Insuring for a Hurricane/ Bruce Gellerman
(stream / mp3)
The last two deadly hurricane seasons set records for frequency, intensity and damage, but this year is expected to be as bad or worse. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman reports that insurance companies are using sophisticated models to hedge their bets and determine if global warming is playing a role. (06:00)
Coastal Real Estate
(stream / mp3)
With insurance premiums going through the roof in many seaside locations, homebuyers looking for oceanfront property may be in for a risky investment. Host Steve Curwood talks with Yale economics professor Robert Shiller about the current climate of coastal real estate. (06:00)
The ANWR Opinion Machine/ Jeff Young
(stream / mp3)
No one's made a penny drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the decades-long debate over the Refuge's fate has produced a gusher of money for pollsters, consultants, advertisers and activists in Washington. Living on Earth's Jeff Young looks at who's striking it rich in one of the nation's most enduring environmental fights. (07:00)
Not In Our Trainyard/ Bryan Thompson
(stream / mp3)
Concerns about air pollution from international trade are no longer limited to the nation’s coasts. In the town of Gardner, Kansas a proposal to build an enormous shipping operation, where trucks and trains would exchange cargo, is leading many residents to ask questions about future pollution related health effects. Bryan Thompson reports from Kansas Public Radio. (06:30)
Clean Port Partnership/ Ingrid Lobet
(stream / mp3)
Living on Earth’s Western Bureau Chief Ingrid Lobet fills host Steve Curwood in on new developments in reductions in air pollution in the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. (03:00)
Note on Emerging Science/ Tobin Hack
(stream / mp3)
Scientists have isolated adult stem cells in human hair follicles. Tobin Hack reports that these cells are surprisingly similar, but far less controversial, than their embryonic stem cell brothers. (01:30)
Dr. Livingston Goes High Tech/ Glenn Zorpette
(stream / mp3)
Tracking wild animals will never be the same thanks to new technology. Louis Liebenberg went to great lengths to develop and test a device to track critters on the run. Glenn Zorpette of Spectrum Magazine reports from South Africa. (05:30)
Bolivia's War On Globalization
(stream / mp3)
In the face of global industry, Bolivians maintain a deep connection to the natural beauty of their country and are fighting to protect it. Bill Powers tells the tale of this fight in his new book: Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle of Bolivia’s War on Globalization. (09:00)
A fourth of July fireworks display, Mother Nature-style.
Host: Steve Curwood
Guest: William Powers, Robert Shiller, Ingrid Lobet
Reporter: Bruce Gellerman, Bryan Thompson, Jeff Young, Glenn Zorpette
Note: Tobin Hack
CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The hundred billion tab in damages from the recent killer hurricanes has hit insurance companies hard. And that means homeowners are getting flooded with a tidal wave of rising premiums.
JOHNSTON: We're not talking of going from a thousand dollars to 12 hundred dollars. We're talking about going from 5 thousand to 10 thousand dollars.
CURWOOD: The high cost of living on the coast, and its effects on the real-estate market. Also, complaints that environmental groups have money as a motive in the debate over drilling in the arctic refuge.
NUNES : One of the reasons this continues to be used as propaganda by the environmental community is because it’s their number one source of fundraising throughout the country to use in political campaigns.
RAFLE : No one is getting rich trying to protect the arctic refuge.
CURWOOD: Those stories and more - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
[MUSIC: Boards of Canada "Zoetrope" from ‘In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000)]
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.
As coastal residents keep a watchful eye on the sky this hurricane season, they’re also watching their wallets. The past two years have seen hurricanes set records for frequency and intensity. As they have ripped through the homes and lives of coastal dwellers, they’ve killed thousands of people and left behind an estimated 175 billion dollars of damage and destruction. Now while personal losses in some cases have been staggering, with more than 75 billion in uninsured losses, in other cases insurance companies have helped soften the blow. But affordable insurance has become harder and harder to get. And some scientists warn that climate change will make the storms even worse.
Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman has our report.
GELLERMAN: If you live along the coast of the United States, and half the population does, just try buying hurricane insurance. Steve Burgess, Insurance Consumer Advocate in Florida, says you're in for a shock.
BURGESS: The consumer is really taking the brunt of a difficult situation.
JOHNSTON: In fact, most of the people in Key West, their bills have at least doubled, if not tripled. And you know, we're not talking of going from a thousand to 12 hundred dollars. We're talking about going from 5 thousand to 10 thousand dollars.
GELLERMAN: And that's just for windstorm insurance. It’s the only kind of hurricane insurance you can get on the Keys, and the only company offering it is the insurer of last resort in Florida: the quasi state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.
In the wake of the last 2 hurricane seasons, half a dozen Florida insurance companies have gone bankrupt, and others have left the state. Today, Citizens is the largest insurer in Florida, and 1.7 billion dollars in debt. And soon even it will stop writing new policies. State officials call it a crisis. Tracy Casper of West Palm Beach calls it horrific. Over the past decade her windstorm premium has gone from 300 dollars a year to 2,300 dollars last year to 8,300 dollars this year.
CASPER: I was given one month to pay the premium. And I don't care how much money you make, to pull out 8,000 dollars out of any account is, y'know, unsettling.
GELLERMAN: So Casper did what insurance companies do. She calculated the risk and decided not to pay the price.
CASPER: And we just didn’t feel that the risk made us feel that we needed to have that kind of coverage. We would rather take the risk and pay cash for whatever damage we would have. And we feel comfortable with that. But I am one of the few people I know that feels that way. People are so afraid, there's such fear mongering.
GELLERMAN: Hurricane hysteria has gripped the coastal region and is reverberating through the economy. Insurers call the phenomenon demand surge ‘a period of intense inflation in construction materials and services following a mega disaster’. That's one of the reasons insurance companies say they need to raise premiums. Insurance advocate Steve Burgess disagrees.
BURGESS: I think they have vastly overstated the losses that could reasonably be expected for the future year.
GELLERMAN: And Burgess wonders, what are the odds hurricanes this year will be as bad as the last two years?
BURGESS: We can even imagine a storm that’s a category five, that goes through Miami and crosses over and goes through Tampa, picks up steam and goes through the Panhandle. But the question is, how likely is that to happen?
GELLERMAN: Well, that's the 100 billion dollar question isn't it?
BURGESS: Yeah, that's exactly right.
GELLERMAN: According to risk analysts, there's a 3 percent chance a Katrina-size hurricane will strike again this year. Over the next ten years the probability goes up to 30 percent. Determining the odds of a disaster, it's potential cost, and risk to an insurer, is an art and science. And has sparked the creation of a new industry called catastrophe modeling. Catastrophe modelers, or "cat modelers," take into account weather trends, construction styles and designs, building materials and location. Then they compute the unthinkable. Karen Clark is president, founder and CEO of AIR Worldwide. The Boston Company pioneered the catastrophe modeling field.
CLARK: In fact in our model we capture scenarios that we haven't even seen yet. For example, we have simulated years where we could have 12 land falling hurricanes, which historically we haven't seen yet. But we know that it could happen.
GELLERMAN: But the models are only as good as the underlying assumptions that are used. Will there be more storms, or less? Will they be more severe or mild? And the big question: what about global warming? And how will it affect hurricanes? Karen Clark.
CLARK: There is a growing consensus that we are seeing climate change. We are seeing a warmer environment. However, because climate change is really a global phenomenon. It’s much more difficult for scientists to predict, if you will, the exact impact on hurricane activity, because hurricanes in the North Atlantic are a regional phenomenon.
GELLERMAN: Catastrophe modelers have recently consulted with climatologists to determine the effect of global warming on weather. The past two seasons have seen the frequency and intensity of hurricanes go up. But the insurance industry isn't willing, at least yet, to say it's due to climate change.
Ryan Ogaard uses catastrophe models from three different companies. He works for an insurance brokerage firm called Guy Carpenter. It's his job to figure out the risk to an insurance company's portfolio of properties. What's their exposure to disaster? How much money do they need to cover potential losses? The relationship between hurricanes and global warming is definitely on his radar.
OGAARD: Now, is that increased frequency caused by global warming? We don't know well enough and we can't measure that well enough to put it explicitly in the model as global warming, so the models are a bit agnostic about the cause. But they do see the frequency up.
GELLERMAN: The U.S. climate catastrophe models may be a bit agnostic, but European re-insurance firms have gotten the religion of climate change. Re-insurance companies insure insurers. They're known as the riverboat gamblers of the industry, the ones that insurance companies go to to spread their risk.
So while American reinsurers aren’t taking climate change into account, European re-insurers such as Swiss Re and Munich Re have been factoring global warming into their models for years. In fact, Swiss Re is bankrolling this new documentary called The Great Warming, starring Keanu Reeves.
[MOVIE CLIP - REEVES]
GELLERMAN: Hit hard by storms these past two seasons, re-insurance companies here and abroad want more money for assuming risk in today's hurricane environment. So insurance companies have to pay more for their insurance, and so do property owners. Re-insurance companies are largely unregulated. They can charge what the market will bear, and there's little consumers can do about the price of insurance. But, says Karen Clark of AIR Worldwide, people don't have to live in areas where the threat from hurricanes is greatest.
CLARK: Well quite frankly, I think this is one of the biggest problems that we face with respect to property damage from catastrophes, is that we keep building more expensive properties in coastal areas, very prone to severe events. So even if we were not experiencing global warming, the potential for catastrophe losses increases every year.
GELLERMAN: So you don't need to be a weatherman, insurance company, or catastrophe modeler to know which way the hurricane winds will blow. If you live on the coast, you're going to get hit. It's not a question of if…but when. For Living On Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
- “Florida’s Insurance Crisis” – Miami Herald
- Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation
- “Shifting Winds: A Review of Recent Changes in the Direction of Modelers and Rating Agencies”
- The Great Warming movie website
[MUSIC: Jim Metzner "Suikinkutsu" from ‘Pulse of the Planet’ (Pulse Planet – 2002)]
CURWOOD: So, how does all the turbulence of the coastal home insurance market affect the price of real estate in these areas? To get a perspective, we put in a call to Robert Shiller. He’s a professor of economics at Yale University and has written extensively on real estate in speculative markets. Hello Sir.
CURWOOD: We understand that people are having trouble buying and selling insurance for hurricanes. How does that affect the real estate market for coastal areas?
SHILLER: In principle, we know that insurance rates have been rising rapidly. The cost of insurance in the South has been a problem. It has been going up rapidly. It’s partly the insurance companies want more. And it’s partly because of the hurricane risk, which seems to be going up. And in many places in the South it’s also because damage claims for mold have been going up. So, in principle, that might be the way that increased risk hits home prices. Because people will see how much they have to pay for insurance on this home and then that will give them second thoughts about paying such a high price on the home. But that, you know it hasn’t really hit yet. But maybe the impact is delayed. I think that we have been going through such a psychological boom around glamour areas – and often coastal areas are glamour areas – around the country, that it’s been carrying prices up.
It’s been a rather sudden change. If you look at some of the data that’s been collected about the percentage of homes that are second homes, it’s gone up rapidly in the last few years. So that people are buying something like a third of all homes are either investment homes or vacation homes.
CURWOOD: Is there any evidence that climate change is affecting the climate of real estate?
SHILLER: Well, it’s a question of how much. It seems to me that homes on the shore are not necessarily good long-term investments. If global warming proceeds and the sea level rises and storms get worse, that’s another factor working in the other direction. I want you to view these as a risky investment. I would think that what’s coming up is we’ll see more and more opportunities to hedge the risk anyway. So, we just started a future’s market at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange where you can short the Miami home market now. And I think that people who want to live in the Miami area can buy a house there and then hedge their risk. And this is what’s coming I think more and more in the future.
CURWOOD: So wait a second. I buy a house for a million bucks and then I go to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and I get a hedge, I pay a price for somebody who would give me that million dollars if the price were to drop.
SHILLER: Effectively, yeah. You’d be selling a future’s contract. Or you could buy a put option. I know this sounds esoteric. Not many people are doing this yet. This is just starting out. But I think that in the future it will become important.
CURWOOD: Hmm. Are you buying any coastal real estate?
SHILLER: I have a home on Long Island Sound, yeah. It’s a second home. I bought it four years ago.
SHILLER: I don’t know if I’d buy it today.
CURWOOD: Why not? Why wouldn’t you maybe buy it today?
SHILLER: Well, looking here in Connecticut along the shore, I see an awful lot of for sale signs up on these properties. And it mirrors what we see nationally. That the inventory of unsold homes is soaring. Now I don’t have data on coastal areas, but it looks to me like it’s even more intense along the coast. So, when this happens it’s not a good time to buy unless you can get a really good price.
CURWOOD: Where do you think, if there was to be a tipping point in the market, the coastal market, where do you think it might tip first?
SCHILLER: Well, I worry about price drops in real estate. We have seen an enormous rise, you know, doubling or even tripling in many areas. And some of these coastal areas are the most extreme. Cape Cod, Nantucket, they’ve gotten so high on those Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. If you look at a nice house in town, not even on the water, you could pay five million dollars for it. If we see a weakening of the market, they could be an early show of decline. But there are a lot of differences in price that I think are due to public attention and public sense of glamour that in the long run may not be so sustainable.
CURWOOD: Robert Shiller is professor of economics at Yale University. He’s author of the book Irrational Exuberance, an Analysis of Real Estate, Stock Market, and other speculative bubbles. Professor, thanks for speaking with me today.
SHILLER: It was a pleasure.
[MUSIC: Marconi Union "Sleepless" from ‘Distance’ (All Saints Records – 2006)]
CURWOOD: Coming up, this may be a free country, but getting Congress to consider your cause can cost a pretty penny. The dollar dimension of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge debate is just ahead. Keep listening to Living On Earth.
[MUSIC: Arthur Russell "Instrumental A" from ‘First Thought Best Thought’ (Audika – 2006)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted, yet again, to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. It’s the tenth time the House has approved drilling in the refuge. What the Senate will do with the bill is less certain. One thing is certain though: a small army of lobbyists, consultants, direct mailers, advertisers and activists will be on hand to try to sway votes. After decades of debate, no one has made a penny drilling for oil in the Arctic refuge but in Washington D.C. it’s already a gusher. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has a look at the cottage industry that’s grown up around one of the country’s most enduring environmental conflicts.
HOUSE SPEAKER: …under the rule, the yeas and nays are ordered. Members will record their votes by electronic device (GAVEL SLAM!).
YOUNG: Congress has voted on drilling in the Arctic refuge, or ANWR, as it’s known here, so many times now, it seems the only thing to add to the debate is why they seem to do it every year. California Republican Representative Devin Nunes thinks he knows why.
YOUNG: The proof, Nunes says, is in the many email alerts and postcards telling drilling opponents to call congress and send money. The Defenders of Wildlife will even send you a plush toy polar bear. It’s not clear how much cash stuffed polar bears bring in. Defenders of Wildlife declined to comment. Their tax records show $23 million dollars in direct contributions last year. So, are environmental groups just milking a cash cow here?
BOSSO: No. I think to argue that ANWR is the number one fundraiser for the environmental community is way overstating things.
YOUNG: That’s Chris Bosso, a Tufts University Political science professor and author of the book, "Environment, Inc." Bosso says it’s true; many environmental groups seek support for the Arctic fight. But if they were hyping the issue purely to make money, as Congressman Nunes charges, they would quickly lose the most valuable thing they have, the trust of their donating members.
BOSSO: These organizations are, at the end of the day, responsive to their donors. Because if they don’t do what the donors want, you can go somewhere else, you can give to another organization. So organizations are very careful about the currency of the realm. The currency of the realm is their reputation as legitimate advocates for a cause. And if you screw up that legitimacy, you have big trouble.
YOUNG: Bosso says the only groups that can raise funds on the Arctic issue are the ones with long records in protecting wildlife and wilderness and changing energy policy—the issues at the heart of the Arctic drilling debate. Pete Rafle is a spokesperson for The Wilderness society.
RAFLE: The arctic national wildlife refuge is in the DNA of the wilderness society.
YOUNG: Rafle says the wilderness society’s interest in protecting the Alaskan wilds dates to the 1930s. The group got $26 million in direct contributions last year. But Rafle says money raised for the arctic refuge goes to that effort.
RAFLE: Well, no one is getting rich trying to protect the arctic refuge. Every dollar coming in gets spent trying to protect this place. And we’d like nothing better than to move on to other issues but as long as it comes up in congress, we’re going to have to raise and spend money to protect it.
YOUNG: Rafle offers few specifics on how that money is spent. Tax records show the Wilderness Society gave direct mail company SMS Direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to print up things like post card appeals to protect the arctic. Among SMS Direct’s other clients is the Republican National Committee, which wants to drill in the Arctic. And there’s a hint as to who’s really found a gusher in the arctic debate: the direct mailers, pollsters and consultants who make up the Washington public opinion machine, some of them working both sides of the argument.
KRUMHOLZ: It’s no secret that consultants that have specialized in this have made a lot of money, especially in recent years.
YOUNG: That’s Shiela Krumholz, with the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that tracks money in Washington. Krumholz says the real money in the arctic debate is with those who want to drill.
KRUMHOLZ: Oil and gas has spent millions of dollars, 200 million since 1989, on campaign contributions. 46 million just in last year on lobbying, and the environmental groups really can’t hold a candle to that.
YOUNG: The two main groups advocating drilling in the refuge are Arctic Power and the Arctic Regional Slope Corporation. Krumholz says the member companies of those groups gave 10 million in campaign cash in five years. Add up the campaign spending by environmental groups, and it’s about 3% of that. Of course, not all the money the oil industry spends in Washington is just about arctic drilling—the industry has a lot on its plate. But Krumholz says the bigger the money, the greater the access.
KRUMHOLZ: That money opens up doors in congress, so this is a very useful tool to have in their tool kit as they are lobbying on a whole host of issues, among them ANWR.
YOUNG: The latest to tap into that money is a public relations firm based in Oregon called Pac West. The firm won a controversial 3 million dollar no-bid contract from the state of Alaska to push for Arctic drilling. Tom Randall is a consultant on the Pac West PR team, using a mix of lobbying, advertising and what he calls grass roots campaigning.
RANDALL: Well, grass roots are very effective. We do grassroots political
Campaigns. Every campaign for president has a grass roots component; because that’s one of the ways you can reach people.
YOUNG: Randall says the grass roots part is called ‘Americans for American Energy,’ which generates pro-drilling letters to congress and editors of local papers. Randall says Americans for American Energy is, essentially, one worker paid by Pac West.
YOUNG: Is it really grass roots, though? I mean if a PR firm gets 3 million dollars to carry out a campaign, that’s not what I think most people think of when they hear grass roots.
RANDALL: It’s grass roots if it gets a grassroots response, if other people in the grassroots join in, and that effort is multiplied, then you have a grassroots movement.
YOUNG: Randall says he thinks this approach will work. He predicts a Senate vote to drill the Arctic Refuge by the end of this session. If he’s right, it could be bad news for those striking it rich on the ANWR debate. Again, political money tracker Krumholz.
KRUMHOLZ: It’ll be a bittersweet victory for those consultants, should ANWR pass because they will no longer be able to reap the rewards that they have been in the last few years.
YOUNG: For Living On Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Washington.
- Center for Responsive Politics report on Arctic Drilling money:
- Americans for American Energy
- Center for Media and Democracy’s Sourcewatch report on the PR firm PAC/WEST
- Website for lobbying group Arctic Power
- The Wilderness Society arctic drilling campaign
[MUSIC: Xn. "Gone Home Early (Omid Remix)" from ‘Sounds Are Active’ (Asthmatic Kitty – 2006)]
CURWOOD: This year the US is projected to import 700 billion dollars more goods than we export, and boost our enormous trade deficit even further. And to get our goods home from this global shopping spree, we are putting more and more pressure on trucking and railroads. As shippers try to meet this demand, they’re running into trouble with community and health groups concerned about the dangerous particulates from diesel exhaust at the shipping terminals. One such community is not far from the birthplace of the historic Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Bryan Thompson of Kansas Public Radio has the latest in our ongoing series "The Haze Over Trade."
THOMPSON: The town of Gardner lies just southwest of Kansas City. Nearby is a marker where pioneers in covered wagons headed west had to choose between the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. The Santa Fe Trail has always been a major shipping route, but freight moves a lot faster along the line now than it did in the days of the pioneers.
THOMPSON: This former Santa Fe mainline, now owned by BNSF, connects Chicago with the ports of Los Angeles and San Diego. Trains like this one bring goods imported from the Pacific Rim to America’s heartland. The products are in large shipping containers stacked atop flatbed railcars.
FRIZZELL: Yes, I believe those are the exact type that we’ve been talking about. They will be lifted off of those trains and put on to the trucks.
THOMPSON: That’s Gardner resident Damon Frizzell. The facility he’s referring to is a gigantic intermodal shipping operation—a huge rail yard, where containers would be off-loaded from trains, and then transferred to trucks for distribution. The facility would be surrounded by new warehouses and distribution centers. Frizzell says trucks would be coming and going virtually all the time. Lots of trucks.
FRIZZELL: When it is fully developed it will then be approximately 59,700 truck trips per day, is what the estimate we’ve seen is.
THOMPSON: The city takes issue with that number. Community Development Director Fred Sherman says opponents of the facility are misinterpreting the findings of a recent traffic study.
SHERMAN: The NSF has projected their ultimate operation is over a million lifts a year. A lift is either a container from a truck to a train, or a train to a truck. And doing the math, kind of taking a million divided by the work days, comes out to about 4,000 trucks a day. When you put 12 million square foot of warehousing plus intermodal facility, it’s going to be in the neighborhood of 5,000 trucks a day out of that 59,000 trips.
THOMPSON: That’s still a lot of truck traffic. It works out to almost four trucks a minute, every minute of every day. Dorine Graceffa is concerned about the amount of diesel exhaust the trucks and trains will spew into the air.
GRACEFFA: I have to move. I am not going to allow my child to get sick, and I can’t afford to pay more medical bills if this comes here.
THOMPSON: Graceffa’s 14-year-old son, Vincent, has severe asthma. His doctor is concerned that the condition will be aggravated by the exhaust fumes from the trucks and trains. Graceffa is not just talking about moving to a different house. She says they’d have to leave Gardner altogether. That’s because Vincent’s high school is less than a mile from the shipping facility—and the prevailing wind would carry the exhaust toward the school.
Diesel exhaust plays a significant role in the formation of ground-level ozone. It’s also a major source of ultra-fine particles in the air. William Barkman directs the Center for Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He says those particles are a growing health concern.
BARKMAN: We don’t know exactly what the mechanism is for those particles causing increased cardiovascular mortality from air pollution. We just know it happens. And in terms of the lung effects of it, obviously if you’re getting more dose in the lung, the lung has to deal with it and has the potential to cause a problem, especially if you have an underlying condition.
THOMPSON: Barkman says the level of risk posed by diesel exhaust is directly related to the concentration of ozone, fine particles, and other pollutants in the air.
BARKMAN: We know there can be health effects. The simplest thing to do would be to start looking at what are the levels and where do they compare against standards. You can do modeling based on the number of trucks or the number of engines or whatever.
THOMPSON: But that kind of modeling hasn’t been done yet and it’s not clear when it will be. Clark Duffy, who oversees air quality for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says the new facility may not even require a permit.
DUFFY: What we have been in discussions with were linked to Northern Santa Fe is to make sure that they use all of the best management practices to develop a state of the art facility that has the absolute minimum air pollution that can be in that type of a facility.
THOMPSON: Duffy says the state will wait and see if there’s a problem. Officials plan to monitor emissions from the site.
DUFFY: We can say that only certain vehicles that meet certain environmental standards within their engine components or have low sulfur fuels are allowed to enter the facility. There are a lot of techniques that we can use to improve air quality.
THOMPSON: Duffy says moving the railroad’s current intermodal operations to Gardner should actually reduce pollution in Kansas City, even though the wind will tend to carry pollution from Gardner in that general direction.
KALB: We want to be a part of the solution to the air quality issues in the greater Kansas City area and I think we can help do that.
THOMPSON: That’s Skip Kalb, the railroad’s director of Strategic Development. The company points out that trains are much more fuel efficient than trucks. Greater reliance on trains results in fewer trucks on the highways, and lower overall emissions. But many Gardner residents aren’t satisfied with such promises. Yard signs all over town bear bold, red letters reading "no intermodal". Several people wore white T-shirts with that same message at a recent meeting of a committee formed to advise the city council about the proposed facility. When the leader of the opposition, Claude Hobby, was given a chance to speak, the audience of 500 in the high school gymnasium left no doubt where they stand.
HOBBY: These people here tonight continue to say ‘no intermodal.’ We mean that. They should be included in the decision making process, not excluded. We do not want this. We continue to say it does not have to be a done deal.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
THOMPSON: It may not be a done deal, but federal law gives railroads a lot of authority to conduct rail operations on land they own. That makes it an uphill battle for people trying to stop development of these big shipping facilities in Gardner or anywhere else, for that matter.
For Living On Earth, I’m Bryan Thompson.
CURWOOD: It may seem like an uphill battle for communities that border the nations ever-expanding trade and transport hubs, but in Los Angeles, where fully 40 percent of the nation’s shipping containers enter the country, and where the cry over diesel exhaust has been the loudest, there’s now significant change. With me to talk about what some consider a key environmental justice issue is Living On Earth’s Western bureau chief, Ingrid Lobet. Ingrid, what are the new developments in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach?
LOBET: Well, it’s a pretty big deal. These two ports with their trains and ships and trucks emit more pollution that LA’s 6 million cars. And they’ve always been in competition with each other, but now they are cooperating. And they’ve jointly announced what they’re calling the most aggressive plan to reduce health risk and air pollution in America’s seaport history. It’s a 50 percent reduction in diesel particles in 5 years.
CURWOOD: Wow, that’s significant. But haven’t the ports always argued that they’re just the landlords to these cargo ships and semi trailers, that they couldn’t make them do anything.
CURWOOD: But now isn’t it really the trucks that receive the shipping containers on the docks that are one of the biggest problems, not just the ships.
LOBET: Yeah, I think they are the biggest problem and here there are going to have to be buy-outs and incentives for truckers to upgrade, because these short distance truck drivers, many of them own their own rigs and they’re operating on really thin margins. They just can’t afford to buy shinny new tractor-trailers with new engines, even if they want to.
CURWOOD: There must be thousands of these trucks. I think it must cost a fortune to replace them before their time.
LOBET: Yeah, it looks like it might cost about 1.7 billion dollars. And the ports haven’t said where that money will come from. They’ve pledged some of it, but they’re also going to be asking taxpayers to bear this burden with a bond measure on November’s ballot.
CURWOOD: What if that bond issue doesn’t pass?
LOBET: If it doesn’t pass, these ports and the local and state air authorities and the EPA and the shippers, they’re all going to have to come up with some other source of funding. But I wouldn’t say the plan is dead, Steve. And that’s because the talk you’re hearing now has really changed. We seem to have turned a corner.
There was a lawsuit over health and environmental concerns that actually shut down construction briefly. That combined with that you have more environmentally friendly leadership at the ports and these health studies that keep piling up for this community that’s already disproportionately affected by refineries and freeways. I think the port leadership realizes it’s not going to be able to continue to expand its operations here unless it radically cleans up these big engines. Times are changing.
CURWOOD: Thanks, Ingrid.
LOBET: Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet heads our Western bureau in Los Angeles.
[MUSIC: Patagonian "Hands In the Face Of Time" from ‘Sounds Are Active’ (Asthmatic Kitty - 2006)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: one man’s search for a sustainable formula to protect Bolivia’s natural resources.
First, this note on emerging science from Tobin Hack.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
HACK: In their search for regenerative cell therapies that might some day cure Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases, scientists have studied adult stem cells found in the hair follicles of mice.
Now, for the first time, Pathologist Dr. George Xu, at the University of Pennsylvania, has isolated a new adult stem cell in the human hair follicle. He calls it "multipotent," because it can transform into many kinds of tissue. By culturing these multipotent cells with proteins and minerals, Dr. Xu has already gotten the hair follicle stem cells to differentiate into skin, nerve, muscle, bone, cartilage, and fat tissue.
These multipotent stem cells contain certain proteins – called markers – that have previously been found only in embryonic stem cells. And they can duplicate themselves without the help of other cells, meaning that a single stem cell can be extracted from a hair follicle, cultured in a lab, and produce a colony of cells. That’s a good thing, because only one or two of them exist in every follicle, but thousands would be required for regenerative treatments.
Although stem cells from human hair follicles are much harder to come by, and less versatile than embryonic stem cells, they’re less controversial in today’s political and religious debates over the ethics of stem cell research.
That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Tobin Hack.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Kashi, whose "Day of Change" tour features yoga lessons, natural food cooking demos, and Kashi cereals, crackers and granola bars. Details at Kashi dot com; The Kresge Foundation, investing in nonprofits to help them catalyze growth, connect to stakeholders, and challenge greater support. On the web at Kresge dot org; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf dot org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: Joanna Newsom "Sprout & Bean" from ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ (Drag City – 2004)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Of the thousands of people who started software companies in the go-go decade of the 1990’s, Louis Liebenberg’s path was among the most circuitous and treacherous. It started in the Kalahari bush where Mr. Liebenberg was charged by a rhinoceros and stalked by a lion. He even survived the dot-com implosion with his software company intact. Reporter Glenn Zorpette traveled to South Africa and brought back this story about what can happen when the cyber world meets the wild world.
ZORPETTE: In rumpled khakis and hiking boots, with binoculars and a lion’s tooth hanging around his neck, Louis Liebenberg could be any eco-tourist. But this grizzled white-bearded engineer claims distinction as having made perhaps the greatest contribution to animal tracking ever. His company, cyber tracker software of Cape Town, South Africa, offers a hand-held computer program that simplifies and automates the task of monitoring wildlife. Available for free, it has been a huge hit with wildlife officials, conservationists, zoologists, field biologists, animal trackers and anti-poaching officers who’ve been downloading the software at a rate of nearly 2,000 copies a month.
The beauty of the program lies in its user interface, which Liebenberg says, was conceived for Bushmen who don’t read or write.
LIEBENGERG: I was hunting with a Bushman who, as they go on a day hunt, they scan the area and they collect information on the movement of animals based on their tracks and signs. So, they effectively bowled up a picture of what is happening in the entire area. And then in the evenings they will discuss that and strategize and decide where to go the next day. So I sort of figured if you could somehow capture that information, it could be of incredible value to research and to conservation.
ZORPETTE: To record an animal sighting the user simply chooses from a menu of pictograms- impalas, plain zebra, African elephants- and then taps the screen the appropriate number of times. Five taps, five animals. The user can even record animal tracks through a menu of footprint pictograms. The hand-helds are all equipped with GPS cards so the location and time of the sighting is added to the record automatically. All the data can later be transferred to a color-coded map that offers an immediate and compelling view of where animals are roaming, congregating, eating and sleeping.
Liebenberg says there are about 50 ongoing cyber tracker projects in Africa alone. And they’ve had some dramatic results.
LIEBENBERG: I think one of the biggest breakthroughs with that was in the Congo. A project involved getting a huge amount of data on guerillas, forest elephants, the antelope, the plants, the forest itself. And with the outbreak of Ebola, for the first time they could actually see the extent of the impact of Ebola on guerillas. And not only that, you could clearly just see that there’s an area where the guerillas were present before the outbreak and where the guerillas were completely gone, they were completely wiped out.
ZORPETTE: Liebenberg’s inspiration for cyber tracker came from a course he took on the philosophy of science. He became seized with a vague but deep conviction that the answers to some of the fundamental questions about the origins of science were to be found in the ancient practice of animal tracking. He resolved to write a book on tracking and to do it properly. He would go and live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari of Botswana and Namibia, learning how to track and hunt from them.
Liebenberg spent 10 years tracking and hunting with Bushmen. By the mid 1990’s he resolved to find a way to help non-trained people do something like what a tracker does and at the same time to empower trackers to really come into their own.
LIEBENBERG: I first conceived of a form of computerized tracking I think way back in 1990. That’s even before hand-held computers existed and even before I knew about GPS.
ZORPETTE: Cyber tracker first caught the attention of European Union officials who gave Liebenberg a grant of 2 million euros. That money still provides for 80 percent of cyber tracker’s operating expenses. The rest comes from modest grants from Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund. But with his EU funding set to run out later this year Liebenberg is grappling with the future of cyber tracker. He figures he may have to find a new benefactor, or start charging customers for downloads. But he hesitates to do that for fear of diminishing valuable user feed back. Worst case, Liebenberg figures he goes back to tracking, tour guiding, and evaluating trackers and reemerges from the jungle when his cyber tracker user base gets big enough for the business to be self-sustaining.
LIEBENBERG: I think even long after the research value has diminished to a point where it no longer pays to go there, I’ll probably still continue to go there just to socialize with the Bushmen and just to enjoy that sort of solitude and remoteness of the wilderness.
ZORPETTE: Of course, the jungle offers the company of animals and Liebenberg will know precisely where they are. For Living On Earth, I’m Glenn Zorpette.
CURWOOD: Glenn Zorpette is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of Eye-Triple E Spectrum magazine. To find out more about cyber tracker Louis Liebenberg visit our website, Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot O-R-G.
[MUSIC: Sufjan Stevens "Year Of The Tiger" from ‘Sounds Are Active’ (Asthmatic Kitty Records – 2006)]
CURWOOD: Bolivia is one of only two landlocked nations on the continent of South America. Still, it contains some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
From the Andes Mountains in the West, to the Amazonian rainforests in the east, Bolivia is rich in nature and in natural resources. But Bolivia is not a wealthy country. Conservation there is under pressure from global economic interests. William Powers worked for environmental and humanitarian organizations in Bolivia and he’s written a book about his experiences. It’s called: Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization. Hello Sir.
POWERS: Well Morales is a man from the countryside. He was a farmer. Aymara Indian who rose up through union ranks and became president of Bolivia in a free and fair election in a landslide victory. And there is a large feeling in the country that he could bring hope. That business as usual, all the corruption and everything else could change. And I want to just stress one thing, that we need to get over our obsession with Morales as a threat, and Bolivia as a threat to our way of life, which you see so much of in the main stream media. If anything it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to engage a new kind of a vision that can benefit Bolivians and reduce the inequality and create more stability. So, it’s just a question of being open-minded and viewing Morales in a new way.
CURWOOD: In your view, Bill, what is Bolivia doing right in terms of managing globalization, especially the environmental piece of it?
POWERS: That’s a great question. Bolivia actually, in my view, challenges the myths that third world countries are too poor to be green. Here’s a country that’s full of superlatives. They’ve got the world’s first debt for nature swap, the world’s largest protected dry tropical forest, the world’s largest forest-based Kyoto experiments. This is a country that has leaders, environmental entrepreneurs, Bolivians, who fight for their areas. And it’s kind of a beautiful thing to be a part of that. And I think now with this Morales government there’s a lot of hope that Bolivia could pursue an agenda that continues to be even more green, and especially around ecological tourism. The country has vast and beautiful areas. So, there’s more and more tourists coming, especially now that they know there is a democratic government. And there’s hopefully going to be more stability. And I think there is a lot more interest in Bolivia now, which will continue to grow.
CURWOOD: Now, William Powers, you came to Bolivia with a pretty cushy job. You were working for what, the Catholic Relief Services.
POWERS: That’s right.
CURWOOD: Then you leave this job to go work for a grassroots environmental group in the rainforest protecting an area that would, what, be some three million acres at the end of the day. What made you give up, you know, the expatriate life in a place like La Paz is pretty cushy?
POWERS: It is. When I landed in La Paz I was given the keys to a brand new SUV that I had unlimited use to. An apartment that was parallel to the pent house in one of La Paz’s most exclusive buildings. And I had a big corner office and a secretary. And I gave that up because I realized what was going on in the country. There were such dramatic changes, hunger strikes, people protesting right under my building. And a special girlfriend that I had, a Bolivian girlfriend there, who inspired me to think outside of the ex-pat bubble, if you will, in La Paz, and really try to get more in touch with the local people. So, I decided to leave and take a big salary cut and work for a local NGO, a local non-profit in Bolivia, an environmental group in the Amazon.
POWERS: Well, that’s a beautiful story that Salvador told to me in a jeep, on a 24-hour jeep ride. And there’s a tree, according to the mythology of the people in that area, that holds up the world. And it holds up the Amazon’s seven skies. And each of the seven skies has a world similar to ours with pampas and waterfalls, and burochi wolves and all kinds of creatures. And you don’t want to cut down just any tree in the forest because it may be the tree that holds up everything and the seven skies could come crashing down on our heads. So, the Indians in that area ask permission of the spirit owner, or Amo, of the particular tree before cutting it down. So, it’s a rich, a rich and fertile cosmology.
CURWOOD: But now, the people you were working with in the rainforest, they didn’t have a word for nature, you say. Why not?
POWERS: Well, to them nature is not something that can be abstracted or taken out of us and sliced and diced. It’s a concept that’s completely integral to them. So there was no word for that, no sort of term. The closest term may have been ‘the shimmering forest.’ And I think that says a lot about the way they view the world.
CURWOOD: Talk to me a little bit about the landscape that you’re in. This is a special place. A place where, among other things I gather, you can become a bee.
POWERS: [LAUGHS] Ok, yes that’s right. This is one of the world’s largest Kyoto protocol rainforest experiments that I worked in, and ah, it’s a gorgeous place. It’s really amazing. You have the Juanchaco Mesa, which was the inspiration for Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle’s, The Lost World. And it is 20 waterfalls crashing off the Juanchaco Mesa into lush primary rainforest with macaws and tapirs and all kinds of wildlife. So that’s where these folks live. And do you want me to tell the story about the bees?
CURWOOD: Well, yes please.
POWERS: [LAUGHS] Well I was back with three of the chiefs of the Chiquitano tribes in that area and we where driving through the rainforest and I had to drive because of course they had never driven, and being unaccustomed to such incredible roads I planted our truck into a huge mud hole. Well, bees came from all over. First hundreds, then thousands, then literally tens of thousands of bees had surrounded the car. They were crawling up my nose, in my hair, up my shirt and everything and I screamed.
CURWOOD: Yeah, I would too.
POWERS: Because I think they were stinging me all over my body. But the chiefs said to me, you’re the only one that can drive. You have to get back into the truck. Which for me was a hive at this point, full of bees. You have to get back in the truck and you have to figure out a way of getting the truck our of this mud hole. They had already put a bunch of sticks and branches under the wheels so we could get out. I didn’t want to get back in until they told me something. They said, you are a bee. And I said ‘what?’ They said, ‘you are a bee’. The point was that you have to go with the bee energy, become like the species and you will not get stung. And sure enough with that little mantra in my head- ‘be a bee, be a bee,’ I got back in the car and successfully got out of the hole.
CURWOOD: So, how did they view you as someone there just optionally, not really having to make the hard choices that someone like a Salvador might have to make for their own survival?
POWERS: Well, a lot of us in international development, we go into it in some ways to see what it’s like to be poor, and end up learning what it’s like to be rich. And I think that there is a certain amount of jealousy about that. And about the fact that whatever happens, even if total chaos broke out or there was any kind of a problem, you’d be evacuated. And there is a certain amount of tension in that. But I guess what I was trying to do was to get closer, to get out of the bubble, the real bubble in La Paz and bridge the worlds a little bit more by being one of them, by joining the reality of the long 24-hour road trips even though I had the option to take a plane out there. And to camp, to use my tent, to live in thatched huts as much as possible, to really try to participate a little more in their reality. And I think they appreciate that. I think there is a certain sense that when we Americans learn the language well and participate in cross boundaries like that I think it has a positive effect in terms of solidarity.
CURWOOD: William Power’s new book is called Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, a Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s war on Globalization. Thanks, Bill.
POWERS: Thanks so much for having me.
[MUSIC: Gotan Project "Criminal" from Lunatico (XL Recordings – 2006)]
CURWOOD: Next week - Oil companies are raking in record profits. The money – they say – is reinvested in energy technology and exploration. But some lawmakers claim the numbers don't add up.
WYDEN: I think the American people deserve a true accounting of what’s been going on behind the numbers at the gas pump and where their hard-earned money has been going for the past several years.
Following the flow of oil money – that’s next time on Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime on our website, or get a download for your iPod or other personal listening device. The address is LOE dot org. That's LOE dot O-R-G. You can reach us at comments @ l-o-e dot org. Once again, comments @ l-o-e dot O-R-G. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. And you can call our listener line, at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. CD's and transcripts are fifteen dollars.
CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a celebration interrupted. Guy Hand recorded this thunderstorm on the Fourth of July in Boise, Idaho that upstaged a fireworks display by igniting several fires and destroying a million dollar home.
[EARTH EAR: “Fourth of July Lightening Storm” recorded by Guy Hand in Boise, Idaho (July 4th, 2006)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky and Jennifer Chu - with help from Bobby Bascomb, Kelley Cronin, and James Curwood. Our interns are Tobin Hack and Allison Smith. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE 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; Kashi, whose “Day of Change” tour features yoga lessons, natural food cooking demos, and an array of Kashi products. Details at Kashi dot com. 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, the Ford Foundation, the Town Creek Foundation, and the Saunders Hotel Group of Boston's Lennox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.
ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR: National Public Radio.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
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.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth