• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

April 15, 2005

Air Date: April 15, 2005

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Iraq's State of the Environment

(stream / mp3)

Two years after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis are still without clean water or adequate electricity. Host Steve Curwood talks with Los Angeles Times staff writer T. Christian Miller about the environmental challenges in a post-Hussein era. (04:00)

Iraq's Garden of Eden

(stream / mp3)

During the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein systematically drained what had once been one of the world’s largest and most spectacular marshes. Hundreds of thousands of marsh dwellers were displaced as the land was almost completely dried up, killing fish and other wildlife and vegetation. Azzam Alwash who founded "Eden Again," one of several organizations dedicated to restoring the marshland, talks to Steve Curwood about the recent developments in southern Iraq and why there’s reason for hope. (08:30)

States Sue on Global Warming

(stream / mp3)

The U.S. EPA says it has no authority to regulate greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. But a case in federal court could change that. Washington correspondent Jeff Young says that could bring some big changes in the energy industry. (05:00)

Taxing Carbon Emissions

(stream / mp3)

Duke Energy's Paul Anderson recently did what no other major power company CEO has done before: he called for a national tax on carbon dioxide emissions to stave off global warming. Host Steve Curwood talks with Professor John Holdren of Harvard University about how the news is hitting Duke's shareholders, and why an emissions tax might be to the company's advantage. (04:30)

Snowpack Preservation / Andrea Kissack

(stream / mp3)

A growing number of businesses are breaking ranks with the oil and auto industries and saying they believe in global warming and they want the United States to do something about it. In California, the ski industry sees itself as the guardian of a declining snowpack and it's decided to speak up about it. Andrea Kissack of KQED reports. (06:00)

Nature's Balance / Tom Montgomery-Fate

(stream / mp3)

A possum feeds on fresh road kill, causing commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate to ponder the meaning of violence and the cycles of nature. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Tofu Super-glue / Katie Zemtseff

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Katie Zemtseff reports on yet another use for soybeans: wood glue. (01:45)

Elephant Nursery / Susan Shepherd

(stream / mp3)

An elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya has perfected the art of raising baby elephants and releasing them back into the wild. Living on Earth's Susan Shepherd reports. (08:00)

Prairie Pothole Wetland

(stream / mp3)

Spring comes alive in central North Dakota, near the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Nature recordist and photographer Lang Elliott gives Living on Earth host Steve Curwood a tour of a cattail marsh and the birds we’re likely to find there. (07:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: T. Christian Miller, Azzam Alwash, Professor John Holdren, Lang Elliott
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Andrea Kissack, Susan Shepherd
COMMENTATOR: Tom Montgomery-Fate
NOTE: Katie Zemtseff
(THEME MUSIC)

CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.

(THEME MUSIC - UP AND UNDER)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have a right, indeed, a duty to regulate carbon dioxide on the grounds that global warming is a hazard to public health? A dozen states and several advocacy groups say, yes.

MILKEY: If EPA wants to find authority on the statute, it doesn't have to look very far. It's right there in the plain language, the Clean Air Act.

CURWOOD: But, EPA says that would be going too far.

HOLMSTEAD: If Congress intended us to sort of change our society, they would have said that. And there's nothing to indicate that anybody in Congress ever thought the Clean Air Act was designed to do that.

CURWOOD: Also, listening in as the marshlands of North Dakota come alive with the migrants of spring.

[GULPING SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: Birds from another world and more-this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

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

Back to top

 

Iraq's State of the Environment

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Two years ago this month, Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers in Baghdad brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein and with it a dictatorship that had oppressed millions. It seemed the Iraqi people could finally rebuild their country. But since then, there have been multiple roadblocks to reconstruction, and pollution is one of them.

With me to discuss the environmental challenges of Iraq is T. Christian Miller. He's a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times and he joins me now from Washington D.C. Hello, sir.

MILLER: Hey, thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So, you've been back and forth to Baghdad several times this year, filing stories on the restoration effort there and I guess you're going back shortly.

MILLER: Yes, I should be going back next month.

CURWOOD: In particular, what are the environmental challenges that Iraqi people are facing today?

MILLER: There's just a myriad of environmental challenges. There's polluted rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates both were the dumping ground for any number of industrial plants that were dumping without any regulation at all for decades under Saddam Hussein. It continues that way today. There's been no real effort to rein in the pollution going into those rivers.

The air quality has certainly been affected by the power plants and they occasionally run simply black emissions. I recall talking to an engineer who just said that the environment is not something they're worried about now. They're worried about getting the power plants running. And, the environment will come later.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about water quality. In a recent article, you described a sewage treatment plant called Kerkh. Really sounded like a disaster there. How widespread is this problem with sewage in Iraq right now?

MILLER: Yeah, certainly the sewage in waterfront has been a widespread disaster. If there's been any one area of the reconstruction, which has completely failed to deliver, it's water, clean water and treatment of sewage areas. And that's because the system that the U.S. found when it arrived was at the point of collapse. There were crumbling sewer pipes, there were sewage plants that hadn't been operational for years. I mean, you have to understand Baghdad, the city is about six or seven million people and there's just no sewage treatment at all. Everything that gets flushed down the toilets in Baghdad ends up getting dumped directly into the rivers. So, in this case of Kirk, the idea was we'll get this one plant up and running and we'll at least have some capacity to treat sewage again and clean it before we dump it into the Tigris River. What happened is the U.S. dedicated about 20 million dollars to that project, got it running again, turned it over to the Iraqis and, within the course of a few months, the Iraqis had run it into the ground. And the plant was as bad as it had ever been and, essentially, non-functional.

CURWOOD: Is this corruption, people stealing stuff or just people not showing up for work? What happened?

MILLER: I think there were a variety of things. Yeah, corruption was certainly part of it. And, there was just plain failure by the U.S. to really pay attention. The U.S. stance is, after we turn it over to the Iraqis, it's their problem. We've made the investment, they have to run it. And, so, even if they run it into the ground we're not going to intercede to stop them. And, finally, there is a problem with the Iraqis just not showing up for work, not maintaining the plant, not particularly caring because they're getting paid whether they show up or not, so what does it matter if the sewage plant goes south. It doesn't really matter to them.

CURWOOD: T., how do Iraqis view their environment today?

MILLER: That's a good question. I'd venture to guess, based on the few conversations I've had on this topic, that it's a concern for Iraqis, especially on the clean water issue. I mean, there's many, many hundreds of thousands of children who have died in Iraq from water-borne diseases, but I would also say that the environment is not the highest priority amongst many Iraqis for whom the issues of security in daily living really take precedence.

CURWOOD: T. Christian Miller is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. T., thanks for taking this time with me, today.

MILLER: Glad I could be here.

Back to top

 

Iraq's Garden of Eden

CURWOOD: Another name for Iraq is the "Cradle of Civilization." That's because an area of vast wetlands in southern Iraq at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is considered by some scholars to be the Garden of Eden. During the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein began draining 2,000 square miles of these wetlands in an attempt to rout rebels hiding there. Most of the people living in the area fled and the once massive marsh lost more than 90 percent of its original size. But since the fall of Baghdad, the great marshlands of Mesopotamia have started to come back. Joining me is Azzam Alwash, a civil engineer and founder of "Eden Again"-one of several groups helping to restore the marshlands. Welcome.

ALWASH: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me why you care so much about this place? Why is it so unusual?

ALWASH: Steve, I grew up in and around the marshes. As a young man, I used to accompany my father in his frequent visits into the various hamlets, the various hamlets to resolve water disputes. And, that experience has, basically, has not left. It's with me and has been with me for the last 25, 30 years having left Iraq in 1978. Since coming to this country or when I was living in the United States, I was an avid kayaker and I used to tell my wife, 'wait until Iraq is liberated; we'll go kayaking in this heaven on earth, this magical place, called the Ouar, the marshes of southern Iraq.'

If you spend a couple of hours there, you just can't help but fall in love with the place. There where nature and man have been integrated into one; where man has affected the evolution of the system and the system has affected the growth of this water culture. This Sumarian way of life still exists today. The people of the marshes are still using the same skills that they have used for 7,000 years to survive in this environment. It's a magical place.

CURWOOD: What did it look like at its worst point after this diversion and draining?

ALWASH: I visited the place for the first time in 25 years in June of 2003, just right after the liberation of Iraq. And, instead of these rivers of water and these mountains of reeds, what I saw was dry, desiccated land that extended as far as the eye can see, with desert plains, zur, or what's called tamaracks, the scientific name, everywhere. Instead of these reed beds, instead of the hamlets, I saw platforms where bricks, that formerly were houses or reeds that had been burned existed. There was no alive, there is no fish, there is no water, there is no human beings. It was a desert.

CURWOOD: Can you describe for me what the marshes look like now?

ALWASH: The people of the marshes, as the troops were going up north, Baghdad had not fallen yet, began breaking the dykes and the control structures that held the water away from these marshes and they started returning the water to their marshes as early as the second week of April. And, as it turns out, by their actions, they had essentially saved me a big step. One of the major steps that I thought I was going to have to take is to try to convince the Iraqi people that, in fact, the marshes need to be restored. Well, that war need not be fought. People were actually eager to return the marshes and by their own actions they actually told us which part of the marshes they wanted restored first because they, in fact, voted with their own hands if you will. Nature is an incredible force.

Huts of returning families of the Iraq marsh.
(Photo courtesy of Eden Again/New Eden Project.)

You know we were worried that it's going to take a long time for the restoration to take place. As it happens, in Iraq all you need to do is introduce water. Now, grant you, I'll grant you that it's not just as simple as reintroducing water, but the reintroduction of water has caused reeds to grow back, people have started moving back in. What is our major challenge at this point is how to make sure that the areas that have been inundated or flooded continue to thrive.

CURWOOD: What are some of the keys that you've found to restoration? What does nature do and how might you have to help nature where the restoration process isn't going so well?

ALWASH: What we have learned is that the marshes evolved around this idea of the fresh pulse of water coming in, timed in the spring when the snow melts in the mountains of Iraq and Turkey. This fresh pulse of water comes in just about as we speak right now between February and April or May and you have 60 percent of the water resources that goes into Iraq used to come into Iraq during these three months. So, every year, there is this brackishness that accumulates in the water. And, then there is this pulse of flood water that comes in in the spring just as the reeds come back from dormancy, just as the fish swims back from the gulf into the marshes to spawn, just as the birds are migrating. This whole cycle of nature kind of is a symphony kind of timed to recreate the cycle of life, starting in the spring.

CURWOOD: What about the source of water for this marshland? The headwaters, of course, of the Euphrates aren't in Iraq, but across the border in Turkey. And, I gather, there are some tensions there. How do you think this situation can be resolved?

ALWASH: For complete restoration, for making sure that we will have these marshes forevermore and our great, great, great grandchildren can enjoy this place, we need to reach an agreement between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria about the equitable sharing of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. What I am advocating at this point in time with the Iraq government is that they need to reach discussions with Turkey and they need to move from their existing position. The existing position of the Iraq government is that we have a historical right for the water of the Tigris and Euphrates because we were the first developers of the water resources of that area. However, if we insist on this position we are going to end up with discussions for 50 years without reaching a solution.

Birds have begun to return to the marsh.
(Photo courtesy of Eden Again/New Eden Project.)

What I'm suggesting to Iraq is that they should buy electricity from Turkey. If they buy electricity from Turkey then water is going to have to be released from these dams to generate electricity and we get electricity at a reasonable price with water as a by-product. That is quite possible actually. This is not dream talk. Turkey wants to join the European Union and one of the conditions of the accession to the Union is that they have to resolve the water disputes between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

CURWOOD: Now, you've said that the restoration of the marshes is really a symbol that life after Saddam Hussein can be better. To what extent has that been realized?

ALWASH: I can take you on a tour of Karmashia area and Jubaea area and show you the returning refugees who have come back from Iran.

CURWOOD: These people were marsh Arabs who what some of them were systematically exterminated by Saddam Hussein and those who stayed alive are what, in jail, tortured, fled over the border to Iran. Is that who you're talking about?

ALWASH: All of the above. Seventy thousand people have gone to Iran in '92, '93, '94; about 50,000 came to the United States as refugees. A lot of them were displaced and, of course, the mass graves stand as solemn reminders to us of the fate of many of those who did not listen to the central government and wanted freedom.

CURWOOD: So, what are the odds of getting a meaningful restoration of the marshes of southern Iraq or as you folks would say, the original Eden?

A temporary hut for fishermen in the inner portions of the marsh.
(Photo courtesy of Eden Again/New Eden Project.)

ALWASH: The restoration has already started. We have 30 to 40 percent of the marshes that existed in 1990 alive and well today so it's a reality. Our goal now, obviously, our final goal is to restore the marshes or return as much as possible. Getting it all back is rather not possible. Realistically speaking, I would say if we were to return to 1990 conditions we are 100 percent successful and I'm about 90 percent sure that we can get back to 1990.

CURWOOD: Azzam Alwash started the project "Eden Again." Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

ALWASH: Thank you for having me.

[MUSIC: Tillman & Ambient Groove Artists "7 Sarisa Lingo (Musica Helvetica) 1997]

Related links:
- Eden Again Project
- From the LOE archives: "Restoring Iraq's Garden of Eden"

Back to top

 

States Sue on Global Warming

CURWOOD: Coming up: should the EPA regulate carbon dioxide on the grounds global warming is a health hazard? A federal court is to decide. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Tillman & Ambient Groove Artists "Blue September" Lingo (Musica Helvetica) 1997]

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A lawsuit pending before the D.C. Court of Appeals could determine whether the U.S. will regulate greenhouse gases—the emissions tied to global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency says it has no authority to do that. Attorneys general for a dozen states and most of the country's major environmental groups disagree. They sued the EPA to allow the regulation of greenhouse gases from automobiles. Massachusetts' Assistant Attorney General Jim Milkey argued the case in federal court in Washington.

MILKEY: Our argument can be simplified that if EPA wants to find authority in the statute it doesn't have to look very far. It's right there in the plain language of the Clean Air Act.

CURWOOD: Now, if Assistant Attorney General Milkey is right it could bring big changes to the auto industry and beyond. Joining me now to talk about that is our Washington corespondent Jeff Young. Jeff, hello.

YOUNG: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, why is Mr. Milkey so confident that EPA does have this power to regulate greenhouse gases?

YOUNG: Well, he points to sections of the Clean Air Act that define air pollutants and include things that pose a risk to "public health or welfare" and the act's definition of that includes effects on weather and climate.

CURWOOD: And then, what might happen if EPA were to regulate these emissions from cars and trucks?

YOUNG: Well, probably carmakers would have to boost fuel efficiency. That would be the easiest way to put out fewer greenhouse gases per mile. Or maybe they'd make cars that used alternative fuels. No one really had a good guess as to what the regulation would look like exactly. But, one thing is pretty clear—and this is where all the parties involved agree—this would be a very big deal. The environmental groups see this issue of authority to regulate these emissions as the key legal hurdle that they must overcome if they're going to get the world's biggest emitter, the U.S., to do something about climate change. U.S. autos account for about five percent of the world's manmade greenhouse gases so this could lead to some major reductions.

CURWOOD: And I imagine industry takes this pretty seriously, as well?

YOUNG: Oh, yes. EPA gets support here from nearly every major industry lobby. You've got the oil industry, the automakers, the electric utilities, the mining association and more, all of them joining this suit.

CURWOOD: I can understand why the automakers are concerned but the utilities and the mining companies?

YOUNG: Well, they want to stop this regulation before it gets to them. Marlo Lewis at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute has written a lot about this and he told me that this case could set precedent for much broader action.

LEWIS: If the EPA were ever to begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles that would trigger a flood of litigation to regulate every sector of the U.S. economy. And I think that all of the energy intensive industries in the country know that if the attorneys general succeed here that their neck is next on the chopping block.

CURWOOD: Now, we heard the state's attorney say this is an open and shut case, Jeff. So, what's EPA's argument here?

YOUNG: EPA's main point goes back to the idea that this would be such a major change. Jeffrey Holmstead is an assistant administrator at EPA and he says if the lawmakers who wrote the clean air act really wanted that kind of big change they would have made it more clear.

HOLMSTEAD: It's a very big deal. Most of our transportation depends on fossil fuel; most of our power generation depends on fossil fuel. If Congress intended us to sort of change our society they would have said that and there's nothing to indicate that anybody in Congress ever thought that the Clean Air Act was designed to do that.

YOUNG: Now, one interesting thing about this is that's not what EPA used to think.

CURWOOD: Oh, how's that?

YOUNG: Well, under the Clinton administration, EPA issued a legal opinion and told a Congressional committee that the Clean Air Act did, indeed, give them authority to consider greenhouse gases pollutants and to regulate them. Now, the environmental groups complained that the Clintonites weren't especially eager to act on that authority. But under the Bush administration, EPA reversed it altogether.

CURWOOD: And then, President Bush also reversed his position on regulating greenhouse gases about that time, didn't he?

YOUNG: Yes. As candidate in 2000 he had pledged to cap carbon dioxide from power plants, and then as president he changed his mind on that. Of course, the environmental groups look at this and they say both of these reversals are because the administration has such a close tie to the energy industry. A Sierra Club lawyer, David Bookbinder, points out some of the obvious connections there.

BOOKBINDER: You don't have to go further than to look at the fact that the current White House Chief of Staff, Andy Card, is the former chief of the American Automobile Manufacturers Alliance and that the president and vice president are proud to represent themselves as oil men.

YOUNG: And, the lawyer who argued this case for EPA, Jeffrey Clark, used to argue cases for the auto makers back when he was in private practice.

CURWOOD: Jeff, when will we know what the judges will decide?

YOUNG: We'll probably have a decision by August. It's assumed that no matter who wins there will be an appeal and probably this is going to the Supreme Court.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth's Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You're welcome.

Back to top

 

Taxing Carbon Emissions

CURWOOD: From the courtroom, we turn to the boardroom, where greenhouse gas emissions now figure into the business plans of some of the nation's largest energy companies. Paul Anderson, CEO of Duke Energy, recently sent ripples through the industry with a pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, even if they drove up the price of Duke's electricity. Mr. Anderson even invoked the "t"word, calling for a national tax on carbon dioxide emissions to curb global climate change.

Joining me is John Holdren, Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University and co-chair of the National Commission on Energy Policy. Professor Holdren, some people say Paul Anderson is out of his mind. Investor's Business Daily calls his statements, I quote, "a total capitulation to environmental extremists." Duke generates nearly 30 percent of its energy through coal-fired, C02 emitting power plants. Is the company biting the hand that feeds it with a proposal to tax carbon dioxide emissions?

HOLDREN: I don't think so. I think there are a variety of good reasons that the Duke CEO has called now for a carbon tax. He indicated, first of all, that good business in the world today requires attention, not just to the economic bottom-line but to a company's responsibility for the environment and for the improvement of society. He talks about a triple bottom-line. He says that very clearly the climate change issue is a pressing issue in the United States and in the world today and that we're going to have to do something about it. And, he says if we're going to have to do something about it, it makes sense to do it in a way that affects sources of carbon dioxide emissions across the energy sector. So that you don't just catch the power plants, you catch the automobiles, you catch the home furnaces, you catch the industrial processes. The carbon tax approach, which he is recommending, would do that. So, in a way, you could regard this proposal as a sort of a pre-emptive strike. Let's propose something sensible before somebody else imposes an approach to this problem, which would be much more onerous and much less effective.

CURWOOD: So, why would a tax be better at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than other regulatory approaches such as a cap-and-trade scheme?

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, in the case of a tax, the government specifies the price and the market works out the quantity, in the sense that people figure out what's the optimum level of emissions given how much you have to pay for each ton of carbon you emit into the atmosphere. In the case of the cap-and-trade scheme, you set the quantity and the market works out the price. The tax and the cap-and-trade approaches are identical in their impact on the problem and on the economy. Many people in the United States have preferred the cap-and-trade approach largely because the "t" word, the tax word, has been anathema in the U.S. political system for quite some time. Nobody dares utter the tax word in Washington, D.C. So, the fear is any tax proposal would be dead on arrival in the U.S. Congress.

CURWOOD: How hard of a sell do you think Paul Anderson's idea is going to be to Wall Street and to the shareholders of Duke Energy?

HOLDREN: Well, I think the quote you mentioned at the beginning of the broadcast saying that he had succumbed to environmental extremism is, in fact, an example of extremism of different kind. I don't think that the position that Mr. Anderson has espoused is regarded as extreme any longer in the mainstream of American industry. I talked to lots of folks from the electric utility industry, from the automobile industry, from the oil industry and, in fact, the idea that we have to do something, specific something, mandatory something across the board with respect to carbon dioxide emissions is now very widely understood. In industry, the extremists are really the ones who continue to insist that there's nothing to this problem and that we don't have to do anything about it.

CURWOOD: John Holdren is the Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University and the co-chair of the National Commission on Energy Policy. Thanks for taking this time with me, today, John.

HOLDREN: Thank you very much, Steve.

Back to top

 

Snowpack Preservation

CURWOOD: Scientists, including Professor Holdren, say the term "climate change" underplays the impact humans are having on the planet. "Climate disruption" would be a better term, he says, for the ways things are changing. And, perhaps nowhere is that more on people's minds than in California. The wide mood swings of the weather pattern known as El Niño delighted skiers this past winter as it brought 25 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But the snowy fees can easily swing to drought. And, some scientists predict overall rising temperatures could cut the state's snowfall in half over the next 50 years. This uncertainty and volatility has California's ski industry taking on the issue of global warming. From KQED in San Francisco, Andrea Kissack has our story.

[SKI SOUNDS OF SHARP BLADE TURN]

KISSACK: On a sunny Saturday at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, skiers and snowboarders have enjoyed one of the best seasons in decades.

[SKIERS SHOUTING "WHOO HOO, WHOO!"]

KISSACK: With a thick snowpack and every lift open, its hard to believe this mountain could ever look like the dry Nevada desert spread out to the East in the valley below.

STRAIN: There's a place that doesn't have the water or the snow pack that we do.

KISSACK: Andrew Strain is vice president of planning for Heavenly--the biggest ski resort in Tahoe. Wearing a silver and red striped jacket and goggles, Strain looks down 9,000 feet from the top of the Tamarack chair lift.

STRAIN: What a dry, scrubby landscape that is with low juniper, pinion pine and cheat grass. That's not the forest that we want here in Lake Tahoe. But that's what I think you are going to find if the snowpack is dramatically reduced because of global warming.

KISSACK: Snow dots the south shore of Lake Tahoe below and blankets the Sierra Nevada beyond. If scientists are right, in many places where Strain now sees snow, in a couple of decades, there would be rain.

GLEICK: We're changing the climate because of things we are doing, particularly, burning oil and gas and coal.

KISSACK: Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Oakland. He's an international expert on fresh water supply. Gleick says as industrial emissions warm the earth, it changes weather patterns.

GLEICK: This is something that I think skiers understand viscerally. On a warm day, we know that we better be skiing higher up on the mountain or we're going to run into the slush at the bottom of the mountain. That's what global warming is going to produce--more and more slush at the bottom of the mountains and the good snow is going to retreat toward the top.

KISSACK: Last year, UC Berkeley, Stanford and UC San Diego released a report on how climate change is affecting California. The study found if auto, industrial and agricultural emissions continue unchecked, California could lose more than 70 percent of its snowpack by the end of the century. In the next several decades, snow that generally falls at five or 6,000 feet could climb to more than 7,000 feet. This kind of worse case scenario worries Heavenly's Andrew Strain.

STRAIN: The length of the runs would be shortened; the length of the seasons would be shortened. You'd find more crowding as the same amount of skiers would crowd into a smaller area. You wouldn't be able to ski all the way down to 6,000 feet like we can today.

KISSACK: Less snow also means the plants and animals that live at higher elevations may be squeezed right off the top of the mountain as they're forced upward to follow the receding snow line. In the spring, according to The Pacific Institute, early snowmelt could cause flooding and leave less water for the months that are more vulnerable to drought. More than 30 nations have agreed to cut their industrial emissions under the International Kyoto Protocol. But the U.S. was one of just two industrial nations not to accept the treaty. Environmentalists have worked hard in the U.S. to get climate change taken seriously. They're hopeful about their new alliance with big development ski resorts.

COIFMAN: I think that there are people out there who would look at this as a partnership of strange bedfellows.

KISSACK: Jon Coifman, with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

COIFMAN: We looked at this as an opportunity--to focus on solutions to one set of environmental challenges where we know we have a crystal clear agenda in common was a real no-brainer.

KISSACK: The joint campaign, called "Keep Winter Cool," recruited top athletes to record public service announcements urging skiers to do their part, like carpooling to the slopes.

STREET (PSA): Hi, I'm Picabo Street. While it's a beautiful winter right now, scientists say that global warming means shorter seasons with less snow. That is definitely not cool. But, we can help solve global warming…[FADE UNDER]

KISSACK: California ski resorts are rolling out alternative energy solutions. Mammoth Mountain has added solar to power some of the chair lifts. Northstar at Tahoe is purchasing wind energy credits. Heavenly is adding cleaner mass transit to South Lake Tahoe and built a gondola from the center of town up the mountain to encourage skiers to leave their cars below. Seventy-one U.S. ski resorts are supporting the McCain- Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. The bill would cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. industry. It was defeated last year after heavy lobbying by auto, oil and coal. Andrew Strain says ski resorts need to stand up to those interests.

STRAIN: The ski industry has to lead and not follow, in the efforts to bring global warming to the forefront of public policy debate and discussion. We can't sit by and watch the discussion go by. We have to be involved and we have to be involved in a leadership role.

KISSACK: That role hasn't helped federal legislation to reduce global warming. But in California, ski resorts were influential in pushing lawmakers to adopt the toughest state auto emissions standards in the country, scheduled to go into effect in 2009. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea Kissack.

[MUSIC: Fontanelle "Reflex vs. Parallax" Fontanelle (Kranky)]

Back to top

 

Nature's Balance

CURWOOD: During a recent late night drive on a desolate country road, commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate encountered a gory, haunting scene. The efficiency of nature, he found, doesn't always come with a pretty picture.

MONTGOMERY-FATE: Late tonight, just before arriving at our farm in southwest Michigan, my headlights caught a furry animal with large triangular ears and a long tail crawling on top of some other animal. I hit the brakes and whirred backward until I could train my beams on the bloody pointed mouth of a possum feeding on fresh road kill, a large raccoon.

A cold snap had ended abruptly. In the past 24 hours the temperature climbed from 25 to 56 degrees. Possums and raccoons don't hibernate; they are "winter sleepers," meaning that after holing up in some tree trunk during the recent cold weather, these animals were lured from lethargy by the heat wave and by their stomachs. I parked six feet away from the possum with my lights still on and my window down. Ravenously hungry, he ignored me.

He peeled three long strips of fur back over the raccoon's rib cage like he was shucking an ear of corn, then plunged his face into the opening, under the roof of bones and into the steaming organs. The immense sparkling bowl of the night sky seemed to magnify rather than absorb the sound of the possum's munching and eerie breathing.

At that moment, I felt as if I was watching an appalling act of violence, rather than the cycle of creation. Which was it?

The best definition I've ever found for the word violence is in an essay by the philosopher John Modschiedler. "Violence is a ripping apart," he writes, "it is the end product of not thinking of things in relationship. It is a scattering. Scattering is the opposite of community. Violence is an assault on community, on belongingness, on relationship."

Given this definition, the possum's disposing of the raccoon by using it to sustain itself no longer seemed gruesome or violent. Rather it was an act of restoration, of restoring the balance of the natural community.

How odd that the creatures most adept at tipping the balance of nature live not by instinct, but reason. Given their unparalleled intellect, only humans can conceive of their "role" in nature, a role increasingly viewed as material opportunity rather than moral responsibility. How strange that our greatest challenge in the 21st century may be to act less like humans and more like animals, to become less violent, to consider the quiet wisdom of a possum.

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and is the author of his memoir "Steady and Trembling," to be published this fall.

Just ahead: From heartbreak to heartwarming—how one woman found the secret to saving orphaned, baby elephants. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Verizon, providing 411 directory assistance for residential and business numbers locally or across the country; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Fontanelle "29th & Going" Fontanelle (Kranky)]

Back to top

 

Emerging Science Note/Tofu Super-glue

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and coming up: an avian festival for the ears. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Katie Zemtseff.

ZEMTSEFF: There may be yet another use for the ever versatile soybean. And, it could prove a sticky solution for the wood industry.

Researcher Kaichang Li at Oregon State University discovered the legume could make super-strong glue. And, he credits his discovery to the humble sea muscle. These coastal mollusks have an uncanny ability to stick to rocks and cliffs, despite the ocean's crashing waves. Lee found the key to this clinginess in a single, muscle protein. He was able to synthetically recreate this protein but it was too costly to make in large quantities. So, while having a lunch of tofu one day, Lee wondered if the high-protein soybean could mimic the muscle protein. Turns out, that by mixing soy with amino acids that have had adhesive properties, he was able to make a sticky, soy by-product very similar to the muscle's protein. This soy glue can seep into wood crevices and pores where it solidifies, creating a virtually indestructible, waterproof glue. Today's wood glues are based in formaldehyde, which when heated, give off fumes that could pose a health hazard.

The soy-based glue is already in use at three mills and can be used in everything from home paneling to office desks. Along with milk, tofu, vegetable oil and bio diesel, this newest market is good news for soybean farmers. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Katie Zemtseff.

Back to top

 

Elephant Nursery

CURWOOD: In many parts of Africa, elephants are vanishing. In the 1980s alone, half the population was killed by poachers and that prompted a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory tusks. Today, only 600,000 or so wild African elephants remain, out of, perhaps, ten million, two generations ago. But the killing hasn't stopped, as there are still plenty of commerce in illegal ivory as well as elephant meat.

Slaughtered elephant herds often leave behind orphaned, baby elephants, which have little chance of survival. That is, unless they wind up in a baby elephant nursery, like the one visited by Living on Earth's Susan Shepherd in Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

SHEPHERD: Keeping an orphaned elephant under two years of age alive is a tricky proposition under even the best of circumstances. Thirty years ago, it was a near impossible task.

[ELEPHANT PURRING, ROARING, MUNCHING]

SHEPHERD: Nothing keepers like Daphne Sheldrick fed infant elephants kept them from suffering the same fate--starvation.

(Photo: Barry P. Payne)

SHEDRICK: When they first come in, they all just want to die. They've lost their elephant family; they are very, very fragile in infancy. And they can be fine one day and dead the next. It took me 28 years to succeed in raising an infant African elephant.

SHEPHERD: The role of animal protector is one 70-year-old Daphne Sheldrick prepared for all her life. Born in Kenya, she grew up on a farm in the highlands and cared for her first orphaned animal, an antelope, when she was three years old. In her early 20s, she moved to Tsavo National Park in Southeast Kenya, where her husband was game warden and she spent 30 years there learning about the psychology and sociology of elephants.

SHELDRICK: You know, when you take on an elephant it really is a lifetime and I've been working with elephants for 50 years.

SHEPHERD: The key to keeping baby elephants alive, says Sheldrick, was finding the right formula to feed them. They couldn't digest the fat content in most milk formulas, though no one knew that was the problem until Sheldrick stumbled on something that worked through sheer luck and trial and error. The secret elixir was a mixture of coconut oil added to a fat-free milk base.

SHELDRICK: I found that they could live longer on skim milk, so I knew the problem was the fat.

SHEPHERD: This eureka moment was the start of the Elephant Orphan Project in Nairobi National Park, where Sheldrick convinced the government to allow her to set up this orphanage nearly 30 years ago.

[ELEPHANT ROARING, STOMPING]

SHEPHERD: On a bright, warm day in Kenya, young elephants romp in a dusty clearing. They are the current crop from the more than 60 young elephants that have been brought here over the years.

[ELEPHANT ROARING]

SHEPHERD: Edwin Lusichi, their 27-year-old keeper, says they are thriving.

[ELEPHANT EATING, WALKING, PURRING. KEEPER SAYING, "BACHUMA, BACHUMA"]

SHEPHERD: This is a boy?

Showing affection to Edwin, an elephant keeper.
(Photo: Barry P. Payne)

LUSICHI: Yeah, he's a boy, nine months old now.

SHEPHERD: The baby elephants spend their days chasing each other, rolling in the red clay soil, butting their heads up against anything they can find, especially against their keepers who are more like nannies.

[ELEPHANT ROAR]

LUSICHI: I've been here for the past five years and it's just because I like animals in general. That's why I landed, getting this job.

SHEPHERD: And, that's the other key to keeping orphaned elephants alive. Elephants are such social creatures that they need constant company. Their keepers stay with them 24 hours a day, which means curling up right next to them to sleep at night.

LUSICHI: This elephant is called Lualeni. He's about five months now, was rescued from Tsavo East. Just found lying alone in the park.

SHEPHERD: As Lusichi talks, one of the smallest elephants in the group puts the end of her trunk against his round, good-natured face and touches his nose, his cheek and then covers up his eye with her nimble snout. Lusichi, removes her trunk gently from his face, laughing. Then she comes after my microphone.

[CHEWING, SUCKING SOUNDS]

An elephant tries to grab reporter Susan Shepherd's microphone.
(Photo: Barry P. Payne)

SHEPHERD: What is he doing now?

LUSICHI: Just suckling for my fingers.

SHEPHERD: Sort of like when a kid sucks his thumb?

LUSICHI: Yeah. They are just like human babies, actually.

SHEPHERD: Not every baby elephant brought to the nursery survives. And, it's nearly impossible to tell which ones will make it. As Lusichi explains, all of them are traumatized from being separated from their mothers, or witnessing the massacre of all of the older elephants in their herd.

LUSICHI: There is always difficult to handle when they are new because they have been in the wild and they only know the wild life. And, they saw the human poaching the mothers so they won't be friendly to you. It takes some time. So, it's quite a difficult job to handle a newcomer in the nursery.

SHEPHERD: Lusichi tells the story of the two-day old elephant he helped rescue last summer. They named her Wendy, which means hope because she seemed much too young to possibly survive.

LUSICHI: She was just found lying alone in a swamp. She was still fresh from the mother's womb. All the body was very soft; the ears were still very pink. In fact, she had part of the ear folded to one side. And, just getting hold of her you, you could feel she was very slippery. She would want to fall down and very, very tiny, the tiniest I've ever seen.

SHEPHERD: And so, could you pick her up?

LUSICHI: Yeah.

SHEPHERD: It takes about $750 a month to care for a baby elephant here. The money comes mostly from donations--people around the world foster these elephants. Daphne Sheldrick says most of that money pays for the 40 pints of formula a day it takes to feed one of these infants.

SHELDRICK: A lot of people say, 'well, that's a lot of money to spend on a few little orphaned elephants.' But what they don't understand is that these elephants are tremendously valuable for extending the knowledge about elephants because when you raise an animal like an elephant, you learn how it feels and thinks. You know it as well as your own human children.

SHEPHERD: When the elephants turn two, they are trucked to Tsavo National Park and are gradually re-introduced into the wild. Elephants are housed and fed at a holding site and keepers take them on long walks to introduce them to roaming wild herds. Generally quite gregarious animals, the wild elephants almost always welcome the orphans. Their keepers think life in the wild is more stimulating than living with humans, so eventually, almost all of the young take up with a herd. Still, Sheldrick says, many of the orphans return to the holding area on a regular basis.

SHELDRICK: Another one of our females brought back a calf that had a snare around its leg, this is a wild-born calf. Of course, it was wild. Our keepers couldn't actually handle it and it was tearing around. And, Lisa, the mother, just walked into the stockades and started feeding. The calf was screaming its head off and any mother elephant normally hearing that sound would have gone bizerk, but she trusted the keepers so much that she just went on quietly feeding. And then, the other orphans surrounded this calf and held it, sort of held it in the middle, so it couldn't escape so that our keepers could crawl underneath their bellies and remove the snare from that leg. And, that just shows how intelligent elephants are that they can reason and think.

SHEPHERD: Yet, Sheldrick is the first to say that her orphanage doesn't replace elephant families. Elephants are so smart and so complex that most people who study them say we don't know the true trauma they face when they've known the violent death of a family member and lose their communities. And, because we can't know, Sheldrick does what she can to give back to these creatures, what they've given to us.

SHELDRICK: Recent stories about the Tsunami in Indonesia, where the elephants knew the moment the earthquake happened under the ocean and they started fleeing up hill. And, as they were going, they were picking up people and putting them on their backs and saved a lot of human lives, as well. So, they are incredible animals and that raises a lot of questions of how they should be treated.

SHEPHERD: Surrounded by the elephants living in her orphanage now and the memories of elephants she's saved over a lifetime, Sheldrick basks in the knowledge that she's done everything she can for these elephant children who fill Africa, as Kipling wrote, with their insatiable curiosities. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Shepherd in Nairobi, Kenya.

Related link:
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Back to top

 

Prairie Pothole Wetland

[BIRDS CHIRPING IN WETLAND - FADES UNDER]

CURWOOD: It's daybreak in a cattail marsh near Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota. This prairie region is teeming with wetlands and bird life on this spring morning and joining me now to get up close and personal with the birds here is nature recordist and photographer Lang Elliott. Lang, sounds like a bird symphony here!

The marsh wren is a common bird of the cattail marsh. (Photo: copyright Lang Elliott/NatureSound Studio)

ELLIOTT: Holy smoke, it is. It's just an amazing chorus you get there at dawn in the prairie marshes. There's nothing else like it.

CURWOOD: What's this area look like?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's a hilly upland region, awash with all these depressions or pothole ponds that were formed during the Wisconsian glaciation. And, all these wetland marshes of cattails and rushes--just chock full of wildlife.

CURWOOD: I hear a noise that kind of sounds like a sump pump noise. Who makes that sound?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. That's the sound of the American bittern. It's a heron-like marsh bird that's brown with a streaked breast and very camouflaged; lives among the cattails. The male inflates his throat before he calls to create a resonant chamber and makes that sound, sort of a pumper lunk, pumper lunk, pumper lunk.

[PUMPER LUNK, GULPING SOUND OF BITTERN]

CURWOOD: How did you get so close to record this bittern?

ELLIOTT: Well, my first morning at the marsh I could hear them out there. There was more than one and I wanted to get a really nice recording, but if you try to approach one in the daylight they see you and, of course, they hunker down in the cattails and they grow quiet or they slink away or fly away.

So, what I did is come evening, I could hear one way out in the marsh and I thought, 'well I'm going to canoe out there and set up a microphone and then come back at dawn and record.' But he was so far out I was afraid I'd get lost in the dark, so I put a little blinking red light on my van which was parked next to the lake and I canoed out in the marsh. It took me about 30 minutes or 40 minutes to hone in on this bittern that was calling occasionally. And I set the microphone on a tripod in shallow water next to this patch of cattails where the bittern took up residence for the night. And I strung a bunch of cable back to a platform they had built for goose nesting, a goose nest platform, tied the cable off and put a blinking red light there. And, then I looked back over the marsh and I could see where my van was so I canoed back to my van and slept for maybe four or five hours, got up four in the morning. I could see that blinking light way out in the marsh, so I canoed way back out to that spot and when it started getting light, he really started pumping and I got this fabulous recording. I don't think I could do any better.

[PUMPING SOUND OF BITTERN]

CURWOOD: Now, what other birds are common out there among the cattails there?

ELLIOTT: Oh, there's quite a variety and a lot of them make really interesting sounds. There are little chicken-like birds called "rails." The Virginia rail is out there in the marshes and even more common is a small rail called the Sora, which has a fabulous whinny-like outburst, sort of a laugh-like outburst.

[WHINNY, OUTBURST CHIRPS FROM A SORA]

ELLIOTT: Other species, of course, you have the redwing blackbird and there can be quite a lot of sound coming out of both males and the females. Yellow-headed blackbirds have sort of other worldly sounds and they're quite common in some cattail marshes.

[YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS CACKLE]

ELLIOTT: And, there's a number of shorebirds in the marsh. There's killdeer, a type of plover; there's lesser yellow legs, they are quite noisy. Semi-palmated sandpipers; American avocets, which are really elegant and beautiful and make a lot of sound. Common snipe which flies overhead and makes a really peculiar sound with its wings. And then there's the willet who's quite a noisy creature and willets are fairly large shorebirds and they fly overhead, flying over the marsh going "peewee willet, peewee willet, peewee willet."

[SOUNDS OF WILLET CALL]

CURWOOD: Peewee willet, peewee willet. What will it do? What is the question it's asking here?

ELLIOTT: Well, I don't know. I mean, the question is, will it or won't it? And, exactly what it might do, I'm not too sure. But, I hope that it does do whatever it will do.

CURWOOD: I hear that this area has long been the largest nesting colony of white pelicans on the continent and that there's some 30,000 white pelicans that usually call the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge home. Is that right?

ELLIOTT: Yes, actually….well, the recordings that we've been playing come from just north of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in a waterfowl production area. The refuge itself is fenced in and there's a large lake with an island out in the middle that has the largest colony in North America, breeding white pelicans. And, the numbers have risen to nearly 30,000, but last year, for some unexplained reason, in late May, they began abandoning their nests and over a period of just a few days the majority of these birds just flew away, up and flew away.

CURWOOD: Leaving their eggs or their chicks behind?

ELLIOTT: Leaving the eggs, leaving young that had already hatched, all of which perished. Nobody knows why this happened in the history of the refuge, which was established in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt. They've never abandoned their nests so it's a real mystery and got a lot of people concerned. I'm told that the pelicans are now arriving again this year. There's 500 to a thousand that have appeared and everyone hopes that they will nest successfully this year and it will not be a repeat performance.

CURWOOD: Lang, thanks for taking this time with me, today.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Lang Elliott travels far and wide to record the natural world. His most recent book, which includes photos and a CD, is "Music of the Birds," published by Houghton Mifflin. To hear more sounds of birds of the North Dakota prairie region, go to our web site, living on earth dot org.

[BIRDS CHIRPING AND CALLING]

Related links:
- NatureSound Studio
- Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: Next week, on Living on Earth, Earth day turns 35. And, Hollywood celebrates by blowing the planet up, in the first nine minutes of a blockbuster movie. But don't worry. There's a happy ending.

MAN: What we have at the end of the movie is we have a back-up earth. Then, we get another shot at it. And, I think there's something really quite powerful and redemptive about that.

CURWOOD: The environmental vision of the late Douglas Adams, creator of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," on next week's Earth Day edition of Living on Earth.

[BIRD CHIRPS]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with one more bird, common to the wetlands.

[CHIRPING SOUNDS OF MARSH WREN]

CURWOOD: Lang Elliott recorded this marsh wren sitting atop a cattail in a North Dakota wetland.

[WREN CHIRPING CONTINUES]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Steve Gregory and Ingrid Lobet—with help from Christopher Bolick and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.