What’s New Buenos Aires
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The next phase of the Kyoto Protocol is underway in Buenos Aires this week as 194 countries gather to work out the details of the climate-controlling treaty. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jennifer Morgan, of the World Wildlife Fund, who’s been attending the conference. (06:15)
“Ending the Energy Stalemate”/ Jeff Young
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President Bush gave Kyoto the cold shoulder but some advocates of climate change policy see signs that the U.S. could take some steps toward action. Jeff Young reports from Washington. (06:30)
Alaska’s Changing Climate/ Gabriel Spitzer
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The Eskimo village of Shishmaref is on the northwest coast of Alaska. It’s about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and villagers have witnessed its shores eroding as each year gets warmer. Reporter Gabriel Spitzer reports on how this society is choosing to deal with the real effects of a warming climate. (16:30)
Emerging Science Note/A Fish Tale?/ Jennifer Chu
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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on findings that the human parathyroid gland may have fishy evolutionary roots. (01:20)
Auto Alliance Lawsuit/ Ingrid Lobet
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The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers has filed suit against the state of California, protesting its landmark legislation to curb auto emissions. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the expected court arguments. (03:00)
Earth: An Intimate History
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Taking down the history of how the Earth was formed would seem an exhaustive and near impossible chore. But author Richard Fortey set to the task with relish, employing the curiosity of a scientist, a penchant for travelling, and a love for storytelling. He talks with host Steve Curwood about the fruits of his expedition: “Earth: An Intimate History.” (08:30)
Hen Hunter/ Sy Montgomery
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When commentator Sy Montgomery found two of her chickens dead, their throats slit, she went after the murderer with a vengeance. But finding the culprit didn't give her the satisfaction she thought it would. (03:30)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Jennifer Morgan, Richard ForteyREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Gabriel Spitzer, Ingrid LobetCOMMENTATOR: Sy MontgomeryNOTE: Jennifer Chu
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Thousands of years ago when the Ice Age ended, people settled along the northwestern coast of what we now call Alaska and made their living off the land.
CLARENCE: [GUN BLAST] Dad shot one!
CURWOOD: Even today Native Alaskans live off local wildlife. But due to the rapid effects of global warming, all that is changing, and now they are being forced off their previously frozen landscape.
WEYIOUANNA: Like right now, it’s October 9th. Fifteen years ago it was frozen this time of the year, you know? Right now we’re boating.
DAVIS: Tell you the truth, I mean, it’s just scary. There’s just no words for it, it’s just scary.
CURWOOD: It’s Alaska’s changing climate. And an unwelcome winter guest visits the chicken coop - 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.
Climate change negotiators are at work in Buenos Aires from now until December 17th, preparing to implement the Kyoto treaty that will put a mandatory cap on climate changing gases. Twelve years ago when the world first formally agreed that global warming is a threat, almost every nation, including the United States, ratified a treaty that called for voluntary cuts in carbon dioxide and other global warming gases.
But when a mandatory plan that was hammered out in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 started to move forward, the Clinton administration dragged its feet and the Bush administration ultimately decided to opt out altogether. But 194 countries have now finally ratified Kyoto, most recently Russia, and with that assent the Kyoto protocol, as it is formally known, will become international law on February 17th.
Jennifer Morgan joins me from Buenos Aires. She’s been following these negotiations for more than a decade, most recently as director of the International Climate Change Program for the World Wildlife Fund. Hello, Jennifer.
CURWOOD: What’s the mood like there in Buenos Aires among the negotiators here on the climate change agreement?
MORGAN: I think the mood, for the most part, is one of new energy. I think for the Kyoto protocol parties there’s a very positive feeling that they did indeed make it, they did indeed move forward independent of the Bush administration. But there’s also a mood of extreme concern, and much more vocal delegates from Africa, from small island nations who are experiencing these impacts.
You know, how does a community – like the many that have been hit in the Philippines recently – prepare itself better for these types of extreme weather events that are going to come in a more intense and frequent way? How does a community that’s facing sea level rise in a country like Tuvalu manage, and hopefully not have to relocate its whole peoples to somewhere else?
And that’s something that is one of the big topics here in Buenos Aires. I think these countries are just much more on the front line, and feeling and tasting climate change, that, you know, it’s just no longer some esoteric futuristic issue. It’s really a matter of survival. And hopefully that feeling of urgency and new energy will help and propel us forward in tackling this tremendous threat.
CURWOOD: Officially, what’s supposed to happen at this conference with regards to the Kyoto protocol?
MORGAN: Well, there’s a number of things. As the Kyoto protocol is going to become international law and enter into force on February 16 next year, countries and the secretariat are working hard to make sure that it will be up and running and functioning. So there’s a couple of decisions that need to happen on that side of things.
And then, believe it or not, they’re already talking about, well, what comes next? Because there’s a real recognition that this protocol is only a small first step. We know that if we want to avoid the worst warming, and keep global average temperatures below a dangerous level, we need to be talking about 60 to 80 percent cuts by 2050 from developed countries. And developing countries are also starting to take measures to curb their emissions and meet their development goals at the same time.
CURWOOD: Now, it would seem to me that a number of countries are going to have quite a bit of work to do in order to meet the emissions cuts under the Kyoto protocol. Canada has, what, gotta cut its greenhouse gas emissions by some 20 percent of where they are now. Japan’s numbers I think are up in the 10-12 percent range over the targets. What countries are going to have trouble meeting these targets? And how are they going to do it?
MORGAN: Well it’s definitely the case that with the entry and the force of this protocol it just got much more serious, because countries are going to have to meet these targets. And indeed, the Japanese and the Canadians are the furthest off meeting their commitment. In both countries right now there’s a lot of pushback from industry. In Japan there’s opposition to anything that might sound like a carbon tax or an emissions trading system, and in Canada there’s quite a lot of focus on trying to do as much outside of Canada as passing laws to do things inside Canada to reduce emissions. And in the European Union you do have the beginning, on January 1, 2005, of the emissions trading system, but it’s not strong enough. And without meeting the targets, you know, the credibility of this protocol is definitely in question.
CURWOOD: Now, tell me about the carbon trading system that’s involved with the climate change agreement here. What is carbon trading? And how will it work?
MORGAN: Carbon trading basically works on the basis of there’s a cap on the emissions – so how much all of these countries are allowed to emit. And then, just like kind of in a bank account, you have that cap but you can buy and sell permits to pollute from different countries. So, for example, if in Germany they’re looking for more economically efficient credits, they could go to Poland and actually buy some credits from Poland to emit more in Germany. So Germany would then be able to emit more, and Poland would be able to emit less, and the atmosphere doesn’t really know the difference.
CURWOOD: How well is this carbon trading system expected to work?
MORGAN: Well, the foundation for it, which is much like the foundation for a stock exchange, where you really need to know what exactly is being traded, the inventories for these countries, keeping track of who’s buying what and selling what, that’s all quite in place. And the ironic thing is a lot of this has been built on American systems, so it’s ironic that the U.S. is not part of this right now. But certainly getting it going and seeing how the market functions and everything else, we’ll see. In some ways it’s a U.S.-based experiment that’s happening in the rest of the world.
CURWOOD: Jennifer Morgan is director of the International Climate Change Program for the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
MORGAN: Thanks for the chance to do it.
CURWOOD: While the United States is conspicuously absent from the newly ratified Kyoto protocol, there have been some interesting developments here in the U.S. in recent days. Several influential groups and politicians are pushing for a national energy policy tied to some sort of action on climate change. Former president Bill Clinton focused on this very topic at a recent symposium.
CLINTON: Okay, so Kyoto wasn’t perfect. I’ve heard all that bellyaching and whining. (LAUGHTER) It was all true. It’s also true that we have five percent of the world’s people and we emit 25 percent of the greenhouse gases. It’s time to stop worrying about when, if ever, the current administration will change its mind about climate change -- we should continue to lobby for it. But the point I want to make is the most important thing you can do is something, anything.
CURWOOD: But given the political climate in the nation’s capital, what is likely to be done? Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us now to talk about that. Jeff, hello.
YOUNG: Hi Steve.
CURWOOD: Now Jeff, President Bush begins his second term shortly and he doesn’t want any mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. And I don’t think there are votes in the Congress for that, either. In short, it doesn’t look very good for those who want some federal action on climate change. So what do they do now?
YOUNG: Well, that’s one of the questions addressed in a major new report from the National Commission on Energy Policy. This is a bipartisan group funded by the Hewlett foundation. Its report is called “Ending the Energy Stalemate”; it covers all things energy – oil security, alternative fuels, nuclear power and, probably most significantly, climate change.
This commission had some heavy hitters from industry, science, conservation and labor groups all working for close to three years to get some sort of consensus on a comprehensive energy policy that would put a cap on carbon emissions, but still be acceptable to all those very diverse parties. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency under the last President Bush, William Reilly, was one of the commission’s co-chairs.
REILLY: We wish to raise the priority for climate without risking the economy. I believe that our diverse commissioners have charted a prudent course through a passionate time.
CURWOOD: So what is that prudent course?
YOUNG: This is a very modest proposal for a cap and trade system for CO2 – that of course limits the total carbon emissions but allows companies to buy and sell permits for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The emissions reductions targets here are far below those under Kyoto or even the targets in the Climate Stewardship Bill that Senators McCain and Lieberman proposed. This is very much geared to cutting the costs of cutting carbon so as to get industry on board to make that first step toward a mandatory cap, even if it’s a little baby step.
CURWOOD: Now Jeff tell me, how would this happen?
YOUNG: Industry’s main concern has been that capping carbon could cause energy costs to shoot up to who knows what. This proposal seeks to avoid that with a sort of safety valve. If the price of carbon permits hits a certain number – in this case it’s $7 a ton – then companies can buy more permits at that price. And that’s as high as it goes. So this sets an absolute cap on the price as well as on the carbon.
CURWOOD: And what kind of reception is this getting?
YOUNG: Well, you know they say you’ve got balance when you have people on both sides of an issue angry with you –
YOUNG: Well that’s kind of what we see here with neither industry nor the environmentalists happy with this. Environmental groups say it doesn’t do nearly enough to reduce carbon. Eileen Claussen directs the Pew Center on Climate Change. She likes some of the proposals in this report but she says that a cap on carbon is so weak it would actually have us increasing our emissions over the next 15 years.
CLAUSSEN: Their climate policy is essentially an emissions growth policy all the way out 'til 2020. And I think you probably know that the president’s policy has us growing our emissions until 2012. Well this commission suggests that we should grow our emissions until 2020, which I think is really terrible from an environmental point of view and actually not good from an economic point of view either.
YOUNG: Claussen and many environmental leaders also do not like that safety valve on the price of carbon emissions.
CURWOOD: Now why is that? Is it that they don’t like the concept altogether, or they just don’t like the particular price tag that this report sets?
YOUNG: A bit of both. Some say the safety valve would reduce the market incentives to cut emissions and distort the market. Others say that past successful cap and trade programs, like the one that reduced acid rain pollution in the ‘90s, had a safety valve on prices, it just never kicked in. So they say it’s really about picking the right price. But the number the commission proposes here strikes many people as too low, and that gives industry an easy out.
CURWOOD: So the devil’s in the details on that. What does industry say to all this?
YOUNG: Well, the major energy and utility lobbying groups are still very firmly against any mandatory carbon cap. However, there are some interesting exceptions we’re starting to hear. We’re hearing a few utility companies saying that they think some sort of cap on carbon is coming. It’s inevitable, and it’s okay. Cinergy, an Ohio utility that burns a lot of coal, was the latest to say that. Their shareholders wanted to know how a carbon cap might affect profits and the answer from the company basically, was, not very much, so long as the cap was moderate and had some limit on the total cost. In other words, something very much like what the energy commission is recommending here.
CURWOOD: So, Jeff, where do you see all this going?
YOUNG: The commissioners did not spend three years of their lives just to have this report sit on a shelf somewhere. They plan to lobby hard for these proposals in here, and there will be several items on energy and climate in the coming congress. There’s still, of course, that energy bill to consider, the president’s Clear Skies legislation is likely to come up--and there are some people who would like to amend that to include a cap on carbon—and Senators McCain and Lieberman promise to reintroduce their climate stewardship bill.
CURWOOD: So the United States is not part of the Kyoto treaty, but this is still a hot issue here, huh?
YOUNG: I think so.
CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.
YOUNG: You’re welcome.
CURWOOD: Coming up: How global warming is changing Alaska’s landscape and the lives of the people who live on it. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Al Petteway “Wild Mountain Theme” MIDSUMMER MOON (Maggie’s Music, Inc. – 1996)]
National Commission on Energy Policy Report [PDF]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. A recent international study shows that the Arctic is getting more than its fair share of the impact from global warming. Temperatures in Alaska have risen an average of four degrees since the 1950s – more than three times what the rest of the earth has experienced.
One such place is Shishmaref, a village on Alaska’s northwest coast where Inuit have lived for at least a thousand years. It’s about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and the only easy way to get there is by small plane. As storms blow in each fall, the waves are eating away at the village. The erosion, driven by a warming climate, is forcing villagers to leave the barrier island. And they don’t know where they’ll go.
What happens to Shishmaref could be a window into how global warming affects the far north, and how our society chooses to deal with it. Gabriel Spitzer begins our story on the island’s south side, on the edge of the Shishmaref Inlet.
[SOUNDS OF BOAT BEING LOADED]
SPITZER: Tony Weyiouanna is loading up his boat, a rickety, plywood tub powered by a potent 115 horsepower outboard motor.
[MOTOR STARTS UP]
WEYIOUANNA: We got about 18 miles to go, but we gotta cross the bay first. But I gotta go this way then I’ll shoot back up that way.
[MOTOR CRANKS INTO GEAR]
SPITZER: Tony is heading across the inlet with his wife Fannie and eight-year-old son Clarence, on the hunt for something to eat.
WEYIOUANNA: I’m hoping we’ll see a caribou today!
SPITZER: He picks his way across the shallow inlet, using a route honed by scores of generations through the channels and underwater obstacles. He skirts sandbars that lurk just a foot or two below the surface. Clarence is the first to spot the antenna of a sunken boat poking out of the waves.
On the other side, Tony pilots his boat up a small river to his hunting camp, near several of the sites Shishmaref is considering for a new village.
SPITZER: Inside his cabin, Tony marvels at being out on the water today at all. Near the Arctic Circle everything freezes solid in the fall and stays that way for as long as six months. But now, the late freeze-up has become almost routine. Tony has bright eyes and often finishes sentences with a sly, “I jokes.” But his face darkens a little as talks about it. It reminds him of old stories from the elders.
WEYIOUANNA: They used to tell us that our seasons are going to change, the climate’s going to change, our weather patterns are going to change. Like right now, it’s October 9. Fifteen years ago it was frozen this time of the year, you know? Right now we’re boating.
SPITZER: Though Tony, Fannie and Clarence are hunting caribou on land today, the people of Shishmaref mainly look to the ocean for sustenance. That’s where they find seals, walrus and oogruk, or bearded seal.
Harvesting, preparing and preserving ocean-caught food are what bind this community together. It’s more than just survival: it’s relationships and a link with their ancestors.
Moving farther from the ocean or dispersing into surrounding communities could upend that lifestyle. It makes people here nervous.
WEYIOUANNA: I guess you could say I’m a little bit worried about what kind of effect it’ll have on our way of life, you know? It’s gonna make it harder for us to access the coast.
SPITZER: For people here, every bend in the river has a name.
[RIVER BOAT SOUNDS]
SPITZER: And so it’s with a sure hand that Tony turns his boat upriver, stopping periodically to scan the tundra. The searches are fruitless, and in the dimming light Tony decides to turn back.
Then, in an instant, the speeding boat slows to a crawl. Tony stands up and sets his rifle, while his wife and son tense in anticipation.
CLARENCE: Dad shot one!
[GUN BLAST, SCRAMBLE OUT OF BOAT]
SPITZER: Clarence leaps ashore to investigate his father’s kill. Perhaps 75 yards away, a gray form lies sprawled on the lichens.
CLARENCE: (Tromping across tundra) Caribou! (breathless) … Caribooooou! (yells)
SPITZER: Clarence sprints across the tundra, his red Harley Davidson cap flopping in the wind. Tony wastes no time.
[SOUND OF SLICING KILL]
SPITZER: He sinks to his knees and begins to skin the caribou.
CLARENCE: OK, Ma, are you trying to tear off the skin or what?
FANNIE: Yep. Now I’m just holding the skin for your dad.
CLARENCE: OK, Dad, you gonna take out the stomach?
WEYIOUANNA: Yep. Thanks for reminding me. (LAUGHS).
SPITZER: Tony opens its belly and picks among the organs, saving some and discarding others.
[SOUND OF SLICING]
SPITZER: Shishmaref people know exactly where and when to harvest the animals and plants that feed them, and how much can be taken each year.
SPITZER: They drag the animal to the boat, and head back to the village that’s slowly flaking off into the ocean.
[MOTOR SOUNDS, THEN VILLAGE DOGS BARKING ON LAND]
SPITZER: Back on the island, teams of huskies bark restlessly in the midday sun, tethered to squat wooden dog houses. Teenagers speed by in ATVs, over dunes covered in yellowing beach grass.
SPITZER: The people here remember the parts of their island that have plunged into the waves: the long beach, the two rows of sand dunes, the children's playground. Shishmaref has already lost one home, and 18 more have been moved away from the bluffs.
Elder Morris Kiyutelluk remembers when it was his turn to move.
KIYUTELLUK: Well, it came suddenly, it was … we got that storm. And during the night they said, well, we gotta move your house. And all the people got together, and I couldn’t control ‘em really, they just started going inside my house and taking everything out. Wrapped two big rope around it and them got together and just dragged it across the ground. [LAUGHS] That was the first time I’ve seen erosion that fast.
SPITZER: About 500 miles away, scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are trying to figure out what’s happening to the village and others like it.
WALSH: Ah, get the right file, yeah this one has it…
SPITZER: John Walsh, director of the University’s Center for Global Change, pulls up a graphic showing a new 500 mile swath of open water between the sea ice and the coast.
WALSH: If someone had seen this back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, they’d think they were looking at a different planet. Because in the past the ice was essentially up against the coast down here.
SPITZER: That sea ice used to protect coastal villages from the battering waves that storms bring each fall. Now that freeze-up doesn’t happen until later, they're exposed to erosion during storm season.
WALSH: I think it’s an interesting sentinel, in a sense. The population of Shishmaref is obviously small, yet this is an area where climate change is starting to show itself.
SPITZER: The reason the arctic is warming so much more quickly than the rest of the world has to do with something called the Albido effect.
WALSH: When the sea ice and snow retreat, they’re revealing a much darker surface underneath. And the darker surfaces are much more effective at warming in response to incoming radiation. And then this enhanced warming will in turn contribute to a greater retreat of the sea ice and the snow cover. So you have a feedback loop.
SPITZER: Arctic warming triggers other feedbacks as well, like melting permafrost. The permanently frozen ground stores huge quantities of carbon and trace greenhouse gases. As it thaws, the carbon is released into the atmosphere and amplifies the warming.
Ecology Professor, Terry Chapin.
CHAPIN: Most of the effects on Arctic warming originate from activities that occur outside the Arctic. So it’s people burning fossil fuels, changing patterns of land use. The biggest disconnect is that the impacts that are occurring in the Arctic are not widely appreciated by people that don’t live here.
[WEYIOUANNA TOURING AREA]
WEYIOUANNA: Didn’t realize it collapsed this far. You can see along here the permafrost eroded, so all this ground just collapsed, see?
SPITZER: Tony Weyiouanna is taking a look at what’s changed since the last time he toured Shishmaref’s coast. In front of the bluffs sit crumbled piles of sand. Further out into the shallows, the remnants of several failed seawalls are decaying.
The ocean takes a 25-foot deep bite out of Shishmarefs west end. (Photo: Gabriel Spitzer)
WEYIOUANNA: The National Guard armory that’s out by the airport, the two buildings, one was here, and one was here, right where we’re standing.
SPITZER: On his way home, Tony runs into his cousin Clifford, who is hammering a new oonok, or seal hook. His old one was lost during last year’s storm.
CLIFFORD: I lost my oonok when we lost our boat.
WEYIOUANNA: Oh yeah.
CLIFFORD: My harpoon, my oars, my good oonok.
SPITZER: Storms like that one have forced the federal government to pay attention to this village. The government is studying Shishmaref’s preferred plan – moving to the nearby mainland. But it’s also looking into another plan, one that would be a far bigger change: moving the villagers into a town. Tony and Clifford’s conversation turns to a recent newspaper article.
CLIFFORD: Hey, you see that last Nome Nugget?
CLIFFORD: And here you know there are discussions about moving us to Nome or Kotzebue?
WEYIOUANNA: Uh huh.
CLIFFORD: And look, they’re already even talking about their non-shareholders not using the land that live in Nome or Kotzebue. How they gonna treat us?
WEYIOUANNA: If we have to co-locate to another community, we won’t get no choice, nothing. We won’t have any choices.
SPITZER: In Shishmaref, the so-called “co-location,” or city option, is usually greeted with horror. They say that instead of being close to the seals and walrus, in town it would be alcohol and drugs within easy reach. They fear it would push an already-endangered culture over the brink.
[SOUND OF CASH REGISTER, CUSTOMER BANTER]
SPITZER: The Nayokpuk general store is a little like a tiny Wal-Mart. Here, villagers can buy Fritos, heavy rope and gasoline. A gallon of milk costs about $14. There is no plumbing or running water in Shishmaref, so people buy bottled water at the store, as well as 10-gallon buckets for going to the bathroom.
Behind the counter stands owner Percy Nayokpuk. He says throughout history, Eskimos in this area have guarded their tribal boundaries jealously. Being forced into town, on someone else’s land, would amount to trespassing. So he couldn’t move to Nome or Kotzebue.
NAYOKPUK: It isn’t an option. No one will move. There may be some. But for the most part I think people would prefer to stay here or would move back to their ancestral camps.
SPITZER: You just don’t think people would go along with …
NAYOKPUK: No. No one will move.
SPITZER: How about you?
NAYOKPUK: I’m not moving. Not to Nome or Kotzebue – I’ve seen ‘em both. For one thing, there’s not enough resources for the village and their own populations. We’re a subsistence group, and wherever we go we’re gonna take our needs with us.
SPITZER: October 19. Winds have begun gusting to 60 miles an hour. People are hauling boats inland and moving their meat-drying racks. Shishmaref is bracing for another fall storm.
SPITZER: I watch the waves devour the beach and begin pounding the bluffs, cutting deep notches into the base. Then, one by one, the bluff faces slide off in whole sheets.
[SOUND OF BLUFF COLLAPSING]
DAVIS: Just eatin’ it, you see that? Just throwin’ stuff.
SPITZER: People with a job to do, like village police officer Dennis Davis, spring into action.
DAVIS: You see that tank farm back there?
DAVIS: You see that tank farm back here? It’s starting to eat that away pretty good, might have to ask your dad to put something down there, something.
MAN: He’s already trying to take care of the blue school. That thing’s real bad right now, even that telephone pole fell down.
SPITZER: After years of storms, people here know exactly what’s in their power to change, and what’s beyond their reach. It’s an ordeal so familiar, they’re even able to find its humor.
SHARON: Last year was worse, uh?
WOMAN: It was worse. This is…
SHARON: This is the sister! [LAUGHTER]
SPITZER: This year the winds are coming at an angle, while last year’s storm was a direct hit. But that storm was later, just before Thanksgiving.
MAN: We were lucky last year, the ground was frozen, in November. It’s not frozen, it’s soft. Just like taking powder and throwing water on it right now.
MAN (on megaphone): Everybody that’s got a boat floating out there on the lagoon side, it has to be pulled in. It’s a directive from the city and SES.
MAN: Well, I wish, you know, them people with all the money would be here when it’s like this! They’re always here when it’s real nice and calm, tee-shirt weather.
SPITZER: A building that houses three teachers and their families is in serious trouble. This morning it had a 15-foot wide backyard. Now, it has none. By early afternoon, teacher Floyd Baldry and the other families are loading their belongings into a pickup truck.
[SOUNDS OF TRUCK BEING LOADED UP]
BALDRY: See we’re already right up to the corner of the house there, so, I’d say we’re destined to lose that building.
SPITZER: Where are you gonna sleep tonight, you think?
BALDRY: I’m not sure. Probably across the street over there at our neighbor’s. They said I could stay with them.
DAVIS: Tell you the truth, I mean, it’s just scary. There’s just no words for it, it’s just scary.
SPITZER: By day’s end, nearly 50 feet of land has eroded on the village’s east side. To the west, waves have taken an enormous bite out of the coast, 25 feet deep. Moving this village is more urgent than ever.
But enormous hurdles remain before Shishmaref can relocate. Creating a new village, as people here prefer, could cost over 150 million dollars – that’s for fewer than 700 people. Moving them to Nome, as the government has suggested, would cost significantly less.
Luci Eningowuk, chair of Shishmaref’s Erosion and Relocation Coalition, says she hopes the government will look at more than just dollar figures.
ENINGOWUK: I don’t think you can put a price tag on saving people. And we’re indigenous, too. We’re all Inupiaq, and I think it’s worth saving us.
SPITZER: The huge price tag will force Americans to ask difficult questions about what our responsibility is to this remote Eskimo village.
ENINGOWUK: We just need a little help to find a more safer place to live. It’s not our fault that the permafrost is melting, or that there’s global warming that’s causing us to go farther away from our home in Shishmaref. But we’ll survive … with everybody’s help.
SPITZER: For Living on Earth, I’m Gabriel Spitzer in Shishmaref, Alaska.
CURWOOD: Our story on global warming and the Inupiaq village Shishmaref was made possible in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum.
[MUSIC: Maggie Sansone “Miss Patterson’s/Johnny’s Gone to France” TRADITIONS (Maggie’s Music, Inc. – 1996)]
CURWOOD: Just ahead: up close and personal with everyone’s mother, Earth. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
CHU: It may sound fishy, but scientists think vestiges of our days swimming in the earth’s primordial seas may linger in us to this day. Scientists at King’s College in London say the human parathyroid gland, which regulates calcium levels in the body, may be a throwback to the gills of fish that eventually evolved into the first land-living animals.
Like the parathyroid gland, the gills of fish—both modern and prehistoric—regulate calcium, which is essential to the body’s ability to move muscles and trigger nerve cells. Both gills and parathyroid glands are located in the neck and both develop from the same type of embryonic tissue. What’s more, humans and fish share a similar gene that’s needed for the parathyroid glands and gills to develop correctly.
As an organ of the endocrine system, the gland could have developed anywhere in the body. But researchers say their findings help answer the question of why the parathyroid gland is located in the necks of humans and other land animals. The findings appear in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Tony Rice “Gold Rush” THE BLUEGRASS GUITAR COLLECTION (Rounder – 2003)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The association that represents nine major automakers – and a group of auto dealers – is asking a federal court in California to overturn that state’s landmark legislation to cut global warming gases by reducing tailpipe emissions. Most experts expected the legal action, although some are puzzled that Ford and Toyota – companies that market themselves as “eco-friendly” – are sticking with the organization that has filed the suit.
Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.
LOBET: Ever since California’s greenhouse gas law was written three years ago, auto makers have fought it on two grounds. One, they say it’s inappropriate for a state to be taking on global warming. And two, that under the Clean Air Act, California air officials should stick to matters more directly related to public health. Fred Webber is president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
WEBBER: It is important to stress that these regulations are not intended to reduce air pollution or any adverse health effects related to air pollution. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions is an energy-related issue and it’s being debated internationally and can be effectively addressed only, in our opinion, on a global basis.
LOBET: The auto makers say California is exceeding its authority. But attorney David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which will be joining the lawsuit on California’s behalf, says the state is within its rights.
DONIGER: This is all about air pollution. The car companies want you to think this is all about fuel economy, but it’s not. It’s about putting clean technology, better engines, better transmissions, other components on cars in order to reduce their emissions of pollutants. And California has the power to do that.
LOBET: The outcome of this court challenge would loom large even if it were only about cars; ten percent of all new car purchases are made in California. But a coalition of businesses and regulators is also watching: air officials from the Northeast, water authorities from California, health workers, ski businesses and electronics firms, who all believe it's time to address climate change even if it has to start at the state level.
Coralie Cooper is with Nescaum, a group of air quality experts from eight northeastern states interested in adopting California’s new rules. She says if California loses, eastern states lose too.
COOPER: The Northeast would not only lose substantial greenhouse gas reductions, but the northeast states would then be required to rely on the federal government to address the greenhouse gas issue. And we have no indication that the government is willing to address this issue.
LOBET: The federal government could also weigh in on the side of the automakers and against the state. But NRDC attorney David Doniger says the administration will have to weigh that option carefully.
DONIGER: Does the Bush administration really want to take on Governor Schwarzenegger?
LOBET: Arguments in the case will be heard in a federal courtroom in Fresno, quite possibly before the same judge who struck down California's zero-emissions vehicle law two years ago. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.
[MUSIC: Tracy Scott Silverman “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be) TRIP TO THE SUN (Windham Hill Records – 1999)]
CURWOOD: When the first geologists took pick axes and shovels to the earth, earth science seemed an undecipherable code carved into the deep crags and canyons of mountains and valleys.
The idea that the earth’s crust might consist of huge sheets of land pushing and sliding against each other was, well, just a notion – and in certain circles, a laughable one.
Even the father of geology, James Hutton, said of the planet’s history, “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Well today, geologists can confidently date the history of the Earth to four and a half billion years, and the theory of plate tectonics is a hard science. It took many centuries to reach these conclusions, but as author Richard Fortey points out, it barely constitutes a blink in geologic time.
Mr. Fortey is a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and he’s written a book called “Earth: An Intimate History.” In it he tells the stories of Earth’s formation and of the people who devoted their lives to the study of it. Richard Fortey joins me now from the studios of the BBC in London. Hello, sir. Welcome to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Mr. Fortey, I have to say that I’m a bit envious of your job. Because for this book, you and, I believe, your daughter, decided to travel the world to see the actual evidence of the geologic change and how it’s affected civilizations—and you got to visit all these cool places.
FORTEY: Yeah, it was a lucky thing to be able to do, sometimes with my daughter, sometimes with the rest of my family. But you know, there are places that are quite easy to visit like Hawaii, or the Grand Canyon. Others a little more esoteric perhaps, like the Deccan traps in India, and so on. But it’s a wonderful thing to do. I needed to choose places that seemed to me to have the greatest connotations, both geological and for the human connections with the geology. Of course, the world is an infinite feast from which I could pick only a few items. What I wanted to do for the intimate history was to take the items which would make the story hang together best.
CURWOOD: So, the way the earth was formed, what does that have to do with how we live today? You write that geology can shape civilizations, culture even.
FORTEY: Well if you look back into history, the way the world has divided up into, say, linguistic groups, cultural groups, is ultimately under the control of geology. So, for example, think of the differences between the peoples north and south of the Himalayas.
FORTEY: It’s extremely hard for people to cross – even the individual valleys within the Himalayas have cultural differences. Their history has been controlled to a large extent by those barriers. That’s a great control.
But even on a small scale, the way cities looked – you know, the kind of cities that could be built – was controlled by the rocks that underlay it. For example, you could build tower blocks in New York because you had that nice, firm metamorphic rock to drive your piles down into. And the particular building stones are what have given, well, let’s say the majority of French cities and towns their own peculiar and interesting flavor. So geology controls the character of the world to a large extent.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the Alps. We know, of course, the story of Hannibal coming across the Alps. Why does the geology of the Alps make, in fact, that excursion necessary? And what does it mean in terms of human and cultural history?
FORTEY: Well the Alps are really one of the places where mountains changed their meaning, their cultural meaning. Remember if we go back to, say, the 16th century, mountains weren’t places of awe and wonder as they are now. You know, people didn’t go mountain walking for pleasure. They were horrific, they were something to be shuddered at and left alone. It was really, well, should we say, the invention of the Romantic Movement – people like Goethe and so on – that turned mountains into places of wonderment. And in a purely practical way it’s when you could reach them via the early railways, for example, that they became accessible to the larger numbers of people. Now, of course, they’re considered places of spiritual refreshment. Well, you have to go back to Emerson and people like that to understand where this kind of emotion about mountains began. They weren’t always like that. The Alps, of course, are also a classic area, perhaps the classic area, for unscrambling the story of how mountains are put together and their origins.
CURWOOD: You have this great line in your book that describes the Alps, and it reads like this: “It is a place where nature has apparently relished stirring up the strata on such a scale such as to make wriggling rock conundra to torment the minds of scientists.” To the untrained eye, what does such a scene like this look like? And why does it torment you scientists who look at it?
FORTEY: Well, you have to imagine you’re standing on the shores of Lake Lucerne, or somewhere like that. You look through to the other side of the lake and there you can see the strata folded back upon themselves, piled up, one lot of rock apparently piled over another. How did this happen? And it’s taken, well, perhaps 150 years for geologists to work out how these mountains were put together. And you can see the gradual unraveling of the mountains as more and more observations were made, and eventually these were fitted together within the theoretical concept of plate tectonics.
CURWOOD: I don’t suppose most would think of this today, but the science of geology, certainly a century ago, was a pretty controversial field. And one geologist even suffered a nervous collapse for his efforts trying to present his material. Could you tell us about Charles Lapworth and his ultimate contribution to the field?
FORTEY: Oh, well Lapworth was a brilliant man who solved the problem of a structure in the northwest highlands of Scotland called the Moine Thrust. Lapworth realized – for very good evidence, because he was a marvelous field man – that the Moine Thrust was a layer where one enormous load of rocks was pushed bodily over another layer of rocks. Older probably over younger. But many, many people disagreed with this; they wanted the rocks, as it were, to be piled up simply in the right order. And Lapworth suffered mentally tremendously as he fought out this controversy, to the extent that he used to dream or have nightmares about being crushed under what he called the great Earth engine.
CURWOOD: As I read your book I get the impression that the amount of time that any individual researchers on the face of the planet, compared to the length of this planet’s existence, which is, what, four and a half billion years? I mean, to understand the Earth is rather like understanding culture by being dropped in it for three seconds and being able to grab all the information you can in that brief moment, and then trying to describe the entire culture. I mean, how the heck do you do that?
FORTEY: Well, partly right. I mean, geologists are historians of billions of years of time, and all you have to go on are what information is left behind in the rocks. So sometimes the further you go back in time the more difficult it is to infer what exactly was going on. So you have to use smaller and smaller hints to try and construct the face of the world.
CURWOOD: Now what’s the most impressive geologic feature for you personally?
FORTEY: Well, a single feature is a difficult one to identify, of course. I have to say that I almost reluctantly was persuaded by my publisher to go down the Grand Canyon. Why reluctantly? Because it is so well known I thought, this place is almost a kind of geological cliché.
And, of course, how wrong I was. When you’re actually there it is truly staggering. And to descend down into it – which takes, of course, as you know, even on mule back, a whole day – is to see laid out before you the most explicit vision of geological time, two billion years old. These rocks at the base – and you can see, above them you can see the comparatively younger rocks, which are, let’s say, a mere five, six hundred million years old – laid horizontally and unaltered above them, as if they’d been laid down not so long ago.
And yet these very, very deep rocks have been twisted, baked, and are themselves the remnant of one of these ancient geological cycles I was talking about, deep and distant past. So it gives you a respect, really, for the enormously complex and long process it’s taken to put the world together. And if people could only get that feeling for how long the earth has been here, and how complicated it is, and how it’s been put together by cycle after cycle. Maybe they would think more carefully about mucking around with it today and doing things that have never been done in geological history before.
CURWOOD: Richard Fortey is a senior paleontologist with the Natural History Museum in London. His new book is called “Earth: An Intimate History.” Richard, thanks for taking this time with me today.
FORTEY: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.
CURWOOD: There are some signs in apparel that reveal the hunkering down of the days winter. There are the parkas and pullovers of course, as well as the defiant shorts that young teenagers proudly display while waiting for the school bus on freezing mornings. And then there is the winter attire of nature’s denizens.
This was something Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery learned in the course of caring for her chickens, the birds she loves so much that on really cold days she’ll bring them a bowl of hot popcorn for breakfast. But when she went to the hen house bearing that treat on one recent morning – she was in for a shock.
MONTGOMERY: I found one of my hens dead on the chicken coop floor. I had hand-raised all of them from day-old chicks. They’d lived in my office for six weeks, a baby bird or two sitting in my lap or napping in my sweater as I wrote. I loved them all. This death was not just upsetting – this was a crisis. Because somebody had killed her – a killer who might come back. How had it gotten in?
My husband and I spent most of that day cementing even the tiniest holes in the barn’s foundation. But the next morning, I found another beloved hen slain. I bent over to pick her up by her feet—and found that someone had a hold of the other end of the chicken! Her head had been wedged down a hole in the dirt floor. Whoever had killed her had dug its way in. I pulled the hen free, and then out of the hole popped a tiny, pure white head. It stared at me with fearless black eyes. It was an ermine.
Ermine is the name by which we call all three of our tiny New England weasel species when they’re dressed in their white winter coats. Few of us ever get to see an ermine. They’re tiny, solitary animals, only a few inches long and exactly the color of snow. Without backing down, the ermine looked at me, square in the eye, for perhaps 30 seconds. I have never seen a gaze so fierce, so intense, so filled with the moment. The ermine had just killed someone I loved. Yet I could not have felt more amazed – or more blessed – if an angel had materialized in front of me. My sorrow vanished instantly. This thing was as fearless as God.
Ermines stop at nothing to kill their prey. They snake down tunnels after rats, hunt beneath the snow for voles. Ermines will even leap into the air to catch birds as they take flight. A biologist once found an eagle with a weasel skull clamped to its skin – even after death, the predator didn’t let go. With their little hearts pounding 360 times a minute, ermines must eat five to ten meals a day. They’re fierce because they have to be. And their ferocity is a thing as pure, and as beautiful, as their snow-white coats.
Holding the still-warm body of my hen in my arms, I glimpsed for the first time the nature of pure forgiveness. When you can see the beauty and perfection of the enemy so starkly and clearly that its glory just floods your heart – then there is no room for blame. Later that day, I set Have-A-Heart traps all over the barn, baited with liver. Ten days later, I caught the ermine. I found her body limp in the no-kill trap. She had died overnight, exhausting her life trying to escape. My hens were safe, but my heart was heavy. I picked up the tiny, perfect, pure white body, kissed her fur, and wept.
CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of nine books, including: “The Wild Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near at Hand.”
[MUSIC: Tracy Scott Silverman “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be) TRIP TO THE SUN (Windham Hill Records – 1999)]
CURWOOD: At Living on Earth we want to hear about your close encounters with other creatures that inhabit this planet. We want to hear your stories and we’re inviting you to send them to us in a brief recording. Just visit Living on Earth dot org for complete directions. We’ll tell you how to make a recording, which could be as simple as picking up the telephone. Maybe your experience tells of seeing ourselves – from the view of a fellow mammal:
WOMAN: Once the deer came to me I won something or I had him. The second I had that feeling of ownership, he looked me right in the eye and that’s when he bolted away.
CURWOOD: So what’s your story? A selection of stories and excerpts will be chosen for production and posted online and may be broadcast. This is not a contest. There are no winners or losers. This is simply a call for self-expression from those who have an interest in the environment and the relation we all share with it. Visit Living on Earth dot o-r-g for complete directions, sample submissions and your chance to tell your story. Or you can write us for directions at Stories, Living on Earth, 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Carl Lindeman. Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at Living on Earth dot o-r-g. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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