poses a more realistic safety risk to other members of a community."

William Murray hears us on WUGA in Athens, Georgia. During a recent rainstorm, he was reminded of our interviews with young students and their energy-saving inventions. "I remembered one of the inventors was working on a small, water-driven turbine to be used to generate electricity from water coming out of faucet taps," writes Mr. Murray. "Why not install such devices in the down spouts of gutters on houses and buildings? Then every time it rained, we'd be generating electricity."

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You can rain down your comments on us by calling our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is Letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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Sea Turtles

CURWOOD: Sea turtles have inhabited Earth for more than 150 million years. But today, all seven species of the animal are endangered. One recent study in the journal Nature noted that present trends will push one species, the leatherbacks, on an irreversible path toward extinction within ten years. There have been some successes in protecting nesting beaches, but only recently have scientists begun studying how to protect turtles in the waters where they live. One such researcher works along the coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber has this profile of J. Nichols.

(Engine)

NICHOLS: We'll approach them slowly, and then try to sneak up on them, and when we get close enough, jump out of the boat and grab them. It's known in turtle research circles as turtle rodeo.

GRABER: Turtle rodeo. That's one way J. Nichols catches sea turtles. Nichols and two assistants take a small motorboat about 30 miles into the Pacific off the coast of Puerto San Carlos to find turtles. They look for small white birds that rest on turtle shells. But finding a turtle is only half the battle. Just try getting one into the boat.

NICHOLS: They're really strong. They can pull you under and there's no way you'd be able to fight it. Except, if you grab them a certain way, you can steer them to the boat.

GRABER: Nichols stands at the bow of the boat and searches the calm waters. At age 34, with sun-bleached hair and an easy smile, Nichols looks like a surfer. And actually he does surf, a talent that helps him keep his balance against the roll of the waves. Suddenly, he jumps into the water.

(Splash; voices: "Whoo hoo!")

GRABER: Within seconds, Nichols drags a turtle to the boat, and, with help from his assistants, hauls it on board.

(Thrashing in the boat; gasping)

GRABER: The turtle thrashes about, then takes a few gasps of air.

NICHOLS: Pretty clean shell, surprisingly. This is an Olive Ridley, about the size of a mature female.

GRABER: The turtle's mottled green shell is called a carapace. It's roughly the size of a manhole cover. The men toss a dark blue tarp over the turtle to calm it down. They measure and weigh the animal, staple a silvery marker tag onto one of its flippers, and toss it back into the water.

(Splash)

GRABER: Millions of sea turtles once swam in Baja's coastal waters. And for most of the past century, fishermen caught them, canned their meat, and tanned their leather for export.

NICHOLS: Really, it would seem like an unlimited resource. There were just really, so many turtles.

GRABER: But a few decades ago, the population crashed. The Mexican government tried to limit the fishery, but it wasn't enough. So a decade ago, the killing of sea turtles was outlawed. Even eating one caught accidentally, or that simply turned up dead on the beach, was illegal, too. Exports stopped, but local people continued to kill and eat turtles. The situation got so bad that when Nichols told his PhD advisors he wanted to study Baja's sea turtles, they told him not to bother.

NICHOLS: My committee was pretty skeptical. It may be too difficult to collect data. Too few turtles, too much ocean. Didn't seem like a good scenario.

GRABER: In the end, his advisors relented. Nichols came to Baja. He hired an old fisherman to take him out to sea in the middle of the night. As dawn broke, Nichols caught his first turtle.

NICHOLS: Measured it. Took photos. And jumped up and down in the boat a little bit, and put it back in the water. You know, kind of an emotional point. Looking back, it especially was one of the reasons why we decided to move forward with the project.

GRABER: Nichols continues to employ local fishermen to help with his research. After all, they are the ones who know where to find the turtles. Nichols also realized that each encounter gave him a chance to talk about why the animals may disappear forever. What Nichols said made sense to Rodrigo Rangel, a 26-year-old who grew up eating turtles. Now, he's one of Nichols' assistants.

RANGEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The people think there isn't a problem because all year there are turtles. I know now from doing this study that this is where turtles feed all year round. I think it's a study that needs to be done, and I feel good about it. For many years I have eaten turtles. Now, it's a good opportunity to do something to help them.

(Engines)

GRABER: After five long hours at sea, Nichols and his team have caught and tagged only one turtle. They decide to head back. But Rodrigo keeps a constant lookout. A few miles from shore, Rodrigo calls out and the driver quickly whirls the boat around. Rodrigo dives into the water and reappears moments later with a massive loggerhead.

(Splashing, thrashing)

GRABER: They'll take this turtle back to Nichols' base in the village and tag it with a satellite transmitter. And they've given the turtle a name: Max.

Three years ago, Nichols put his first satellite tag on a loggerhead turtle, a female named Adelita. He tracked her across the Pacific to Japan. Scientists long suspected loggerheads born in Japan make their way to Mexico to feed, and then return to Japan to reproduce. But Nichols' study was the first to conclusively prove the Japan-Baja connection.

NICHOLS: I mean, I was completely fascinated every time I got new data. I was just mapping it and playing it and watching this turtle start to slowly cross the Pacific.

GRABER: Nichols wanted to share his data with as many people as possible, so he had a friend set up a Web site. Soon, teachers and students around the world were able to watch Adelita cross the Pacific. Today, ten turtles are crossing the water over cyberspace. After five years of research, Nichols has proved the waters off of Baja remain a crucial feeding ground for four species of endangered sea turtles.

NICHOLS: It started off, that was the main focus, was science.

GRABER: But Nichols realized something early on in his research. Turtle nesting beaches were being protected in Mexico and Japan, and more juveniles were reaching Baja to feed. But many of the animals that came to Baja were eaten or caught accidentally, and so never made it back to their nesting beaches to lay eggs of their own.

NICHOLS: Just watching the turtles that I was studying disappear, be eaten, the light went on. You know what? I could sit around and look at turtle DNA for the next five years while these turtles get wiped out. That would be unethical.

GRABER: Mexican officials insisted no turtles were being illegally consumed. So Nichols talked to villagers all over the peninsula. He discovered the occasional turtle meal remains an essential part of special events, such as birthdays and religious celebrations.

NICHOLS: Anybody with money can buy a turtle. It's not uncommon for politicians even to eat turtle. So that kind of keeps some of the poachers pretty safe.

GRABER: And turtles are not killed just for food. Their oil and blood have long been a part of traditional medicine in Baja.

(Footfalls)

NICHOLS: So this is what we call the turtle cemetery. Basically, these are all carapaces that have been collected over the past year and a half, and I guess there's about 200 of them.

GRABER: The cemetery, located behind Nichols' base, is layered with turtle shells collected from back yards, beaches, and dumpsters. Nichols brings people from the community and government officials here so they can see for themselves the effects of turtle poaching. The once rich, varied shades of the carapaces are all dark gray now, the color of wet cement.

NICHOLS: Here is a very, very tiny loggerhead. This is about the smallest size loggerhead that we find here. This is, you know, barely enough for a couple of tacos. I mean, what the heck?

GRABER: Nichols figures about 10,000 turtles are eaten in Baja each year. Of the turtles he's tagged, he says about a quarter are eaten. Nichols knows this because the locals bring him tags from turtles they've had for dinner. They do this, Nichols says, because they trust him.

NICHOLS: I think people realize that I'm just going to keep coming back, and that I'm not here to make major problems for individuals. Some fishermen are curious and they'll bring a tag and they'll say, "Where did this turtle come from? When did you tag it?" And that, albeit, it's a dead turtle, that's a small step toward protecting the animals. And it's a step that wouldn't have been taken if the situation was polarized.

(Men call out)

GRABER: On a hot, sunny afternoon, two fishermen drop by Nichols' apartment to pay a visit. The Serrabia brothers, Gabriel and Juan, used to help Nichols with his research. Now, they have a tagging program of their own. They tie a bit of wire to the shells of turtles they catch accidentally out in the bay. Gabriel says once they trapped a turtle while out fishing with a 14-year-old helper. The teenager protested when Gabriel and Juan told him to throw it back.

G. SERRABIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: He says it's about 50 kilos, and it's worth 15 pesos a kilo. It's good money. We say no, we explain why. He says okay, I'll put it back, marked and everything. The boy who came out in the boat, he'll go and say to his dad, "You should put it back." But when he goes out with other fishermen, he'll tell them that the Serrabias put the turtles back.

GRABER: Nichols calls fishermen like Gabriel and Juan the real heroes of sea turtle conservation.

NICHOLS: These guys that are making decisions that are not popular, that are ridiculed by their families, and really sincerely working to protect an endangered species that is food for most people. Really, I can't really imagine what it would be like to be in a community where I grew up and go against something of such a deep tradition.

(Men speak in Spanish)

GRABER: Early one morning, Nichols plays host to two fishermen on his research boat in Banderitas Estuary. The men represent a cooperative that's just gotten fishing rights to part of the estuary. In the calm, clear waters, it's easy to spot a turtle, if you know where to find them. And these fishermen do.

(A man speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I saw one out here earlier. A big one.

(Dragging)

GRABER: The men set up a makeshift office. A cooler topped by Nichols' plastic equipment case serves as the table. The two fishermen spread out maps of the bay, and point out the region they now control. Nichols tells them that tourists who come to the area to whale watch in the spring might stay another day and pay to see turtles in an area they know is protected. The fishermen are interested.

(A fisherman speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I'd like to protect them for my own benefit and so that they don't become extinct. I see them now, and my kids, when they're older, may not be able to see turtles if they aren't protected.

GRABER: It does seem strange to call one particular area a turtle refuge in a country that already has protection on the books. But Mexico's law isn't working. Right now, there are only five government officials to enforce all resource management laws in southern Baja. So that's why Nichols needs the fishermen. They are the ones who will patrol the fishing grounds each day. They are the ones who will watch for trespassers and turtle poachers.

NICHOLS: There's not another animal that is as integrated with life and symbolically represents Baja. The sea turtles are the Baja totem, in a sense. I think by promoting that idea, people will take some pride in protecting them.

(Voices in Spanish)

GRABER: A day after the loggerhead Max was captured, it's time to bring her back. With the help of some American students, Nichols carries the 90-pound turtle over to the boat. An olive green satellite tag, about the size of a cell phone, is attached to the shell with a small amount of glue.

(Engines)

GRABER: The boat heads out into the bay. Nichols says people call him an optimist. They find it difficult to understand how he can persevere in the face of such a difficult situation. But, he says, he doesn't have a choice.

NICHOLS: Your options are, be optimistic and work hard, or just forget about it and go home. If I thought this was a waste of time, I wouldn't be doing it. And I don't want to waste my time, or my life.

GRABER: These days Nichols has reason to be optimistic. The group of fishermen who own the rights to Banderitas Estuary have officially declared it a turtle refuge, the first ever in Baja. And they announced intentions to go house to house to tell everyone that poaching will no longer be tolerated in the estuary. Three other communities around the coast are moving to do the same. It's a beginning, but it's unclear whether it's enough, or in time. These are only a handful of protected areas spread out over more than 1,000 miles of coast. And the turtles still face fishing nets and hooks and marine debris as they swim thousands of miles back to their nesting beaches. In the face of these obstacles, Nichols keeps one clear vision.

NICHOLS: I imagine being an old man and sitting around with some of these fishermen that are my age, with our grandkids. And seeing some turtles swimming around in a place that's beautiful. And I think, God, that's going to be great.

(Engines)

GRABER: Finally, Nichols decides on a release spot for Max.

(Shifting around in the boat)

NICHOLS: Okay. What we're going to do it, we're going to pick up the turtle and I'll hand it over to you guys. Set it down, and you guys can kind of pull the tarp down around it. And let it go.

GRABER: Two young women slip into the water and spread a dark blue tarp between them. Nichols and an assistant grab hold of Max's flippers and slowly lower the turtle over the side and onto the tarp.

NICHOLS: Walk her out a little bit. Of course we're outside.

GRABER: And then it's time to let Max go.

WOMAN: All right?

NICHOLS: Pull down, pull down.

(Splashing)

GRABER: Max hesitates, and with a push of her flippers clears the tarp. She takes one last, long breath and disappears under the waves. Nichols says a quiet goodbye.

NICHOLS: Adios.

GRABER: Far enough to avoid the nets and hooks of fishermen. Far enough to bring new information to the scientific community and to the world. Far enough to help Nichols realize his dream of seeing Baja's waters filled with sea turtles gliding beneath the water's surface. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber in Puerto San Carlos, Baja California, Mexico.

(Nichols and a woman talking)

(Music up and under: Stranglers, "Golden Brown")

CURWOOD: For more information about J. Nichols' conservation work in Baja, or to see turtle Max's travels on the Internet, go to Living on Earth's Web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: Art and politics in the animal world, including the story of Congo, a chimp whose paintings fooled the experts.

MAN: If you look at these paintings, they are actually quite beautiful, and there's a lot of good composition. And it's only after it came out that it was a chimpanzee that the critics all had reasons why they had believed that this was a grand master of painting instead of a chimpanzee.

CURWOOD: The Ape and the Sushi Master, next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Mylisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Before we go, a warm hello to listeners to the two latest stations to add Living on Earth to their fine programming line-up. Welcome KUAZ in Tucson, and KPCC in Pasadena. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

 

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