Changing Views on Climate Change
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Part One: The Bush administration says its latest report on global warming is just a routine summary of the latest science. But critics call it a shift in the White House’s stance on climate change, finally acknowledging the extent of human causes of warming. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young sorts it out from Washington.
Part Two: Scientists and policymakers aren’t the only ones who may find climate change a thorny issue. Reporters who translate developments in global warming have a host of issues to consider. And, according to brothers Max and Jules Boykoff, balance isn’t the best way to handle the issue. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jules Boykoff about the findings in their new study, “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press.”
Part Three: Living on Earth takes a look at how the press has covered the complicated science and volatile politics of the global warming story. Two veteran journalists, Bill Allen, Editor in Chief of the National Georgraphic Magazine and Andy Revkin, environmental reporter for the New York Times, rate the press’ coverage, and tell us why what they call one of the most important stories of our times is not making headlines. (24:30)
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In the longest study of its kind, researchers at the University of Southern California have found that children living in the Los Angeles area have reduced lung capacity which may increase their risk of respiratory problems later in life. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. C. Arden Pope III of Brigham Young University about the results and implications of this long-ranging study. (4:30)
Emerging Science Note/Dream On/ Jennifer Chu
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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a study that identifies the dream center of the brain. (1:20)
Himalayan Hydropower/ Cheryl Colopy
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The mountains of Nepal funnel water to some of the most powerful rivers in southern Asia. Now, despite environmental and financial concerns, small-scale hydropower projects are supplying electricity to Nepalese villages, Buddhist temples and even Internet cafes. Reporter Cheryl Colopy has our story. (15:00)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Jules Boykoff, Andrew Revkin, Bill Allen, Arden PopeREPORTERS: Jeff Young , Cheryl ColopyNOTE: Jennifer Chu
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The Bush administration has a new report out on climate change that’s turning some heads on Capitol Hill and in the scientific community. And the question is, is this a significant shift in White House policy?
McCAIN: Ahh, I wouldn’t use the word significant, (laughs) but it’s a shift.
CLAPP: They are, for first time, acknowledging that we cannot account for changes in climate we see solely from natural phenomena.
CURWOOD: And that admission could pose a dilemma for the administration.
LASHOFF: Do they try to deny the science, which is increasingly untenable, or do they acknowledge the science but try to defend the do-nothing policy, which is also untenable?
CURWOOD: Also, balance as bias: climate change in the newsroom. That’s this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
If you want to try and understand just where the Bush administration stands on the problem of global warming these days, get ready to get confused. On the one hand, a recent Bush administration report cites evidence of global climate change and blames at least some of the warming on humans.
But, on the other hand, President Bush himself has said it’s unclear how much of the warming is due to human activity, and more scientific research is needed before any policies might change. As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, all the confusion may be a sign that the White House stance on climate change is shifting.
YOUNG: “Our Changing Planet” is a mostly mundane report the White House Climate Change Science Program must supply Congress each year. This year’s report, however, struck some as anything but mundane. The studies summarized in the report conclude global warming is reducing the planet’s ice caps, and affecting plants and animals. Two studies found the warmer temperatures of the past 50 years were likely caused by people burning fossil fuels and putting heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere.
That’s not groundbreaking science. But when it comes bearing the signatures of top Bush administration officials, it raises some eyebrows. Phil Clapp of the advocacy group National Environmental Trust says that’s new for an administration that has downplayed evidence of the human influence on global warming.
CLAPP: They are, for the first time, seriously acknowledging that we cannot account for the changes in climate that we are seeing solely from natural phenomenon. It is significant that the secretaries of commerce and energy have now actually signed a document that says to Congress human activity is seriously changing the world’s climate.
YOUNG: But the president’s top scientist says that’s not how he reads the report.
MARBURGER: I don’t see the big deal here.
YOUNG: That’s White House Science Adviser John Marburger. Marburger denies that the report represents any departure for the administration, and says President Bush has for years recognized that people play a role in climate change.
MARBURGER: We’ve always thought that recent warming, the surface warming of the Earth, coming from data that are collected by a large number of stations and from a large number of sources, was most likely due to human involvement -- to paraphrase the president’s own words here. And this says, yeah, that seems to be right.
YOUNG: Business groups, and even some global warming activists, agree with Marburger that the report is nothing new. So why did a routine report stand out to so many others who closely follow the climate change debate? Daniel Lashoff is science director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center.
LASHOFF: In once sense, it’s a routine report. But in the Bush administration we’ve found that there’s nothing routine about putting out routine reports about global warming.
YOUNG: For example, Lashoff says when Bush accepted a National Academy of Sciences report in 2001 on the human role in global warming, he also emphasized what we still did not know about its possible natural causes. Bush dismissed a 2002 Environmental Protection Agency report that blamed warming on human activity as coming, quote, “from the bureaucracy.” And Lashoff says the White House censored the global warming section of an EPA report last year.
LASHOFF: So what’s new about “Our Changing Planet” this year is that it does contain reasonable summaries of scientific literature on global warming that were not distorted by White House censors. So, they’re faced with a dilemma. Do they try to deny the science, which is increasingly untenable, or do they acknowledge the science but try to defend a do-nothing policy, which is also increasingly untenable?
YOUNG: White House Science Adviser Marburger insists there is no dilemma within the administration and no need for a change in policy. He rejects regulation in favor of Bush’s call for voluntary greenhouse gas cuts and federal funding for technology to make those reductions possible.
MARBURGER: We are spending billions of dollars on these technologies, and if we didn’t think that it was necessary we wouldn’t be doing it. This administration has put its money where its mouth is.
YOUNG: Arizona Senator John McCain is watching this give-and-take with interest. His Climate Stewardship Act, cosponsored by Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, would regulate greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide for the first time. McCain is among the few Republicans pushing the administration to do more on climate change, and he sees the latest report as a sign that it might.
McCAIN: It seems to be a bit of a shift. We’re gonna have a hearing on that and we’d love to hear from them. And Joe and I will…Senator Lieberman and I will be again forcing a vote as soon as we can.
YOUNG: So, you do think that is a significant shift?
McCAIN: Ahh, I wouldn’t use the word significant. (LAUGHS) But it’s a shift.
YOUNG: Whether it’s a shift that moves the administration any closer to action remains to be seen. McCain hopes to learn more when he hosts the Senate Committee hearing on global warming this month. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Washington.
CURWOOD: Now, the first lesson in Journalism 101 is to get both sides of the story. Balancing viewpoints is supposed to prevent bias in reporting. It’s also supposed to give your audience a full picture of the issue at hand. But when it comes to the science of global warming, two brothers say this rule should be reconsidered because balance in climate change coverage can actually mean bias, they say.
Max and Jules Boykoff are co-authors of a study which appears in the recent issue of the journal Global Environmental Change. It’s called “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” Jules Boykoff joins me now from Whitman College, in the town that’s so nice they named it twice--Walla Walla, Washington. Jules, welcome to Living on Earth.
BOYKOFF: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Balance as bias. (LAUGHS) You know, I gotta say this phrase sounds a little counterintuitive at first glance. Can you explain what you mean by this?
BOYKOFF: Sure. Well, we started this study because some people had been talking about a certain level of balance being in the “prestige press” regarding the issue of global warming. And by that they meant--on one hand, you had the climate change scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as the IPCC. And, on the other hand, you had the global warming skeptics, a few dozen scholars and others who were trying to cast doubt – in fact, were casting doubt – on whether humans were contributing to global warming.
And so, what we decided to do was to take that hypothesis, if you will, and to systematically test it by looking at articles that appeared in what we called the “prestige press” between 1988 and 2002. By “prestige press” I mean The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The L.A. Times.
CURWOOD: What were you able to find?
BOYKOFF: Basically, in that article we looked at these articles from 1988 to 2002. In total we took a sample of 636 of them, a random sample. So we found that, in fact, once we went through all these articles and we analyzed them, we found that more than half of them gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations. So there was roughly a balance between those two views.
Then, the second category was articles that emphasize the roles of humans while presenting both sides of the debate. 35.3 percent emphasized that, in fact, scientists and others really do believe that humans are contributing to global climate change. And we felt like this was really accurate coverage. And that’s really a positive point of this study, too. A lot of times people take it in the negative, and that we’re being very, very critical and there’s all this undue balance. But actually, if you look at it, 35.3 percent got it, we think, just right. At least according to what the IPCC says.
Then, just to continue on, 6.2 percent of them emphasized the dubious nature of the claim that anthropogenic global warming exists. And on the other side, 5.8 percent contained exclusive coverage of human contributions. So, you kind of have on each side roughly six percent of articles that said that either it was all human-induced or not at all, it was all natural.
CURWOOD: Well, what kind of language were these coders on the alert for here? Maybe you could give me some specific examples of the language you found in the newspapers that represented bias in the study from your view?
BOYKOFF: Sure. I mean, let’s just take a prototypical example. Let’s say that the “news peg,” if you will, was that the IPCC just came out with a new report saying that global warming is, at least in part, caused by human activity. And then the journalists would say that on the front end, and then it’d say, “however,” and then they would turn to somebody say, from, the Global Climate Coalition, let’s say, which is a network of automobile manufacturers and oil producers – many of whom have dropped out of this coalition recently. But they’d turn to the Coalition and say, “However, there’s other scientists who say that this is, in fact, not real,” and they’d point to people like Richard Lindzen and others who are global climate change skeptics. And they would say, “Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as it seems,” and so then they’d go from there. And if it was roughly equal attention given both to the news peg – IPCC report – and the subsequent rebuttal from the global climate change skeptics, well, then it was coded as balanced coverage.
But a lot of what’s really important – you asked about language. Well, how are the tags put on who’s talking? Do you just say Frank Maisano, a global climate change expert? Or do you say, Frank Maisano, Director of Strategic Communications with the law firm of Brace Well Patterson, and former spokesman of the industry-backed Global Climate Coalition? Do you see what I mean? The very tag that is applied was also important, and that’s another reason why we decided to go with the more painstaking article-by-article coding system.
CURWOOD: Now, it seems to me that any person well-schooled in science who looked at the sources here would not strike the kind of balance that you found so prevalent in what you call the “prestige press.”
CURWOOD: So, I have to ask you, how much of this phenomenon do you think is a function of journalists being either ill-trained or in a hurry or lazy?
BOYKOFF: Well I would say this: I mean, a lot of what you said is absolutely relevant. Part of this, the reason why this happens, is because journalism is a very professionalized field. People go to school for this, and you’re taught that you’re supposed to tell both sides of the story, so to speak. So, I mean, on one hand, it’s because of the professionalism of journalists.
Also, you’re right. I mean, there are spatial – you only get so many column inches, there’s spatial dictates, there’s organizational dictates – like you have to make a deadline. And the other part that you’re talking about is that some people might not be all that well trained in science. Now, in the case of, say, like The New York Times right now, they have a very able person writing on global warming, Andrew Revkin. But a lot of places aren’t so fortunate.
And what happens, also, is there’s a political/economic dimension to this that I think is really important. And that’s that as mass media conglomerate, a lot of times investigative journalism gets dispensed with. A lot of times people are asked to become generalists – people who were formerly specialists. Which is to say, people are reporting on areas that they’re not really all that well versed in. And so, therefore, the tendency is to tell both sides of the story, because you want to cover it from as many angles as possible. And so, basically, by this study we’re hoping that we can begin a more in-depth interrogation of this notion of balance.
CURWOOD: Jules Boykoff is a visiting professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington State, and co-author of the study “Balance As Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” Jules, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.
BOYKOFF: Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Coming up: two journalists reveal how climate change has evolved as a story at two of the nation’s top publications. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. We’ve just heard from one of the authors of a recently published study that concludes, for more than a decade, the nation’s top newspapers over-represented the views of scientific skeptics when covering global warming.
Here to talk with us now from the point of view of those covering this issue is Bill Allen, Editor in Chief of the National Geographic magazine, and Andy Revkin, environmental reporter for The New York Times, one of the papers cited in the study. Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today.
ALLEN: Hi Steve.
CURWOOD: Now, I’m going to start with you, Bill, even though the study didn’t talk at all about how the National Geographic covers climate change, because your recent issue has as the cover story “Global Warning: Bulletins from a Warmer World.” And inside on the page that says “From the Editors” are pictures of some pretty upset penguins and a note from you that says that you expect to lose some readers from this. You say, quote, “some readers will even terminate their memberships because some of them won’t believe that global climate change is real and that humans contribute to the problem.” Well, the issue’s been out for a while now, Bill. What happened with your readers?
ALLEN: Well, we have indeed, Steve, received some of those cancellations of memberships as I had anticipated. But we’ve also received far more letters of support and appreciation.
CURWOOD: Tell us just for a moment what the readers told you, those that bothered to write in to say they wanted to cancel because of the story?
ALLEN: Well, there were a few specifically. One from my native Texas that said “by presuming to know with certainty that the globe is still warming and at an accelerated rate, and that such warming would be a bad thing and that we humans are the villains, you created a platform to preach from.” So they were accusing us of sort of preaching about this.
And another one said, “many of the so-called scientists you cite on the latter are no more than witch doctors throwing chicken bones on a dirt floor.” Well, I’m not so sure about that one.
And then, from California, they said “since National Geographic has decided that there is, quote, ‘no doubt that man’s activities are the largest factor in causing global warming,’ we don’t want to promote an organization which obviously has an agenda which runs counter to the best interests of the United States.”
So, I take these things very seriously but I hasten to add to all of these people that what we’re doing is as Sgt. Friday did on the old “Dragnet” show – Just the facts, ma’am. We’re taking a look at what the scientists have told us, thousands of scientists from around the world. And these are their conclusions. It’s not necessarily what everyone wants to hear, but these are, indeed, the scientific facts.
CURWOOD: Andy, I don’t want to put you in too much of a hot seat here, but –
REVKIN: Oh, I love it.
CURWOOD: -- but you kind of are. I mean, the Boykoff study says that the paper you write for now, The New York Times -- one of the quote “prestige press” in this country, with plenty of money, plenty of science reporters, plenty of resources – in many cases really did not properly report the weight of the science here…gave far more credence to scientifically marginal skeptics than the facts would warrant. Why do you suppose that happened?
REVKIN: Balance is a big impediment to effective communication of complex subjects, period. That’s a fact. And it is also a bane of our existence in the journalistic community. Especially in the daily news cycle where time is precious and reporters feel, at the end of the day, if they have a story that gives you the news, gives you a sort of “he says, but she says” structure, then the reporter goes home and says, “I’ve done my job” that day. And it’s really a crutch, of course. It doesn’t advance the story in a meaningful way if you don’t characterize the voices that are in the story.
The other things that have been in play, of course, through the nineties, particularly as industry fought the prospect of the Kyoto Protocol, big money got spent on dis-information campaigns. Where scientists were trained to talk to the media and put out there definitely to sort of propagate the skeptical view. And more than a few people got suckered into that, I’m sure, over the years.
CURWOOD: Now, what do you think of this whole issue of balance, Bill, when it comes to covering global warming?
ALLEN: What we try and do is give a balance, as it were, of the scientific opinion. It’s one of those things that you don’t have to say, well, let’s see, on the one hand, people are saying that the earth is round, but there are other people, 50 percent of the people, who are saying the earth is flat. This is not quite that clear cut. However, I think what we need to do is just deal with this is the preponderance of the scientific evidence. And when you look at what the other side – the non-global warming, or the non-human influence side would be – it’s very hard to find scientific evidence to support that. So we just report what the scientific evidence is.
CURWOOD: Now, Bill, your in-depth article talks a lot about how -- the word you use, metrics – how if you look at how things are changing on the planet, it’s really pretty clear that we are having an impact. But I don’t find really much in the way of solutions here in your coverage. Why is that?
ALLEN: Because we tried as much as possible to stay away from policy issues and prescriptions. What we wanted to do was just say: here is the evidence, here is the information. This is the time when policy-makers need to have this information out, and you as a consumer of information need to have this information, as well. You know, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and everybody else – we’re all going to get warm.
CURWOOD: Now, how have newspaper editors and folks that you’ve worked for responded to this story-- Andy, how have things changed?
REVKIN: Well, a few things have happened. I think the biggest impediment to getting coverage to this hasn’t been related to is it happening or not. It’s been the eye-glazing aspect of it. It’s one of the classic incremental stories. In my newsroom at The New York Times, if there’s one word that’s death to a story’s prospects of getting significant play or space in the paper, it’s the word “incremental.” And I don’t know about you guys, but global warming really is the ultimate incremental story. It’s a century-scale story, and newspapers are dealing with a day or an hour kind of scale, and sometimes a year scale or the four-year electoral cycle. But to get them to think about something important that may happen three generations from now, in terms of its full flowering, is almost impossible. So that’s there constantly.
CURWOOD: Andy, at newspapers, of course, the typical gatekeeper is the editor that’s just above the reporter, and then that editor’s editor. What difficulties have you had selling what you think are important aspects of the global climate change story?
REVKIN: Well, you know, one of the biggest is what a journalism professor of mine used to call the “MEGO factor,” the “my-eyes-glaze-over” factor. Plus, the other aspect of the MEGO factor is complexity. Most newspaper editors know very little about science. And that’s been established in surveys over the years in quite a disturbing way. There was one ten years or so ago, a poll – a sort of survey of scientific understanding at the managing editor level of daily newspapers in America. And the numbers are really startling, in terms of how many people think dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, that kind of thing (LAUGHS).
CURWOOD: Among editors?
REVKIN: Among editors. Yeah, not reporters, of course (LAUGHS). Anyway. So that’s a huge impediment. And then there’s all the other constraints, just competition with the news that’s always perceived as more urgent.
CURWOOD: And climate change is what we’ve been talking about, but is there another area of science where the press is, perhaps, engaged in the same kind of, well, really distortion of the subject?
REVKIN: Yeah, I do think so, and not always at the behest of industry. Environmental groups have been very effective over the years, in some cases, of framing an issue and having the press just sort of reflexively framing it the same way. The one that’s most current is mercury in fish. I have yet to see, even in our own pages, a story on mercury contamination in fish that doesn’t immediately become a story on should power plant emissions of mercury be regulated. And if so, how.
CURWOOD: How well do you think the press has done covering global climate change?
REVKIN: Well I would have to say overall – you know, from my biased point of view, I think these global slow issues are very important – really badly. And again, for a thousand reasons that we’ve kind of gone over. It might be interesting to take a look at sort of the inverse. Over in Europe, the press has been much more kind of trumpeting the perils of global warming and pushing ahead in Kyoto, Kyoto, all that stuff. And, frankly, I think they’re doing as poor a job, if not poorer, in doing that.
There’s some kind of conundrum in all of this, which is, if you buy in – and actually, I was a little dismayed to see Time magazine a few years ago take an editorial stance in their news pages on global warming about the solutions. And when you take a stance and say, as Time did-- global warming is happening, it could be disastrous, and greenhouse gasses need to be constrained now – then you’re sort of locked in in doing something that’s different. And it gets to be -- as in Europe, I think – problematic in a different way.
CURWOOD: Bill Allen, the lessons for journalists over how we’ve covered global climate change?
ALLEN: I think it comes down to two things, time and money. Time – read the scientific papers in the original, talk to the scientists. And second, on the money, find out where the support is coming from from the people that you’re talking to. If they’re funded by someone who has a vested interest in it, I think you should keep a very skeptical eye on that.
CURWOOD: Ranking climate change as a story in the pantheon of all the news stories that’s out there today, where would you put it-- Bill Allen?
ALLEN: I would still put it at the top of the stories because this is the kind of story, or kind of effect, that is going to have a long-term impact on the entire planet and all of us are going to have to live with it. We’ve already determined what kind of climate our children and grandchildren are going to be living in. We’re now looking at what the grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are going to be living in.
CURWOOD: Andy, how has the press industry itself changed over time? And how do you think that affects how we cover such stories as global climate change?
REVKIN: Well, I think a very simple measure of that is to look at what happened to CNN’s coverage of the environment after it got sort of morphed into whatever that is -- TimeWarner AOL minus AOL, I can’t keep track. But it all went away. Ted Turner went away and climate change went away. So, that just says right there what it’s about.
CURWOOD: Bill, how important is it for the press to lead the public? Let me put it this way: the public can’t ask for something it doesn’t know about already, so sometimes you have to tell them something that – teach them something.
ALLEN: Well, the history on a lot of these important issues is that there has been one voice, or one small cadre, that goes out and says, this is something that you really should listen to. And, gradually, more and more people may catch on to that. So I think the press can indeed lead this. You know, I still remember a third-rate burglary at a building here in Washington that eventually went on to something far more than that. And I think it’s that kind of digging and dedication that is really going to be necessary if people are going to understand what’s going on with this issue.
CURWOOD: Bill Allen is Editor in Chief of the National Geographic. Andy Revkin is the World Environmental Change reporter for The New York Times. Gentlemen, thank you both for taking this time.
REVKIN: A pleasure.
ALLEN: Thank you.
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CURWOOD: Breathing in the air in some parts of southern California is the same as living in a house with a frequent smoker, a group of researchers has found. Long-term exposure to such air pollution has been particularly harmful to hundreds of otherwise healthy adolescents in the Golden State who were monitored over the course of eight years as part of a ground-breaking study.
During that time, chronic air pollution was found to reduce lung development and function significantly, according to the research team based at the University of Southern California. The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the study in its current edition. And Arden Pope of Brigham Young University wrote an accompanying editorial that urges public health officials to take the findings of the study into consideration when drafting future policy.
Professor Pope joins us now. Hello, sir.
CURWOOD: Now, there have been other studies that link air pollution to stunted lung development in children. How is this particular study so different?
POPE: Well, basically, this is really sort of the largest, most well-conducted study of its type. It was conducted by a collaborative team of excellent researchers in southern California. It prospectively followed up over 1,700 children in 12 communities in southern California, and so it provides reasonably robust confirmation that there are in fact cumulative adverse effects of long-term repeated exposures to air pollution. And maybe more importantly, that these effects occur over time even in otherwise normal, healthy children.
CURWOOD: What’s so important about its findings?
POPE: Well, its findings are extremely important in that children that are exposed to higher levels of air pollution have lower lung function growth. So any parent or any child should be concerned if they live in an area that results in deficits in lung function growth in such a way that they don’t reach their full potential.
CURWOOD: Can you just elaborate for us what’s meant here by reduced lung function? What do these kids experience as a result of being exposed to this pollution over the long term?
POPE: Well, what’s happening here is that the children don’t necessarily experience any sort of acute discomfort. They won’t really even notice the impact of this deficit in lung function growth because many of them wouldn’t even know what their full capacity, or full lung function capacity, would be had they not been exposed to the air pollution. But what this study tells us is that, on average, these panels of children that are exposed to more air pollution have lower lung function and obtain lower lung function as they reach adulthood.
Now that’s likely to, in the short term, affect their performance in, say, endurance sports or whatever. But, in addition to that, if this lung function influences them later in life, in terms of risk of getting Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, other bronchitic-related diseases, then it’s likely to affect their lifestyle as they age. And deficits in lung function are also associated with increased risk of premature death.
CURWOOD: What do you think that officials, such as pollution regulators and public health administrators, what should they be doing in the light of the findings of this study?
POPE: That’s a hard question because there have been substantial efforts to try to control the air pollution in southern California. And had they not been making these efforts -- given the increase in the number of cars, the number of miles being driven, the population concentrations that exist there – had these efforts not been made, the air pollution in that area of California would be just horrendous.
And, in fact, the air quality has been improving somewhat in southern California. But what these results suggest is we shouldn’t sort of overstate the health effects, but we shouldn’t understate them either. We should simply understand that air pollution of this type is ubiquitous; it’s something that we are going to be exposed to in our communities, and to the extent that we can address this air pollution, we can improve our public health.
CURWOOD: Arden Pope is a professor specializing in environmental epidemiology at Brigham Young University. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
POPE: You’re welcome, good luck.
CURWOOD: Just ahead: the promises and perils of water power high in Himalayas. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.
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CHU: Can hard science help to explain the mysteries of how and why we dream? In a study published this month in The Annals of Neurology, a pair of Swiss researchers point to a specific area of the brain as the likely place where our dreams originate. It’s located deep in the back part of the brain called the inferior lingual gyrus.
Recent research shows that this neighborhood of the brain is involved in the visual processing of faces and landmarks, as well as emotions and visual memories. The scientists in the latest study traced dream-generation to this particular spot by mapping the brain of a 73-year-old woman who stopped dreaming a few days after she suffered a stroke.
The woman’s sight was also damaged by the stroke--including her ability to see in color-- but within a few days these visual problems cleared up, and she had no trouble recognizing familiar faces or describing familiar places. But her dream loss, which began around the same time her visual problems resolved, did not recover until months later.
Throughout her four-week stay at the hospital, the scientists monitored the woman’s sleep cycles. They found that her rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, the deep sleep state associated with dreaming, was normal. The woman remembered dreaming three to four times a week before her stroke, but couldn’t recall any dream experiences afterwards – even when scientists woke her up from REM sleep. Researchers believe their observations support research that REM sleep and dreaming, while linked, may depend on independent generators.
That’s this week Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Fontanelle “Counterweight” FONTANELLE (Kranky – 2000)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Building new dams to generate electric power doesn’t happen much these days in the U.S. Concern for migrating fish and the potential for damaging rivers seem to trump the need for electricity. But, in the kingdom of Nepal in the Himalyas, it’s a different story.
Waters from the highest mountains in the world feed some of south Asia's most powerful rivers – rivers that can be dammed and their energy harnessed. And while environmental concerns and the high cost of construction have shelved plans for several large dams in recent years in Nepal, small- scale hydropower projects are flourishing.
Locally managed dams in some Nepali villages are bringing electricity to remote areas and lighting up schools, Buddhist temples, even Internet cafes. But with global climate change, even these small-scale dams face big environmental risks. Cheryl Colopy has our story.
COLOPY: Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and visitors praise the nation’s culture and architecture as “rich.” Yet this is one of the poorest countries in the world. In terms of natural resources, it has one.
COLOPY: From the whisper of little streams to the roar of rock-laden rivers full of glacial melt, this is the music of Nepal.
COLOPY: Yet, with some of the highest peaks in the world and all this water available to generate hydropower, fewer than one in four Nepalis has access to electricity.
[SOUND OF BUSY STREET]
COLOPY: Even here in the capital, Kathmandu, power can be intermittent. Arun Shrestha is an engineer with Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. The electricity in his office has been going on and off all morning.
SHRESTHA: We say water is our wealth, and the dream of the nation is to, somehow, harness this wild running water, convert it to energy and do whatever you want to do, you know?
COLOPY: Shrestha laughs as if to say, “If only it were that easy.” In theory, there are up to a quarter of a million megawatts of potential hydropower in the Himalaya. That’s enough to supply two Indias. But earthquakes, sediments, lack of roads and many other challenges stand in the way of turning water into electricity. And most plans depend on neighboring India’s buying the megawatts at a high enough price to justify the effort.
Several years ago, a coalition of environmentalists and economists defeated a major World Bank project. Since then, no large dams have moved past the planning stage. Former Water Minister Dipak Gyawali was one of those opposed. He says big dams mean big debt.
GYAWALI: The issue is risk. Is it a large risk or a small risk? And who’s bearing it? And for the person or community bearing it, even a so-called small project might be a very large risk.
COLOPY: Gyawali does see a future for smaller, Nepali-financed projects like several recently completed ones that are now feeding the grid. He’s one of a group of well-traveled and highly educated water specialists in Nepal who are seeking technological progress that's closely tied to social benefit.
GYAWALI: And don’t give us this pie-in-the-sky kind of argument – “Oh, you’ll build this huge project and suddenly, you know, you can export all the electricity and get a lot of money and build your schools and hospitals and all that.” Now, if Nepal had six to ten billion dollars, would it build this 10,000 megawatt monster, or invest in 200 other things needed in development?
COLOPY: Over at the offices of Nepal Electricity Authority, Managing Director Janak Lal Karmacharya sees it differently. He’s championed some of the large hydro projects, and he still hopes they'll happen. After all, the melting snows are still there. Demand and financing could still come together, he says.
KARMACHARYA: The water is always available. It’s a question of when it should be developed. That means when the market is ready to take that form of energy. So, you know, everything is decided through the market, not philosophy.
COLOPY: The debate continues, and large dams may some day be built in Nepal. But, meanwhile, far from the capital, an array of medium, mini and micro-hydro is serving other cities, and even many of the remote villages in Nepal.
[DINING ROOM SOUNDS]
COLOPY: In the dining room at the Panorama View Lodge, in the popular tourist crossroads of Namche Bazaar, an international clientele enjoys bright lights, hot water and flush toilets thanks to hydropower.
The Ngozumpa Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in the Khumbu. Melting ice from glaciers provide water for hydropower. (Photo: Cheryl Colopy)
COLOPY: At 11,500 feet, Namche is where trekkers must spend a couple of days to get used to the thinning air before proceeding higher. Adventuresome tourists discovered this region -- known as the Khumbu -- in the 1970s. Guesthouses sprang up. Soon, the wooded hillsides around Namche were denuded for building and fuel. Local Sherpa people and their western friends sought an alternative fuel, fearing there would be no forests left.
Sherap Jangbu Sherpa is the owner of the Panorama View. For the past ten years he’s used electricity from one of the highest hydropower plants in the world.
S.J. SHERPA: When we started the lodge, we used to bake the cakes in a pan and we maybe used almost 20 kilos or 30 kilos of wood just to bake a cake. And now, it hardly costs about maybe 13 or 14 rupees with the electric. It doesn’t cost anything, and it is much easier, so electricity made life very good
COLOPY: Sherap points out all the appliances electricity allows him to use to keep tourists happy.
S.J. SHERPA: Yeah, we couldn’t have refrigerator, microwave, the oven, the toaster, egg cooker, the boiler for washing dishes, and, also, we got another boiler up there for shower. Also, TV.
COLOPY: In Sherap’s office, there’s a computer with Internet access. Sherap writes to his son who’s studying in Colorado. This family is typical of the prosperous merchants of Namche.
What’s more, respiratory health has improved because there’s less wood smoke. Children now watch TV, but they can also do schoolwork at night. And the Sherpa, who are Buddhist, can afford to support local monasteries, where young monks learn to chant Buddhist prayers.
[YOUNG BOY CHANTING, THEN SOUND OF BELLS]
COLOPY: A dozen yaks lumber across a narrow bridge, swinging gently over a river canyon in the Khumbu.
[SHOUT OF HERDER]
COLOPY: Herders urge them on with whistles and shouts.
COLOPY: Travel in these rugged mountains is still what it has been for centuries. Porters and yaks carried salt down from Tibet, and grains up from the low valleys. Now, it’s just as likely to be beer, cokes, instant noodles, and candy on the backs of porters.
[BELLS AND SHOUTS, THEN SOUND OF TURBINES]
COLOPY: Several hours walk up from Namche, two 300 kilowatt turbines hum. These are the source of the bright lights and chocolate cakes in this part of the Khumbu. The turbines arrived here in the early nineties the fast way – by helicopter. Concrete and cables came the hard way – carried ten days from the nearest road.
[OUTSIDE POWER PLANT SOUND]
COLOPY: The plant is known as the Thame hydropower project for the nearby village of the same name. Thame was once the home of Tenzing Norgay, who first reached the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary.
[SOUND FROM SILT TRAP]
COLOPY: A little further uphill we find the source of the power plant’s water, diverted from a small river and channeled down via a brick conduit. The air is cold. The contours of the rocky hillsides blur in the morning mist.
This conduit carries water from the river down to a power plant. (Photo: Cheryl Colopy)
M. R. SHERPA: My name is Mingma Rita Sherpa. I am working in Khumbu Bijuli Company and I am technician.
COLOPY: Tell me where we are right now and what this is.
M. R. SHERPA: We are right now in intake, which is water depart to the storage tank.
COLOPY: Mingma Rita Sherpa is a lodge owner in Thame, and he also troubleshoots electric problems for his village. He points out a gate he can close when the river runs heavy with monsoon silt. The Himalaya are young mountains that shed massive loads of sediments. That’s one of the arguments against dams in the high mountains – their reservoirs can fill quickly with silt. Mingma Rita says during the monsoon they power the turbines with spring water.
[VOICES OF VILLAGERS, WOMEN LAUGHING]
COLOPY: In the Sherpa village of Thamo, villagers now have monthly electric bills, and they pay them at the offices of Khumbu Bijuli. Bijuli means electricity in Nepali. Every home here has lights.
[SOUND OF PAPER]
COLOPY: Khumbu Bijuli has a unique fee structure. Small homes pay a low fixed amount each month, about a dollar. Homes with more appliances pay ten dollars. Khumbu Bijuli has wired each home so that during the peak hours when lodges are serving meals, power to homes can be cut, if necessary.
But lighting is wired separately. That way, in keeping with Sherpa community values, kids can always study. Big users like lodges, bakeries, and cyber cafes pay a much higher rate and they have meters. This payment structure will keep the project solvent – as long as the tourists keep coming. Ang Danu Sherpa is the general manager of Khumbu Bijuli.
A. D. SHERPA: So our biggest challenge is to sustain, to have enough money especially for repair and maintenance. If the tourism business stop here, then we have to really struggle to sustain the company.
COLOPY: The Thame hydropower plant was a gift from the Austrian government. The Austrian aid organization EcoHimal trained Sherpa engineers to maintain the plant. Four years ago, EcoHimal insisted the Nepali government completely turn the plant over to the Sherpa. Dr Martin Uitz, founder of EcoHimal, helped create Khumbu Bijuli’s management structure.
UITZ: Now, obviously, a small hydro station in a remote area will be much more sustainable if the local people own it. If the local people have the feeling they have to call someone in Kathmandu who might come after another three months and look what is the problem, it will never be sustainable. But the local people there have the feeling we are all co-owners, and that has helped a lot to make it really sustainable.
COLOPY: Uitz says the project is unique in another way that he’s particularly proud of. The wiring is all underground in the villages to protect the incomparable mountain views. This is not true in other hill areas of Nepal with hydro.
[SOUND OF RIVER]
COLOPY: Sedimentation and earthquakes aren’t the only hazards for hydropower in the Himalaya. In recent years, melting glaciers have posed new problems. In fact, the hydropower plant that serves the Khumbu was supposed to be built not on a small side river, but on a major tributary of the powerful Dudh Khosi, or milk river – so named for the huge loads of sediment the river transports, turning its icy waters creamy.
Plant manager Ang Danu says in 1985 the partially built plant was wiped out when a glacial lake upriver called Dig Tsho burst and flooded the valley below. Twenty people died in the Dig Tsho flood, which also washed away homes, bridges, and trails, along with the partially constructed hydropower plant.
[SOUND OF RIVER RUSHING]
DANU: All the main rivers in the Khumbu which has a glacial source I think they are all dangerous….exposed to outburst because of global warming.
COLOPY: Ang Danu says he’s watched the glaciers in the upper Khumbu shrink over the years, as scientists say glaciers throughout the world are doing. Melting glaciers leave behind lakes with unstable natural dams. If they break, they suddenly release vast amounts of water.
COLOPY: Arun Shrestha of Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology says the bursting of Dig Tsho was the event that put Nepali hydrologists on notice there was something unusual going on in these mountains. Shrestha says sudden floods from glacial lakes are growing more frequent. The phenomenon is known as a “glacial lake outburst flood.” Most of the 15 outburst floods on record happened in the past 20 years, and Shrestha attributes that to global warming.
SHRESTHA: According to what we have observed from maps, from field studies, or imageries, there are slightly over 20 lakes in Nepal that are likely to burst in the future or these lakes need very close attention in the future.
COLOPY: I wanted to catch a glimpse of one of the glacial lakes hydrologists are worried about. Most are so hard to reach scientists have observed them only through satellite photos.
COLOPY: After a morning’s walk up one of the valleys near Everest, my guide and I tackled a hill called Chukkung Ri. From the top, we were told, we could get a good view of Imja Lake.
Two hours later, at about 17 thousand feet and with a stinging wind blowing, I called it quits. But we were high enough to see in the distance a long lozenge of gray-green water lying in the shadow of a popular climbing mountain known as Island Peak. Imja Lake is about a mile long. An outburst flood here would inundate of a string of villages below.
COLOPY: So far, there’s been little study of such lakes here in Nepal. In addition to the nation’s endemic poverty, it’s been beleaguered by a Maoist insurgency for years. And glacial lakes are just one aspect of the complicated water dynamic in this region. South Asia’s enormous population is growing. Arid India will need Nepal’s water and, likely, its hydropower, too. Many water problems will have to be solved here in the land of the Buddha, for they ripple from Nepal to India, Bangladesh and beyond. For Living on Earth, I’m Cheryl Colopy.
[BOYS AND MONKS CHANTING]
[MUSIC: Fontanelle “Niagra” FONTANELLE (Kranky – 2000)]
CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth - California will soon be the first state to require automakers to address global warming from carbon dioxide. It’s the latest in a long line of anti-pollution measures by the state’s Air Resources Board that have set trends nationwide.
MALE: I think we have been pretty successful getting our message out: Air pollution hurts people, air pollution kills people.
CURWOOD: The California crusade against pollution - next time, on Living on Earth. And remember, you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.
[MUSIC: Hildegard Westerkamp “Into the Labyrinth” INTO INDIA: A COMPOSER’S JOURNEY (Earsay – 2002)]
CURWOOD: We take you now to the land that lies just below the Himalayan Mountains.
[CACAPHONY OF HORNS HONKING, BELLS RINGING, PEOPLE YELLING, SIRENS]
CURWOOD: Hildegard Westerkamp collected these sounds that reflect the busy pace of urban life in some of India’s biggest cities.
[HORNS HONKING, BELLS RINGING, PEOPLE YELLING, SIRENS]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Carl Lindemann and Kelley Cronin.
Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our website. You can find us at living on earth dot org. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earthear.
I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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