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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 5, 2004

Air Date: March 5, 2004



Abrupt Climate Change

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PART 1: Severe storms in the Netherlands and a prolonged drought in Europe leading to unprecedented human migration — these are some of the scenarios laid out in “Imagining the Unthinkable,” a report recently issued to the U.S. Department of Defense on the possible worst-case effects of abrupt climate change. Host Steve Curwood talks with Peter Schwartz, one of the co-authors of the report, about the human consequences of such a scenario.
PART 2: Living on Earth continues the conversation on abrupt climate change, as host Steve Curwood talks with Leon Fuerth, former national security advisor to Vice President Al Gore, about the military and economic implications in the event of a rapid shift in global climate.
PART 3: National security and politics aside, the paleo-record of climate change shows strong evidence that an abrupt shift in climate could be headed our way. Host Steve Curwood talks with Daniel Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, about the science behind abrupt climate change. (28:00)

Emerging Science Note/Stress and Chemicals / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that stress may intensify the effects of chemicals on the brain. (02:30)

Pampered Pets / Susan Shepherd

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The relationship between pets and humans is changing. As more people see their pets as quasi-human, they’re spending more money on their animals, as well as searching for new ways to keep them happy. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd has our story. (15:10)

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HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Peter Schwartz, Leon Fuerth, Daniel SchragREPORTER: Susan ShepherdNOTE: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Every so often, according to ice core records, the average temperature of the earth can abruptly shift over just a few decades with small changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Scientists, the Pentagon and even Hollywood movie makers are now trying to answer this question: What might happen if the huge buildup of CO2 from the burning of forests, gas, oil and coal were to suddenly tip the climate scales?

SCHRAG: We’re doing an experiment on the earth that hasn’t been done for millions of years, and no one knows what’s going to happen. And if we suddenly decide that a disaster is going to befall us, we may not be able to turn back the clock, because the system has so much momentum and is so powerful we can’t just assume that we can fix it.

CURWOOD: Facing the unimaginable - the prospect of climate disruption and how that might change our world, on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Abrupt Climate Change

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: For moviegoers across the country, Memorial Day marks the release of a film based on a concept of abrupt climate change. It’s Mother Nature gone wild, in the much-anticipated disaster flick, “The Day After Tomorrow.”


MALE 1: [LIVE NEWSCAST] Lower Manhattan is literally inaccessible.


MALE 2: [LIVE NEWSCAST] There’s a wall of water coming towards New York City…

CURWOOD: Tornadoes dismantle Los Angeles, hail the size of grapefruit pummel Tokyo, and Manhattan freezes over in a single day as abrupt climate change makes its debut on the big screen.

MALE: Save as many as you can.

New York City gets hit hard in a global ecological catastrophe in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow.” (© and ™ 2003 Twentieth Century Fox)

CURWOOD: This Hollywood scenario may seem far-fetched, and the science of the flick is a bit wobbly. But a recent report to the Pentagon, based on an assessment from the National Academy of Sciences, points out abrupt climate change may be a very real threat to national and international security. “Imagining the Unthinkable,” as it’s called, outlines a worst-case-scenario in the event of a massive and abrupt shift in global climate – shifts that have happened in the relatively recent past.

One of the authors of the Pentagon report is Peter Schwartz, a future scenario planner. He frequently consults for the Defense Department. Peter Schwartz, welcome to Living on Earth.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, your work makes you no stranger to the Defense Department, but – I have to ask you – you’ve been a consultant for Hollywood, right?


CURWOOD: What are some of the movie projects you’ve worked on?

SCHWARTZ: Well, the first one was a film called “War Games” back in 1981, then another one called “Sneakers,” both computer hacker movies. Then another one called “Deep Impact,” also a kind of worst case scenario, if you will, given what we’re going to talk about, of a comet coming toward the earth and how you might respond to it. I worked with a good friend Walter Parks on all three of those, and then with Steven Spielberg on “Minority Report.”

CURWOOD: And I can’t help but ask you then, what’s your take on this upcoming movie “The Day After Tomorrow”? And were you involved in its production in any way?

SCHWARTZ: I wasn’t, but I was asked to be. I chose not to be, mainly because this is pure entertainment. They weren’t really interested in making a realistic view. I think they were enamored of a number of the images that turn up in the movie. And that’s okay, this is pure entertainment.

CURWOOD: Now, you and some of your partners at your office recently drafted a report for the Pentagon entitled “Imagining the Unthinkable,” which is a worst case scenario for abrupt climate change. Why paint such a scenario in the first place? Why is climate change a military concern?

SCHWARTZ: Well, this begins, first of all, with the National Research Council report called “Abrupt Climate Change,” which looked at the possibilities for a scenario of abrupt climate change. The Pentagon, not surprisingly, read that report, the senior staff there, and said ‘we should consider whether this might have some national security implications.’ That’s what triggered our study.

And so it was an exercise in thinking the unthinkable. And from their point of view, the unthinkable means ‘could this happen soon, and could it be much more severe than most climatologists would say?’ So, if you think back to just only a few years ago, you might have wished that somebody had thought about what might happen if terrorists would send airplanes into tall buildings and buildings in Washington. It’s in that spirit. It isn’t trying to predict the future, it was trying to say ‘what if?’

CURWOOD: Now, there’s a lot of information in the 22 pages you put together here, Peter Schwartz. Can you give us the bullet points of what you found?

SCHWARTZ: Well, most significantly, it is this: what we’re saying is that, while it is unlikely, the most extreme case would be a scenario of fairly rapid warming in the near future – the next, say, decade or so – that would in turn trigger rapid cooling. What would happen is that the ice in the poles would begin to melt, as we’re already seeing some of. Glaciers would begin to retreat. Both of these would release fresh water into the North Atlantic. Increased precipitation associated with all of that might also lead to rivers producing more fresh water to the North Atlantic. That freshening of the North Atlantic, which we have been seeing, would then trigger a collapse of the Gulf Stream. It would move several thousand miles south. It would no longer bring warm water to the North Atlantic, warming, particularly, Europe, parts of the northeastern United States and Canada.

And that would be part of a larger shift of a similar nature in a number of parts of the world in the kind of heat balance mechanisms, particularly of the ocean currents. So that’s the kind of mechanism that triggers first warming and then cooling. The cooling would be something on the order of, over the northern hemisphere, of about five degrees or so over a decade or so. In fact, what we are describing is a picture of a world very similar to what happened 8,200 years ago, when the world’s temperature, particularly in the northern hemisphere, dropped a similar five degrees in roughly a decade, stayed down for a century, and came back up for a decade.

CURWOOD: Let me just ask you one more thing on the science. People talk in terms of global warming. How do you explain to them that you see a cooling here?

SCHWARTZ: Well, global warming is another possible scenario. We have a fair amount of uncertainty about what’s likely to happen. In fact what we could see – and as we emphasized, this is the worst case scenario – more likely is that you might see 50, 75 more years of warming that then could trigger a cooling. Or the cooling might never happen. I am personally of the mind that the more likely scenario that history tells us, is that we will get some sustained warming, and then we will experience abrupt cooling. The history of climate change is more often abrupt change, and it has frequently been large scale over very long periods of history.

CURWOOD: For the moment, let’s assume that the worst case scenario that you were asked to conjure up is happening. Could you lay out a timeline for us, what would be happening in the United States over the next few decades?

SCHWARTZ: Sure. The immediate effects would be you’d start to see more variability in the weather. You’d see more severe storms, you would see more torrential rainfall, you might see very short winters, very little snow, more rain. One of the impacts that is plausible, but hard to predict, would be a shift in the location of tornadoes. There is believed to be a belt of tornadoes off-shore in the south. You might see more coming on-shore. So those would be some of the kinds of symptoms of a kind of disruptive change under a way in the warming phase.

In the cooling phase what you would see is more severe winters, the kind of thing that you’re experiencing right now. But the more important thing you would see is a gradual diminishment of rainfall and then a movement into what we’re calling mega-droughts, i.e. they would probably be regional, in what we’ve thought, more likely, would be the southeast. But it could also be the Midwest or the far West as well. You know, again, think the 1930s here. This is similar to that. It’s not much worse, except for one important detail, which I’ll come back to in a moment. But – extended droughts over years, five, six, ten years even. And leading therefore to significant fall in reservoirs, in rivers, and so on.

And the thing that is importantly different in terms of its consequences this time, as compared to the 1930s, was that in the 1930s we still had substantial reserves of groundwater we could tap. And while the effects were severe, they were ameliorated in part by the groundwater. We no longer have those reserves. That water is all committed, or used up in some cases. That is, the big aquifers of America are now fully committed. So we don’t have spare capacity to deal with the rapid drop in rainfall. So that’s the kind of trajectory we’re talking about.

CURWOOD: In terms of conflict in the United States, what could happen with our neighbors? Like, what happens with Canada, for example?

SCHWARTZ: That’s a very good question. I can imagine a scenario where things got so bad in Canada that some people might want to head south, but frankly I don’t think the issues will be to the north. More likely they’ll be to the south. And we have two key bodies of water, namely the Colorado and the Rio Grande that, in effect, we share with Mexico. And we already have issues about managing both of those. And in this scenario that could be very severe and produce pressure for migration northward, on the one hand, and disruptions to the management of the water and conflicts over water that we share with Mexico.

But another one that we’ve already begun to experience some issues over is fishing rights in the Atlantic. We’ve already seen struggles between Spain, Portugal, and France over fishing rights there, ourselves with respect to the Europeans and the Canadians in the Grand Banks. This could be a really significant issue, because, of course, the fish move with changing temperature of the seas as well. When the ecosystems of the seas change, the locations of the fish change. And we have now become dependent on various fish populations in both sides of the Atlantic. And you can imagine conflicts over access to fishing.

CURWOOD: Now, what are some of the geopolitical things that you forecast here in your scenario? What happens to people and politics under the scenario that you paint?

SCHWARTZ: Well, we see, for example – right now, an example of something that is the kind of consequence we might have to deal with and the kid of political issues – the unraveling of Haiti, and should we intervene or not. One of the possible disruptions is to water supplies in the Caribbean and Central America. The United States has already several times been hit by waves of refugees from that part of the world. And it is not at all implausible that we could be doing better, and others worse, and we could be hit – immediately in our environs, from the Caribbean, Central America, maybe even Mexico, but especially Central America and the Caribbean – with very large numbers of people headed our way. How do we cope with it? Should we intervene in advance? Should we send them water supplies rather than let them come here? There’s all kinds of important political questions, technical questions and so on that would have to be resolved. And we’re suggesting thinking about those kinds of things in advance, rather than having to improvise in the moment.

CURWOOD: Now, you write also that a possible reaction here in this country to abrupt climate change might be to turn inward, committing our resources to feeding our own population, shoring up our borders and managing increasing global tension. But how does the United States manage this global tension if at the same time it’s closing itself off to the rest of the world? I mean, wouldn’t this create even more tension?

SCHWARTZ: You’re exactly right. I mean, that is the heart of the issue. That’s part of why we’re warning of this. We have an instinct to kind of stay at home, as it were. And under these circumstances you can imagine much of the population, particularly if there are significant disruptions and high costs domestically, saying, you know, let’s take care of our own. Meanwhile you can imagine a political leadership looking around the world and saying, God, there are really terrible things, we’ve got to be helpful. And if we don’t, that will still some home to us eventually one way or the other, and we better deal with it over there than over here. Now caught between a populace reluctant to intervene and the necessity of intervention. And we’ve been there before. And that kind of situation, I think, is not at all implausible in this circumstance.

CURWOOD: What happens to your report now that you’ve handed your findings over to the Pentagon?

SCHWARTZ: Well, unfortunately this has gotten a lot of negative publicity, in the sense that particularly The London Observer both implied that the Pentagon tried to suppress the report on the one hand, and secondly that they exaggerated our conclusions, made it a prediction rather than a worst case scenario. And then turned it around and said, well, see, this proves that the Bush administration is wrong. So, in fact, the likelihood is that very little will happen as a result of it. Had it been able to proceed in a more appropriate fashion, it would have been considered along with many other possible scenarios regularly considered by the office of net assessments and the Secretary of Defense’s office – that they consider as the routine part of their thinking in the long run.

CURWOOD: So, let me see if I understand this right. Because the public and the press has kicked this around in perhaps, from your perspective, an overly dramatic fashion, it means that the Pentagon can’t think about this at all?

SCHWARTZ: It means that this kind of thing gets suppressed for a while. It will come back up again. But it means that this is a taboo topic because you have a meeting about it, and it leaks out to the press again, and it just keeps the storm going, if you know what I mean.

CURWOOD: Peter Schwartz is a future scenario planner and chairman of the consulting firm Global Business Network, part of the Monitor Group. Peter, thanks for speaking with me today.

SCHWARTZ: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Coming up, we’ll continue the climate change conversation with two perspectives on the science and security implications of global warming. We’ll be back in a minute, stay tuned. I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Pan American "Starts Friday" PAN AMERICAN (Kranky - 1998)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. We’ve been talking about abrupt climate change, and “Imagining the Unthinkable,” as a recent report to the Pentagon is titled. This document outlines a worst-case scenario of abrupt climate change that would cause massive disruptions in agriculture, the economy, and international diplomacy.

So far, the Pentagon has had no public comment on the report of its consultants. But soon climate change may be a hot topic on the national security agenda. With me to talk about the security implications of abrupt climate change is Leon Fuerth, Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, and the former national security advisor for Vice President Al Gore. Leon Fuerth, welcome.

FUERTH: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Well, we’ve heard from a consultant to the Pentagon that an abrupt shift in climate could turn out to be a critical issue of national security if it should occur. I’m wondering if you could tell me from your own experience, working as a national security advisor here in the United States, Leon Fuerth, what do you think would happen strategically around the world? What changes, what imbalances in strategic alliances would happen, do you think?

FUERTH: I think what would happen is that the world as you knew it, organization as you knew it, relationships among states as you understood them, the rules of economics as you had understood them would all be shifting. I mean, our territory would remain inviolable, but our business may go to hell. At the level of strategic alignments, one of the continents that would experience the greatest dislocation would be western Europe, where the place would become much, much colder, possibly with the effect of severely damaging the economy of the northern tier of countries and causing a lot of people to try to move south, and creating tremendous internal migration problems for the European Union at the time.

CURWOOD: If there is a country in the world that the United States has a lot of business to do with in the diplomatic sense, in the world power sense, it has to be China. The scenario says that China’s going to have pretty serious water problems, and that means food problems. It’s a quarter of the world’s people, and today they’re rich and technologically savvy. What might happen between the United States and China in such a world?

FUERTH: Interesting question. One of the determinants is do we continue to need to borrow half a trillion dollars a year to finance the debt of the federal government of the United States, most of which has been coming from China. And it works out in a giddy sort of way. They lend to us so that we can buy their products.

Now if, let’s say, two administrations from now, all of a sudden the climate patterns in China begin to shift drastically, it’s natural to believe that trade, economy, and other issues are going to also be disturbed.

So, one of the things I think the United States should do in its own interest is to make itself less dependent on the scale of borrowing than we have been. Because if any of our creditors, for any reason, finds themselves unwilling or unable to continue to lend to us at this rate, then that house of cards can come down.

CURWOOD: So, Leon Fuerth, if you were the national security advisor today, what steps would you advise that the United States take to deal with the possibility of such a climate scenario?

FUERTH: First of all, I think we need a major effort to acquire better modeling in order to be able to calculate as accurately as possible, and in real time, what some of the effects might be. I would begin having people work out planning scenarios, including some of the social, economic, and political consequences in parts of the world where, let’s say, the agricultural cycle is disturbed. Better to have people playing these mind games over what might occur while we still have time to think about action than to wait until the evidence is on hand that we’re in the middle of it.

CURWOOD: What do you suppose is going on in the Pentagon now and in the Bush administration in the aftermath of this report?

FUERTH: Not much. I mean, what’s interesting about this is that this is not like Orson Wells “War of the Worlds,” where what you had was a fantasy that was put out there, which inadvertently frightened the public. What you have here is a response to a request from the Department of Defense for a scenario – imagine something. But what they did was imagine a thing on the basis of an event they considered quite possible. And so what it carries is a message, which is: it’s time to get real about this while we still have the luxury of time and resources and allies to work the problem.

CURWOOD: Leon Fuerth is professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, and the former national security advisor for Vice President Al Gore. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

FUERTH: Thank you.

CURWOOD: We’ve been talking about the economic and political consequences of abrupt climate change, in light of a recent report to the Pentagon called “Imagining the Unthinkable.” The authors stress that the scenario they paint “pushes the boundaries of current research on climate change.” With me to talk about what we do know within the boundaries of climate science today is Daniel Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Hello, sir.

SCHRAG: Good day.

CURWOOD: What should you as a scientist – let’s say the Defense Department calls you up and says, Professor Schrag, as part of our national security assessment, we are on the lookout for signs of abrupt climate change. What do you look for?

SCHRAG: There are a few possible modes of abrupt climate change that we’ve seen in the past, in the geologic past, that we could look for in the future. The most obvious one would be an instability in the large ice sheets on Greenland or Antarctica. So, if the West Antarctic ice sheet or if the Greenland ice sheet started to exhibit some very unusual behavior, and we thought that a large amount of ice might slide off the continent and into the ocean, this could cause a very abrupt rise in sea level. And would damage coastal cities around the world, devastating world economies.

CURWOOD: Hm, hmm. Now, Professor Schrag, the Defense Department is worried about this. They tend to have a short-term view of things. The effects that you’ve been talking about so far seem to be decades away. I’m confused – why is the Defense Department so concerned, apparently over the short-term here?

SCHRAG: Well, what I’m talking about may take years to decades to actually happen, and no one knows exactly when these sorts of things can occur, but one shouldn’t think that these effects are just decades away. The truth is no one knows. We are already experiencing a world that is substantially warming because of human activities. We know this from the melting of ice in the tropics up at high altitudes, Kilimanjaro and in the Andes, and a lot of other pieces of evidence that tell us global warming is happening now.

CURWOOD: Now why does melting of ice in the tropics indicate global warming?

SCHRAG: Well, this is a really powerful piece of evidence that climate change is happening now. The middle of the troposphere, the middle of the atmosphere near the equator, is a very stable region of the atmosphere. There’s very little weather there, there’s very little variability. And so, as a result, if one starts to see warming there you know that it’s a global signal, because there’s very little variability normally.

In the case of these tropical glaciers, Lonny Thompson, from Ohio State University, has shown that these glaciers are melting for the first time in thousands of years. So that proves that it’s not a 100-year cycle, or a 500-year cycle. This is truly an extraordinary event coincident with the enormous rise in carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. And to me, that’s the most compelling evidence that climate change is happening now.

Now, when we cross certain thresholds that lead to abrupt change, no one has any idea. We don’t think that Greenland or West Antarctica are going to melt and drop into the sea in the next 10 years. On the other hand, if they suddenly crossed an instability and started to collapse over a period of a few years, it would be too late to do anything about it. And no one knows exactly when that happens. So to me it makes sense that the Pentagon is planning for all sorts of possibilities, just like an insurance company.

CURWOOD: What kind of shape is the West Antarctic ice sheet in right now?

SCHRAG: Well, it’s hotly debated. Some scientists think that the West Antarctic ice sheet is so large and massive that it’s insulated from all changes, and that it takes thousands of years for the ice sheet to adjust to the warming that we’re experiencing now. Other scientists think that there are mechanisms that we don’t understand very well, whereby the ice sheet can actually move and adjust very rapidly. And if that’s correct then we are in danger of that amount of ice falling into the ocean. And that amount of ice represents a substantial amount of sea level change.

CURWOOD: On the order of?

SCHRAG: On the order of six meters or so.

CURWOOD: 18 feet of more water.

SCHRAG: And that would pretty much wipe out every coastal city in the U.S.

CURWOOD: And how soon could that happen?

SCHRAG: Well, if it went in over a period of even a hundred years it would mean devastation. You can’t even begin to calculate the amount of damage that that would do to the U.S. economy. And to the global economy. And if it went faster than that, which is possible, we’d really be in trouble. I think that really gets to one of the points about climate change. We’re doing an experiment on the earth that hasn’t been done in millions of years, and no one knows what’s going to happen. And if we suddenly decide that a disaster’s going to befall us, we may not be able to turn back the clock. Because the system has so much momentum, and is so powerful, we can’t just assume that we can fix it.

CURWOOD: You folks who look at the changing climate often use computers to model. In fact that seems to be the basis of a lot of the predictions of the warming that’s coming. How well do these models work when you look back at these other changes thousands and millions of years ago? How well do these computers predict something we already know the answer to?

SCHRAG: That’s a very good question. It turns out that the answer is that sometimes they work very well, and sometimes they don’t work very well. And of course a model is most interesting when it doesn’t work well, because it tells us that something’s missing. Remember that the models are only as good as the physics that we put into the model. And therefore the models reflect our understanding of the climate system based on modern observations, primarily over the last 50 years or so. Now, we’re entering into a mode of climate with high atmospheric carbon dioxide that we haven’t been in for tens of millions of years. So nobody has the right set of observations to completely describe the climate system in this mode.

What’s interesting is about 50 million years ago, the earth was very warm. We think that carbon dioxide was high. We don’t know exactly how high, we think maybe 1,000 to 3,000 parts per million, which is not that far off from where we’re going to be 100 to 200 years from now. Now, at that time there were crocodiles living up in Greenland, there were palm trees in Wyoming. Palm trees can never have cold winters, and there were palm trees thriving in Wyoming, where today it gets very cold. Antarctica was a pine forest. Sea level was about 150 meters high than today. It was a completely different world. And the question is, can these models produce it? And when you try to put high carbon dioxide in the models and let them try to simulate the climate, it turns out they don’t do a very good job. They actually don’t get the world warm enough. There’s something missing in the models that is a positive feedback that amplifies the effect of the carbon dioxide. But if that effect kicks in, the warming could be much more severe than the models are predicting.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I was going to say, you’re starting to scare me here.

SCHRAG: Well, we should be scared.

CURWOOD: You’re saying the models that are predicting this rather large shift don’t predict these biggest shifts from the past. Therefore, we’re missing something here.

SCHRAG: You know, we’ve been hearing in the debate about climate change in the public a lot of rhetoric that says because the climate scientists aren’t certain, we should wait and not do anything about it. For me it’s exactly the opposite. It’s our lack of certainty, which is why we should do something now. Because the answer could be much worse than we expect. Climate change could be much more severe than anyone thinks.

CURWOOD: This summer there’s going to be a movie out of Hollywood. I think it’s called “The Day After Tomorrow.” It paints an apocalyptic scene of, actually, the northeastern United States pretty much freezing over.

SCHRAG: I know. I get a lot of pleasure from looking at the preview. I show it in some of my talks. Unfortunately, I think that’s probably a very unlikely scenario. I think the idea comes from the idea that the Gulf Stream will somehow collapse when the thermohaline circulation of the Atlantic stops. And therefore this will lead to an ice age and everything will freeze. The truth of the matter is that if the thermohaline circulation stops, it will affect a region around Britain and Scotland, but will probably not affect New York much at all. The movie was by the maker of “Independence Day,” and I think after destroying Washington, D.C., he wanted to destroy New York City, and he found a way to do it.

CURWOOD: Why now all this attention to the question of abrupt climate change? The Greenland ice core samples that you told us about have been around for a long time, demonstrating that it didn’t take more than a few decades to change a lot of temperature. And yet today, folks like the Defense Department, folks in Hollywood, are suddenly paying attention to the question of abrupt climate change. Why is that happening?

SCHRAG: I think there are powerful forces in our society that have a lot of economic stake in our current energy technology, and are resistant to change. And therefore have promoted the idea that this was just a theory, that climate change was just an idea that scientists had that they weren’t sure about, and discouraged action on this front.

And I think a variety of different sectors of our society are beginning to wake up to the fact that we can’t just put our head in the sand and hope that it goes away. We know that climate change is a serious risk. The probability of it being dramatic is very high, probably greater than 50 percent. And yet we’re willing to spend almost nothing to protect ourselves. We need to buy at least some insurance. And to me, the minimum insurance policy is that we actually should have the technological capacity to do something about it. At the very least, we should be able to change our behavior if we want to. Right now we can’t even do that.

CURWOOD: Daniel Schrag is a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

SCHRAG: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Yulara "Horizon" COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave Music - 1998)]

Related links:
- The Day After Tomorrow movie website
- Pentagon report on Abrupt Climate Change

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Emerging Science Note/Stress and Chemicals

CURWOOD: Just ahead: 800,000 dollar veterinarian bills and the people who pay them. First, this note on emerging science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Pharmacologist Mohamed Abou Donia at Duke University has spent more than ten years trying to figure out why soldiers from the first Gulf War suffer from what’s called Gulf War syndrome. They complain of aches and pains, fatigue, loss of memory, and of difficulties concentrating and learning. Doctors have been unable to discover the cause of the soldiers’ complaints. Now, Abou Donia believes he may have found one possible explanation of why the soldiers continue to suffer.

Soldiers during the war were exposed to an anti-nerve gas agent, the skin-applied insecticide Deet, and a clothing insecticide called permethrin. The levels of these chemicals had been tested and were considered safe. The soldiers also experienced a great deal of stress during the war. In previous experiments, Abou Donia demonstrated that exposure to a mixture of these chemicals can have more of an effect than individual chemical exposure. He also knew that stress has been shown to cause neurological damage. So he set out to test whether stress can intensify the effects of chemicals.

Abou Donia took four groups of ten rats. One group was exposed to the chemicals, in doses that were analogous to those the soldiers received. A second group of rats received what’s known as psychological stress for animals – they had their movement restricted for just five minutes a day. The third group received the chemicals and the stress. And the fourth group received nothing. After 28 days, all the rats looked and behaved normally. So the group of scientists killed the rats and examined their brains. The rats that were exposed to chemicals showed little brain damage. Those subjected to stress also had healthy brains. But the mix of chemicals and stress produced surprising results.

In those rats’ brains, cells died in significant numbers in the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum. These are areas that control functions such as learning and memory, motor function, and muscle coordination. There was also a change in brain chemicals necessary for learning, memory, and for muscle strength and movement. Finally, this stress plus chemical combination also increased destructive molecules in the rats’ brains called reactive oxygen species, or oxygen free radicals. These attack and damage different parts of cells.

Abou Donia believes it’s this increase in free radicals that caused the brain damage. Current MRIs are not sensitive enough to measure changes in human brains on the scale of what Abou Donia has seen in the rats. So even if Gulf War veterans had similar damage, it would be extremely difficult to detect. But Abou Donia hopes in the future this research can lead to methods for preventing symptoms such as those suffered by the veterans. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Cynthia Graber..

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Aveda - an earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; the Annenberg Foundation; and the Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Parlour "Stipendiax" OCTOPUS OFF-BROADWAY (Temporary Residence - 2002)]

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Pampered Pets

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. With 66 million dogs living in American households, and even more cats, pets are big business, worth over 30 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy. The money goes for food and medical care, and also for such trendy items as doggy cafés and doggy massage. The reward, of course, is unconditional love, or at least an occasional friendly lick. Research shows that having a pet can be beneficial to the health of the owner. Still, the line that used to divide how we cared for pets and how we care for ourselves is becoming increasingly blurred. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd has our story.


SCHROFF: Why don’t we give Cody some more pain meds? I mean, when you get a chance, Hilary. I know you’ve got your own thing going on.

SHEPHERD: It’s a cold, snowy night and Vescone Animal Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts, is bustling with activity.


SCHROFF: He has one on his back, he has one right by his anus, and he has two on his right hind leg and he’s very painful.

SHEPHERD: Dr. Amy Schroff runs this clinic like a firm and practical loving mother, taking care of clients, employees, and animals alike. Now she’s examining Skippy, a terrier attacked earlier this evening by an unknown animal in the back yard.

Dr. Amy Schroff and Dr. Heather Chalfant with a patient at the hospital.

SCHROFF: Those are some pretty nasty wounds back there. Yeah, I think some nice narcotics have your name on them somewhere.

SHEPHERD: It’s hard to tell who needs the narcotics more, the pup or his owner, a middle-aged woman who is clearly distraught. But just wait till she gets the bill. Though your average Skippy can cost his owner somewhere between 200 and 800 dollars a year, many of the animals in the intensive care unit of this hospital tonight are ringing up larger costs than that.


SHEPHERD: Just down the hall an English Setter named Missy cries and pants as she lies in a concrete enclosure on a blanket. Her neck is wrapped with pink bandages, and her shaved body is bound by a metal brace. She has a feeding tube inserted in her esophagus through a hole in her throat, and an IV catheter. Dr. Schroff and Dr. Heather Chalfant talk about her condition

CHALFANT: Yes, she was hit by a car…

SCHROFF: …flail chest …

CHALFANT: She’s had surgery, too.

SCHROFF: Oh, she did?


SHEPHERD: Out of the eight or ten dogs here tonight, at least two of them will run up medical bills of close to 8,000 dollars. The highest bill in this hospital’s history was 22,000 dollars for a very sick dog that survived for another year. It’s all part of the 11 billion dollars a year Americans spend on pet health care, up from 800 million in 1980. Part of that increase is because of animal hospitals like these.

Dr. Jack Walther is president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In the past few years, he’s watched the veterinarian profession grow much more technologically advanced.

WALTHER: I’ve been in small animal practice right on 40 years, so I came out of an era where we had no specialists. That’s all changed.

SHEPHERD: Dr. Walther says the pet-owning public has also changed.

WALTHER: As we see the American public growing older, their pets have become a much bigger part of their later life. And as a result, they want the best care possible.

Two animal care technicians care for a dog at Vescone Animal Hospital in Waltham, MA.

SHEPHERD: Clearly, not everyone can afford to spend thousands or even hundreds of dollars on a pet. And now that this new and improved care is so readily available, how do people make the decision, often in the spur of the moment, to begin a treatment that could end up putting them in debt? Dr. Schroff says she tries to make pet owners more comfortable with their decision, no matter what it is.

SCHROFF: We don’t place judgement on people. The fact that someone will bring their animal in to see us obviously shows that these people really love their pet. They really want to try and do the best they can. And euthanasia is sometimes the best option.

SHEPHERD: But Dr. Schroff is equally adamant that she was not put on earth to be, as she puts it, a killing machine, and won’t euthanize animals for their owner’s convenience. But if the question was once, ‘What amount is too much to spend on a pet to save its life?’ Now the question is, ‘How much is too little?’ Many vets don’t know themselves what they feel about when to euthanize, much less how to counsel their patients. The AVMA’s doctor Walther says that the vet’s role has changed.

WALTHER: I really became much more of a family advisor, if you will. Pet owners depend on my advice far more than they did when I first started practice.

SHEPHERD: If people are now looking at their pets as part of the family, as kind of quasi children, how do you ever make the decision not to spend $22,000 to save a pet’s life? A person would hardly consider cost when deciding on a child’s lifesaving medical treatment. But even Dr. Schroff is uneasy about the implications of spending so much on pets.

SCHROFF: I think it’s an astonishing contrast. My father is from India, and I’ve traveled to other parts of the world where I have relatives, cousins who are medical doctors, that don’t even have access to the medical equipment that we have.

SHEPHERD: And yet, with pet health insurance available, more specialists entering the field and more households owning pets, we’re likely to make animal health care an even larger part of the economic pie. What’s causing this trend? And is it a good thing?

KATZ: People are turning to dogs more and more for emotional support.

SHEPHERD: That’s author John Katz, who’s written several books about dogs. His latest, The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love and Family, follows 12 people for a year and explores their relationship with their dogs. Katz thinks we should be wary of the deep emotional intensity of some of these relationships.

KATZ: They see dogs as members of their families, they see dogs as childlike, they attribute human emotions to them, they anthropomorphasize them, they see them as spiritual. And the intensity, fueled by I think the fragmented society – there’s more divorce, more people living alone, work is insecure – they are turning more and more to dogs for companionship. And I think that’s a beautiful thing in many ways, and it’s also a troubling thing in many ways.

SHEPHERD: Although Katz is unsettled by this over-emotionalization of pets, which he says is causing us to see them as human, it’s not because he doesn’t love animals.


KATZ: Yes, I love you too, girlie. You want another cookie?

SHEPHERD: It’s a brilliantly sunny winter day at his farmhouse on a hill overlooking pasture and weathered barns in upstate New York, and Katz is in the process of feeding two donkeys, 15 sheep and two dogs.


KATZ: Come here Fanny, come on girl.

SHEPHERD: Caring for so many animals is no mean feat, considering the below zero thermometer readings on so many days this winter. He recently suffered frostbite on several fingers and toes trying to save a dying Carol.

KATZ: Donkeys are among the world’s, I think, sweetest and least appreciated creatures. You haven’t really lived until you’ve given a donkey a rectal thermometer at four o’clock in the morning at minus 30 degrees. It’s really changed my life (laughs). Rose, come by.


SHEPHERD: But his real loves are his two border collies, Rose and Orson. Katz directs eight-month-old Rosey as she runs through the fresh blanket of snow to keep the sheep away from the donkey chow.


KATZ: Rose is indispensable. I would not last an hour here without her.

SHEPHERD: Rose is small for her breed, and still a pup, but she moves the heavy and lumbering sheep around as if they were nimble mice.

SHEPHERD: Will she make our lunch for us?

KATZ: She’s really so great.

SHEPHERD: Rose is so great that it’s hard to understand how Katz could resist thinking about her as having human qualities. And Katz admits he falls into that trap himself. When he first got his male border collie, Orson, he had to put a note on his computer reminding him ‘He’s not human.’

KATZ: There’s a trainer named Carolyn Wilkie, who I write about in the book quite a bit, and I said to her one day, ‘If anything happened to me you’d have to shoot this dog because he could never live with anyone else.’ And she got in my face and she said, ‘Listen pal, if anything happened to you, I’d buy a pound of beef liver and in 48 hours this dog would forget that you ever walked the earth. And don’t you forget it.’

SHEPHERD: It seems that as loneliness and alienation increase in our society, so does the importance of dogs in our lives. And there may be some evidence to support that notion. Katz talks about an article in the Journal of Evolution and Behavior, which concludes that:

KATZ: Dogs are the world’s most effective social parasites. That is, they have brilliantly injected themselves into the social system of another species, which very few species ever do. And they do this by tricking us, essentially, by showing a narrow range of humanlike emotions – affection, hostility, anxiety, neediness, play. And they trick us into thinking they have the entire range of human emotions, that they’re human. And so we therefore attach to them as if they were people.

SHEPHERD: Dogs may in fact be the animal kingdom’s master manipulators, judging by the behavior of those who love them. Take a look at Bark Magazine, published out of San Francisco. Seventy five thousand people subscribe to this glossy monthly. And some recent articles include teaching your dog how to read, tips on how to include your dog in your wedding, and an article that starts with the question ‘Is your canine companion a fur-ball of stress?’ and recommends dog yoga as a way to calm your dog down. ‘Animals know how to be in the moment and how to completely relax,’ says the dog yoga instructor interviewed in the article.

SCHROFF: I don’t know that I really have a professional opinion about dog yoga [LAUGHTER]. I don’t!

SHEPHERD: Dr. Amy Schroff may not, but John Katz does. And he blames it partly on his own generation.

KATZ: You know, the boomers created the myth of the gifted and talented child, and now they’re creating the idea of the gifted and talented dog. I had one person e-mail me and said, you know, Mondays we do agility, Tuesdays we do obedience, Wednesdays we go herding - Thursdays are open, what can we do? There is a widening chasm between what dogs need and what we want to give them.

SHEPHERD: Is this helping dogs? It appears not, at least in terms of dog behavior. I asked Dr. Walther of the AVMA whether we can say that dogs are, well, worse than they used to be.

WALTHER: Absolutely. Yeah, we can (laughs). I think every one of them is in my practice.

SHEPHERD: Katz agrees. He says fewer than three percent of dog owners train their dogs at all, which could be why over 400,000 people were bitten seriously enough to require hospitalization last year. The dog rescue culture may be feeding into this – dogs with behavior problems that before would have been put to sleep are now being saved and put up for adoption

KATZ: Thirty or 40 years ago you didn’t rescue a dog, you just adopted a dog at the shelter. Now you rescue a dog - and rescue is a very emotionally charged term, it has all kinds of intense connotations about it. And, you know, I’m always getting chased by people who tell me that their dogs were abused. ‘I’m sorry my dog bit you on the butt, but he was abused.’ ‘I’m sorry my dog jumped on you but he was abused, and therefore I can’t train him.’

SHEPHERD: And because we are beginning to see dogs as a new kind of in-between human and pet species, that’s being played out in the legal realm, as well. In a San Diego divorce case last year, a couple spent over $150,000 on a custody fight over their dog, Gigi. The judge allowed a “day in the life of Gigi” video to be considered as evidence, before deciding to grant custody to the wife (her ex got visitation).

But other perhaps more far-reaching issues are coming to the legal fore that involve the very essence of what it means to be an animal. Several state legislatures are rewriting animal protection laws, so that pet owners have the right to pain and suffering damages over and above the worth of the pet, as well as punitive damages for acts of abuse or neglect. This could mean that veterinarians will someday be facing the same kinds of staggering lawsuits that doctors now must contend with, and it’s got veterinarians worried. It also means the rest of us could be facing larger legal bills, and larger court-mandated payments to pet owners, if we’re unlucky enough to harm someone else’s animal.

In addition, several cities have passed ordinances that say animals’ owners should be called “companions,” which could possibly change the rights of people who own pets. There are legal variations of how this would look. Cass Sunstein is a constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago Law school who has written about this topic.

SUNSTEIN: The most radical version is that there shouldn’t be pets at all and that, in the long run, animals should be wild and free. They would abolish the institution of pet ownership. A less radical idea is that once animals aren’t property any more they have the kind of status of very old people or very young people, who are not owned but who are cared for. So instead of thinking of animals as objects, the less radical version says we should think of animals as more akin to children - people who we have duties toward, and people who have rights of their own.

SHEPHERD: But are we sure we want to be equating animals with children in the eyes of the law? John Katz thinks not.

KATZ: I am responsible for my dogs. I am responsible for training them, for caring for them, and for showing them how to live in the world. The idea that a dog has codified legal rights? It’s a tricky issue for me. There’s a group now that’s trying to pass a legal code for the adoption of dogs that would give dogs the right to switch homes if they’re unhappy. I don’t even want to think about how that’s going to work.

SHEPHERD: Several weeks after my trip to the animal ER I went to see Missy, recovering at home from her accident.

SHEPHERD: Hello, how are you?

GERSTMEYER: I’m fine, thank you.

SHEPHERD: Pam Gerstmeyer says that plenty of people were surprised that she spent so much money on Missy. But then stories of others paying for heroic treatment for their pets began to trickle in. She says that even though Missy’s treatment didn’t put her family into debt, they still had to have the conversation.

GERSTMEYER: My husband and I talked it over. I had badly broken my leg at one time and he said, ‘Well, we didn’t put you to sleep, did we? No, we did not!’ [LAUGHS]. And she’s a member of our family and we’re going to do whatever we can. We are a very fortunate country, a very indulged bunch of people. But I’m not going to make excuses for what we did.

SHEPHERD: That said, Gerstmeyer has three grown daughters and says she would never equate her dog with her children.

GERSTMEYER: I think you have to remember that a dog is a dog. And maybe with this accident things have changed that way, with our relationship with her. But still she is just a dog. Just a dog that we spent 8,000 dollars on, you know. I mean, hello!

SHEPHERD: As we’re talking, Missy is lying complacently nearby – perhaps listening to the drone of our voices, smelling all of the pungent house scents, and dreaming of chasing squirrels. It’s still hard for her to walk, or move at all, and she’s not eating much. But is she glad to be alive? Does she even understand that concept at all? Many dogs owners would say yes.

GERSTMEYER: I think she probably looks and says, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I do to deserve this?’ Now I am not going to – I think this is where people go off the deep end – take her to a dog psychologist. She’s going to have to work out her issues by herself. [LAUGHS] She’s going to have to just deal, and cope, and realize, you know, we are having a good life here!

SHEPHERD: For Living on Earth, I’m Susan Shepherd.

[MUSIC: Lauren Canyon "Dances with Dogs" UGLY DOGS NEED MORE LOVE (Quicksilver Records - 2002)]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – in our ongoing coverage of research on the health effects of lead, scientists are examining meconium, the first stool of a newborn. They want to see how much lead from a mother reaches her baby. And new moms are essential to the study.

CALLAHAN: So it was kind of weird. I felt awkward hitting the call button, not saying I need pain medicine, or I need this – um, I got a dirty diaper, you need to come get it.

CURWOOD: The latest installment of ‘The Secret Life of Lead,’ next time on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week waiting in the world’s busiest train station. Sarah Peebles created this soundscape of the hustle and bustle of the Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

[EARTH EAR: Sarah Peebles "Shinjuku Station (south entrance)" WALKING THROUGH TOKYO AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (Post-Concrete - 2001)]


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Al Avery mixed this program and runs the website. We had help from Nal Tero. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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