Will Congress Go Green?
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As Democrats take the reins in both houses of Congress, the outlook for the environment may be a bit brighter than in recent years. Darren Samuelsohn, an environment reporter for the online news service Greenwire, joins host Bruce Gellerman to talk about what to expect on the environmental agenda in the 110th Congress. (07:30)
Enviros Climb Back Up the Hill
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Environmentalists now have more friends in Congress. Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, tells Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman that with Democratic lawmakers at the helm, he predicts energy and climate change will be front and center in 2007. (04:45)
Water on Mars?
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A recent round of discoveries made by NASA robots indicates there might be flowing water under the surface of Mars. And where there's water there may be life. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks with host Bruce Gellerman about the search for living organisms on Mars. (07:30)
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Living on Earth dips into the mailbag to hear from listeners. (02:15)
365 Ways for 365 Days
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Author Michael Norton challenges armchair activists everywhere with his new book “365 Ways to Change the World; How to Make a Difference One Day at a Time.” It’s a call-to-action with suggestions ranging from clicking on a website to save the rainforest to throwing pies at pompous politicians. (06:30)
Emerging Science Note/ Jennifer Percy
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Scientists are building a new device that instantaneously translates mouthed words into a foreign language. Jennifer Percy reports. (01:50)
Deep In the Heart of Texas It’s Coal Versus Climate/ Jeff Young
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As part of Living on Earth’s new series “Generating Controversy: The Changing Climate of Coal,” Living on Earth’s Jeff Young visits Texas to report on the dispute over a rush to build more than a dozen new coal-fired power plants. The Governor says they're needed to alleviate a coming crunch in power supply. But it's sparked a backlash from some unlikely opponents concerned about air quality and climate change. (15:20)
Wiley Coyote and his friends howl away at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUEST: Gene Karpinski, Michael Norton, Darren Samuelsohn, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
REPORTER: Jeff Young
SCIENCE NOTE: Jen Percy
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. The 110th Congress swears in, Democrats swear to make the environment a priority, but politics is always at play in DC.
SAMUELSOHN: With a divided government in Washington, sometimes strange things can happen. So, it will be interesting to see if this administration ends up signing things that you wouldn't have thought they would have signed in the first six years.
GELLERMAN: Also, in Texas a proposal to build eleven coal-fired power plants is on the fast track.
MORGAN: We’re going to be facing a supply crunch starting in 2008. So we’re looking forward and seeing we need to get some power plants built.
GELLERMAN: But opponents, including many ranchers say, whoaaa not so fast.
HADDEN: We think the best answer is energy efficiency, renewable energy. Especially in Texas we should be rich on our sun and wind.
GELLERMAN: Generating Controversy: The Changing Climate of Coal. This week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
[NPR NEWS CAST]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. It’s official. The 110th Congress is now in session and the first woman speaker in history will preside.
ANNOUNCER: Therefore the Hon. Nancy Pelosi of the state of California is duly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives having received the majority of the votes cast.
(APPLAUSE FADES UNDER)
GELLERMAN: Democrat Pelosi was quick to chart a change of course for Congress far different from the agenda the Republicans had set. Pelosi emphasized environmental issues will be fundamental to her vision of a new America.
PELOSI: A new America that declares our energy independence promotes domestic sources of renewable energy and combats climate change.
GELLERMAN: So, now the Democrats have control of both houses of Congress, and George W. Bush is a lameduck president. What happens now? Can the Democrats pull off their ambitious environmental agenda? Darren Samuelsohn is senior reporter on energy and the environment at Greenwire, an online daily news service, and he joins us to discuss what’s in the works as lawmakers get down to business.
Darren, Welcome to Living on Earth.
SAMUELSOHN: Nice to be here.
GELLERMAN: Both houses of Congress are going to be in the hands of the Democrats. What do you see as the Democrat’s top 3 environmental priorities in 2007?
SAMUELSOHN: There’s probably a whole host of things they want to take on but I would say you would put energy independence and renewable energy at the top of their list. They want to shift the focus financially in terms of what the federal government has been spending from oil and gas industries to stimulating solar and wind, renewable energy resources. I think climate change is one of their top priorities. It’s one of the bigger heavier lifts that they’ll pick up. And then oversight of the Bush administration is something that will probably be the easiest thing for them to do. They can hold hearings in the House and the Senate looking at everything for the last six years, maybe focusing more on what’s happened in the last year or two. We’re talking about air pollution policies, water pollution policies, endangered species policies, fire policies. The whole gamut I think is on the table.
SAMUELSOHN: Uh, certainly the ability to give the public more of an opportunity to look into these items is something. With Republicans in control for four of Bush’s six years in office really a lot of the things that have happened on the regulatory front out of the agencies have not been closely scrutinized. At least on an oversight level it’s a 180 difference from last year.
GELLERMAN: Of course the new head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is Jeff Bingaman who is a Democrat from New Mexico and he replaces Republican Pete Domenici Republican from New Mexico. What is going to be the difference in terms of their energy visions?
SAMUELSOHN: They are very similar people when it comes to philosophical legislative approaches. They’re both very methodical senators. The difference will come in how much attention Senator Bingaman puts on renewables as opposed to Senator Domenici who when he pushed through the energy bill that President Bush signed in 2005, it was a lot of people said heavy for the oil and gas industries; lots of subsidies for them, lots of tax breaks for them. With Senator Bingaman I think you have definitely an opportunity to move legislation with renewables in mind. Then on top of that Senator Bingaman does have a different perspective on climate change. Senator Bingaman spent the last two years in the minority trying to convince Senator Domenici to come on board in limiting green house gas emissions in the United States. He was unsuccessful. Domenici is kind of flirting with that. So Bingaman has a different take on regulating green house gas emissions.
GELLERMAN: Both are big advocates of nuclear energy. New Mexico is the site of the new nuclear enrichment facility. What do we see in terms of nuclear energy?
SAMUELSOHN: Despite what Domenici and Bingaman have to say about nuclear power the head of the Senate now will be Harry Reid from neighboring state Nevada. And Harry Reid is an opponent of Yucca Mountain and the waste repository the Bush Administration and the energy department want to put there. So there’s going to be an interesting clash between the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the two New Mexicans are in charge of and the leader of the Senate Democrats, Harry Reid.
GELLERMAN: So, without cracking the Yucca Mountain the future of nuclear energy in this country is dead on arrival?
SAMUELSOHN: Uh, certainly from an industry perspective I think that they’re going to still keep working toward trying to construct, trying to permit new plants. If you talk to people who worked on that energy law in 2005, they’re highly excited about the fact that there are all of these permits now moving through the process. Those are going to move forward and of course the energy department will keep doing what it’s doing. And President Bush will keep as a proponent of nuclear. So, no I don’t think that it’s dead on arrival.
GELLERMAN: What are the chances that we’ll actually see a new climate bill in Congress?
SAMUELSOHN: I have been tracking this closely. I just pulled out my list of new senators the other day to try and figure out where the senators are on this. And it looks like there are enough senators in this Congress that could pass something with global warming in mind with limits on green house gas emissions. It might not be as strong as environmentalists want. It might not be what scientists say is necessary at this point. But it would be a first step for the United States that it hasn’t taken. Is it going to happen in the next two years? I mean you have to overcome President Bush and his opposition. And you have to overcome even in the House with Democrats in control the new leader of the Energy and Commerce Committee is from an auto state, John Dingell. I think a lot of people think 2009, 2010 once President Bush is out office are the big years for actually seeing something signed into law.
GELLERMAN: You know what, Darren, you sound very confident and sure about your predictions and um, how big a deal are environmental issues for this Congress, do you think?
SAMUELSOHN: I think they’re going to be a little bit more on the front of the Democrats minds compared with the Republicans. That’s just from my years of covering Capitol Hill. It’s been six years, Republicans have been in control for four of those six and you saw often times that there were hearings when the Bush Administration wanted them. With this Congress I have a strong sense with Barbara Boxer particularly in control of that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she’s going to let no stone go unturned. I mean every single EPA decision that came out in December within weeks of the election, she wasn’t even sworn in yet as the new chair of the environment committee. She was holding press conferences announcing, you know, plans for oversight hearings on every single thing that EPA came out with. She’s not even chairman yet and she’s already spelled some significant plans ahead.
GELLERMAN: And of course, President Bush is a lame duck. Does he have much power; I mean he doesn’t have control of either of the houses. His presidency is in the final two years. What really can he do?
SAMUELSOHN: Um, what can he do? He can still issue regulations. He can still propose budgets and he can use the bully pulpit. It will be interesting to watch what President Bush is able to do and how much influence he has with Democrats. With divided government in Washington sometimes strange things can happen. It will be interesting to see if this administration ends up signing things that you wouldn’t have thought they would have signed in the first six years.
GELLERMAN: Darren Samuelsohn is senior reporter on energy and environmental issues at Greenwire. Darren, thank you.
SAMUELSOHN: Thank you so much.
GELLERMAN: The last time the Democrats controlled Congress was 12 years ago so it’s not surprising that environmental advocates are now looking forward to a new attitude toward their issues. Gene Karpinski is the president of the League of Conservation Voters. And the Democrats’ priorities sound a lot like his.
KARPINSKI: Well, again front and center at the top of the list have got to be the related issues of global warming and a new energy future. And the solutions to global warming are the same solutions that give us a new energy future; efficiency and renewables, and new clean energy sources. So those are at the top of the list. Clearly there will also be conversations about the budget, and how we allocate our resources. And let’s not subsidize dirty, old, polluting sources. Let’s put tax payer money to use to create incentives to push us in those new directions for efficiency and renewables. So we’re very excited that the new leadership in Congress has energy policy and the related issue of global warming front and center on their agenda.
GELLERMAN: Do you think we’re going to see a change of heart from President Bush on climate change? Maybe perhaps in his state of the union address?
KARPINSKI: Well, you know, he’s already acknowledged that we have a problem with our energy policy. He said we’re addicted to oil. The problem is his solutions take us in the wrong direction. On climate change, unfortunately, he still seems to have his head in the sand. What we really need is new leadership which says, “We need to get a cap on global warming pollution and send us in a new direction.” That’s what Governor Schwarzenegger did in California and he got a lot of credit with the voters for doing that. So, we always would like to hope that President Bush awakens to the serious problem of global warming, but in the mean time we’re going to work with the leaders in the House and the Senate to make progress on those issues.
GELLERMAN: The president is a big advocate of coal and coal mining and the use of coal in power plants. What do you see as the future for coal?
KARPINSKI: Well, you know, the two biggest sources of global warming pollution are automobiles which burn oil and utilities which burn coal. So, we need new directions. In the coal sector two things need to happen. One is that we need to increase the amount of energy from utilities that come from cleaner energy sources. But also, we’re not going to get rid of coal tomorrow, clearly. So, if we build, as we need to build new coal plants do them in a way that are much cleaner use the best available new technologies that can begin to sequester the carbon emissions that come from those coal fired power plants.
New energy policy means we need to number one increase efficiency. We can reduce our use of energy tremendously by all kinds of energy efficiency measures for our cars, for our refrigerators, for our appliances, for our homes in all kinds of ways we can reduce our energy use. And second we want to rely on new clean energy sources which primarily are wind power, solar power, and biofuels can be part of the mix to reduce our dependence on plain old gasoline to run our cars.
GELLERMAN: I don’t hear nuclear power in that mix. There may be as many as 30 new nuclear power plants in the United States in the next couple of years.
KARPINSKI: You know, it’s pretty clear the public has still said, “We don’t want nuclear power.” And Wall Street has said the same thing. We have not seen a new nuclear power plant built for over 30 years. It made no sense then. It makes no sense now. It flunks the market test and it flunks the safety test because we have no solution to the problem of nuclear waste which will still be generated by those plants. So nuclear power does not make sense to be part of our new energy future.
GELLERMAN: Well, so far you’ve been talking about a wish list. Any worries that the Democrats won’t be able to meet your expectations?
KARPINSKI: Well, certainly it’s always a challenge to make sure that the goals we have get put into legislation. We have the opportunity now with new leadership, with a new vision, and with a public that understands and cares about these issues to make some important steps forward.
GELLERMAN: What a difference an election makes, Mr. Karpinski, you sound down right optimistic.
KARPINSKI: Well, you know let me give you one example. Mr. Inhofe from Oklahoma used to chair the Senate Environment Committee. His score on the LCV score card, the League of Conservation score card, he had a zero in 2006. One of his most famous quotes was quote, “I think global warming is a hoax.” That was the former chair of the Environment Committee. The new incoming chair of the Senate Environment Committee is Senator Barbara Boxer from California. Her 2006 score from the League of Conservation Voters was a 100 percent. And she comes in saying, “I want to make global warming a top priority with my new leadership.” So, there are many reasons to be optimistic. There’s a lot of hope. It won’t be easy. There’s a lot of tough roads along the way but we’re confident that we can make progress.
GELLERMAN: Gene Karpinski is president of the League of Conservation Voters in Washington DC. Mr. Karpinski, thank you very much.
KARPINSKI: Thank you, Bruce.
League of Conservation Voters
[MUSIC: Teacher and The Rockbots “Branches of Government” from ‘America’ (Power Arts Company - 2005)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up: in search of little green bacteria and other signs of life on Mars. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Takagi Masakatsu “Aqua” from ‘Journal For People’ (Carpark Records – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Does a river run through it? “It” in this case, being Mars. Three years ago, the U.S. sent two small robots to the surface of the red planet. They’re called “Spirit” and “Opportunity” and they’ve been roving ever since under the watchful eye of an orbiting NASA satellite.
Recently, the intrepid explorers made a series of tantalizing discoveries. High-resolution images of gullies and a number of sediment samples suggest flowing water on the planet.
The big question now for scientists is to determine whether or not water is currently on the move on Mars. And the even bigger question: does water indicate the presence of Martian life? For answers we turn to Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and a frequent contributor to Living on Earth. Hi, Dr. Tyson.
TYSON: A pleasure to be back.
GELLERMAN: So haven’t scientists known for a while that water has played a role in the history and formation of mars?
GELLERMAN: So we now know that there’s water on Mars?
TYSON: Well, what you want is firm evidence not this circumstantial kind. And so the Mars rovers targeted regions of the red planet where we suspected they would find evidence; rocks that formed in standing water and in fact that was indeed found. That was considered a triumph, confirmed our suspicions of what must have been going on on Mars all along. So we then said, “Alright, we know Mars once had water. Is it still there and in what form might it exist?”
And the recent discoveries of the Mars global surveyor, which by the way has many many years of a base line of photographic imagery of the Martian surface, and what they did was compare pictures from 1999 to pictures most recently taken just before we lost contact with the craft. And what we found is that there’s a place that shows evidence of there having been running water. There’s a freshly made gully at the side of one of the craters.
GELLERMAN: So between 1999 and now there was water flowing?
GELLERMAN: Well, if there was liquid water, where’d it go and where is it?
TYSON: Well, the best ideas are that it, the water is deep beneath the Martian surface. But Mars is so cold that nobody expects this water to be liquid. It would surely be frozen like the permafrost that you find in the northern slopes of Alaska. So, that’s where we suspected the water had gone on Mars. And so here we have evidence of liquid water oozing out from the side of this crater. And it’s still a mystery of what could have liquefied it. Is there a heat source that is yet to be discovered? Some radioactivity that’s warming one zone compared with another? Are the pressures so great beneath the Martian surface that it has turned the solid into liquid? That’s something that is possible.
GELLERMAN: So, how do we know that it’s water and not some other liquid that caused these features?
TYSON: That’s an excellent question. There are other liquids one can imagine like ammonia. Water and ammonia, they’re not the only liquids in town. It turns out water is abundant. There’s no shortage of water in the universe. Water is composed, as we remember from elementary school, H2O; you know hydrogen and oxygen. These are two of the most top three most common ingredients in the universe. So to suppose some other ingredient you’d have to sort of jump through hoops for that where as you kind of get water for free.
TYSON: (laughing) So why spend billions to find it on Mars?
TYSON: Um, the issue is not simply whether there’s water. We should think of water as a tracer of our greatest scientific dreams of discovery. Water would be a tracer for the possibility of life.
GELLERMAN: But all of the life that we know of on earth is carbon based, it’s organic. Would we know life if it was based say on silicon or potassium?
TYSON: That’s an interesting question. You know if it crawls out of the cave it’s life. (laughing) You know if the thing bites you somewhere, you know. No but that’s an interesting question. Is our definition of life so biased that we might miss it if it stares us in the face? But I think if you just get practical in a lab it shouldn’t be too hard to find out if something is alive. If it’s alive it has a metabolism. It might have a way to reproduce its self. It consumes energy. These are the kinds of basic and simple functions of life. And if we find that on Mars, even if it’s not carbon based, it shouldn’t be too hard to identify.
GELLERMAN: Didn’t scientists back in the ‘90s discover meteorites in Antarctica that they thought carried fossilized remains of bacteria from Mars?
TYSON: Yeah, good memory there. Actually that meteorite was discovered in 1984. But it was unknown whether it had any important significance until the 1990s where it was discovered to have come from Mars, number one. Number two, to have evidence of stow away bacteria. The actions of bacteria imbedded in the nooks and crannies of the rock. What’s fascinating is if you combine the fact that you have hearty bacteria and rocks that move between planets it allows you to suggest that maybe life started on Mars before it started on Earth. And if so maybe these stow away bacteria seeded life on Earth, making all life on Earth descendents of Martians.
GELLERMAN: Well, the bigger question is: is it possible that there’s still life on Mars?
TYSON: That’s a bigger question. And here’s something interesting: if you find life and it’s DNA based you don’t know whether we are descendents of it or they’re descendants from us. Or whether DNA is some fundamental feature of life no matter where you find it in the universe. It’d be more fun if the life on Mars had some completely other kind of basis for chemistry. But it’s probably not likely because carbon is an extremely fertile element of the periodic table. It combines with everybody all kinds of ways. It combines with itself. It makes long molecules, short molecules. If you want the most fertile chemistry on which to experiment with life, carbon based chemistry is your choice.
GELLERMAN: I think many people’s image of Mars the solar system is of a static place. But the new evidence suggests that Martian climate is very complex and it actually is changing.
TYSON: Yeah, many people don’t know that in fact Mars rotates once every 24 hours on its axis. It’s axis is tipped like Earth’s axis is, which means it goes through seasons. And Mars has polar ice caps that ebb and grow and shrink with the seasons. And it has dust storms that change the visibility of it’s surface and alter surface features. And now we know there’s water erosion on its surface. So yes, it is a dynamic place. We’re so accustomed to looking and thinking about the moon and how dead a place it is and so not all the solar system is dead. And by the way Mars once had water and it doesn’t now. Something bad happened on Mars. Some knob got turned in the conditions on the Martian surface for it to have lost all its water. I want to know what knobs we’re turning here on Earth so I can safe guard our water supply so we don’t end up looking like Mars.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Tyson, it’s always a pleasure.
TYSON: Thanks for having me. And it’s always a pleasure to be on Living on Earth. Maybe one day there will be a program called Living on Mars.
GELLERMAN: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts the PBS TV series "Nova Science Now" and is author of the new book “"Death by Black Hole and other Cosmic Quandaries."
[MUSIC: Neil Norman “Angry Red Planet” from ‘Greatest Science Fiction Hits, Volume 3’ (GNP Crescendo - 1990)]
GELLERMAN: Time now to hear from you, our listeners.
[THEME UP AND UNDER]
GELLERMAN: Lots of you wrote in about our annual solstice shows featuring storytelling and songs. Gary Kline emailed to say the broadcast made him feel “warm and fuzzy.” Kate Hughes who listens to us on WSKG in Binghamton, New York, writes “Thank you so much for this program.” She called it “a wonderful treat” and she downloaded the audio from our website because her kids kept asking for it.
But we got a lump of coal and a bah humbug from Pat White who calls himself “Disappointed in Philly.” He says storytelling and songs aren’t why he listens to Living on Earth.
“Living on Earth –Love your show. The last two weeks I’ve been disappointed. If I wanted to hear music, I can find plenty of better music stations. If I wanted to hear storytelling, I can find plenty of better story stations. If you don’t want to work, then why don’t you just take the week off and give the job to somebody else.”
Sorry to disappoint you, Pat.
Our interview about the trash vortex in the Pacific Ocean where garbage, mostly plastic, accumulates in an area the size of Texas brought this two-bit solution from Eric Durland of Silver Spring, Maryland. He suggests a national bottle bill—a 25-cent deposit on all plastic, aluminum and glass bottles and cans, and a quarter charge for plastic bags.
Jim Clark called in to say we should harvest all the plastic. Not only would it clean up our oceans, but the plastic could be recycled into all kinds of different things:
“…pails, buckets, rain nets, and stuff like that to be able to provide a way to produce revenue for, these let’s say, these African countries or something like that.”
Well, you could always put a letter in a bottle and throw it in the ocean but we wouldn’t recommend it. Better email or write us. Our email address is email@example.com. Once again that’s firstname.lastname@example.org Or put a stamp on it and send it to 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. And there’s always our listener line at 800-218-9-9-8-8. That's 800-218-99-88.
GELLERMAN: When Michael Norton says he wants to change the world, he isn’t kidding. The British author and activist has been organizing non-profits since 1975. He’s taught people to read, inspired kids to take action in their communities, he brought solar powered lanterns to a village in India, and the list goes on and on. Well, now you can follow in Michael Norton’s footsteps, and maybe keep a few New Year’s resolutions at the same time. His new book is called “365 Ways to Change the World; How to Make a Difference One Day at a Time.” And Mr. Norton joins me from New York City to discuss his book, and perhaps even inspire us.
Welcome to Living on Earth.
NORTON: Hello Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Was it hard to come up with 365 good deeds for days?
NORTON: It wasn’t hard to come up with 365 issues. Issues abound everywhere; from peace in the world to breaking up your local community. Finding practical things that people could do to make a difference was a challenge. One thing that I noticed actually was when I was out surfing the web and visiting websites there was always a button that said something like “Get involved” or “Take action,” and you pressed on it and all they asked you to do was send money to them.
And one of the sort of missions I feel that I’ve got is to encourage people to involve people in the issues by giving them things to do; which will get them much more interested and involved and maybe lead them on the road to activism.
NORTON: I smiled at someone, say that’s a start. I walked here rather than taking a taxi or driven. I probably do about 100 or 120 things in the book. It’s not possible to do them all. I don’t expect people to. You’d have to be a saint and we’re all a bit of a sinner. And in fact for one of the next editions of the book I’m going to have a page on how to be a hypocrite, because you know we’re all hypocrites. I flew to New York to launch the book and that creates a sort of carbon footprint, which I should be ashamed of. So we do do things that are for the worse for the world. And my thesis really is that we should be doing more things for the good of the world.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Norton, do you have a favorite tid bit in the book?
NORTON: Oh, it’s full of really interesting and quirky things and um I just say from a page at random, hug a tree. Trees create the oxygen that we need to survive. If you plant one tree it will generate enough oxygen for a family of four. There’s a movement in India called the Chipco movement where women actually went out to hug trees to prevent the timber fellers from felling trees and removing the forest for profit. And that’s an inspiration to everyone. If you feel strongly about something put your body in the way of it. Save it. And you will save it.
GELLERMAN: I’m looking at November 15th and it’s in your face politics. And you’re suggesting that people throw pies at other people.
NORTON: (laughing) I’m drawing attention to a particular campaigning technique which has been used in the USA, which is the biotic baking brigade. And they want to pull pompous people down a peg by putting a pie in their face. This is done with a bit of tongue in cheek I should say but I think the ethos behind this and behind things like bare witness, which is spelling out campaign slogans with naked bodies is not to actually go out and do it but to see that changing the world can be a bit of fun as well as really serious.
One of the things I don’t want to do is tell people they have to do things because they have to, or because they ought to, or because it’s just worthy. You want to do things because you want to do them and because they’re fun to do, and because you meet sort of soul mates through doing it and you enjoy doing things together.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Norton, what about the average Joe? Does your book speak to him, you know someone who might prefer just to give money to Green Peace or World Wildlife Fund instead of changing their daily routine and taking action by themselves.
NORTON: Well, if you start small doing some perhaps trivial things. You may go on from there and get really inspired by what you’re able to achieve. I was giving a talk the other day and I suggested that people click on the rainforest site. One click saves one square meter of rainforest. It works because rainforest is cheap and because the site sponsor gives the money per click. You click on the icon and money actually arrives and buys one square meter of rainforest. Do that 365 days a year, you save 365 square meters. Get 9 friends to do it and you save about half the size of a foot ball field a year.
So, starting small, getting involved, feeling you’re doing something, doing something very specific is something which actually gives you a lot more back than just giving money to Green Peace or Friends of the Earth or whatever. There’s a wonderful website called kiva.org k-i-v-a, where you can invest in an entrepreneur in a developing country. Maybe a woman, maybe a widow with a family, maybe an AIDS widow with a family who’s got no means of survival wants to set up a small business selling sweets or dairy products, maybe needs 500 dollars. They’re put on the website and you can put up all or some or a small part of that 500 dollars. I think that’s wonderful because I think you’re actually helping one person change their life and you’re feeling that you’re doing that. It’s done with dignity, not charity.
GELLERMAN: If I picked up your book, skimmed it and then went back to my daily life, what’s the one day’s worth of activist advice that you’d hope I take away with me?
NORTON: Yeah, that’s an easy one. I’ll try to find the date. It’s February 1st: give up apathy. The biggest problem in the world is not AIDS, it’s not global warming, it’s not world poverty, it’s not war. It’s apathy. It’s the fact that we feel like we can’t do anything about any of these problems. We actually can. And I would say that it’s only by doing things that the problems get solved. It’s not governments, it’s not big organizations. It’s individuals caring enough to go and do something that will create change.
GELLERMAN: Michael Norton’s new book is called 365 Ways to Change the World, How to Make a Difference One Day at a Time. Mr. Norton, it’s been a pleasure.
NORTON: Thank you, Bruce. It’s been a pleasure too.
"365 Ways to Change the World"
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: Generating Controversy: Coal and Climate Change in the Lone Star state. First this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Percy.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
Imagine being able to speak another language by silently mouthing the words in English. A translator created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University promises to do just that.
The device uses a series of electrodes attached to the face and neck that interpret the muscle movements of a speaker. These movements create electrical signals, which are interpreted into English and translated by a computer into another language. The translation is then broadcast in a synthetic voice. Here’s an example:
Existing translators make conversation difficult because they require the user to speak out loud and then push a button to create the translation. The new apparatus allows for a more natural exchange. Researchers say the effect would be like watching an American television show dubbed in a foreign language.
The new translator is more accurate because the electrodes detect not just words but phonemes—or the sounds that form words. English, for example, has only has 45 phonemes. The device memorizes the phonemes of a language and uses these as a base to construct a potentially limitless vocabulary.
But right now, the translator is accurate only 62 percent of the time. Researchers hope to make the translator more reliable by programming it to voice doubt. But for now it looks like some things will remain lost in translation.
That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Jennifer Percy.
"It’s the next best thing to a Babel fish"
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GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The world’s appetite for energy seems insatiable and coal, cheap and plentiful, is increasingly being used to generate electricity. In the United States almost half of our electricity comes from burning coal and fast developing China already uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan, combined.
But in addition to generating energy coal plants spew carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases scientists say is warming the planet. This week, we launch a new series of occasional stories "Generating Controversy: The Changing Climate ofCoal."In the coming months we’ll look at the problems and promise of coal and the potential of new technologies.
Our first stop is Waco, Texas. Here, in the central part of the Lone Star state, Governor Rick Perry wants to build 11 new coal power plants to supply the electricity the region needs for the future. The governor’s plan is on a fast track for approval but faces stiff opposition from an unlikely coalition. From deep in the heart of Texas, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young begins our series on the battle over coal and climate.
[COWS MOOOING, CATTLE WALKING]
YOUNG: Some 40 Brangus cattle amble along the dry pasture and mesquite scrub of Robert Cervenka’s ranch. Cervenka’s looking for a calf with a makeshift bandage.
CERVENKA: See this calf over here? Other day I turned them onto oats and these cattle rushed into a pasture all at once and they broke his leg. So I put a splint on it. We wrapped it with duct tape and look how good he walks.
YOUNG: Cervenka has lived on this ranch on the outskirts of Waco more than 60 years, and his father lived here before that. He belongs to the farm bureau, usually votes republican as many do here in McLennan County—President Bush’s ranch is just a short drive to the West.
YOUNG: (to Cervenka) I gotta tell you, you’re not what I think most people think of when they think of an environmentalist who’s gonna fight a power plant.
CERVENKA: Yes, I’m just an ordinary rancher. But I feel that, uh I probably was an environmentalist before there were environmentalists. We’re stewards of the soil we try to take care of our land and our cattle, our equipment, our family and everything else. We might not be out huggin’ trees but we’re real concerned about our land, our water, and our air. It’s our land, our lives.
YOUNG: What has Cervenka fired up is a proposal to bring coal-fired power to his part of Texas. Seventeen plants are proposed across the state and four could be built in McLennan County. Nearly any direction Cervenka looks from his ranch he could soon see smokestacks.
YOUNG: (to Cervenka) So you could conceivably be walking out in your yard here and looking at 3 power plants right here?
CERVENKA: Yes, in fact we’ve been calling it the ring of fire. (Laughs) And not only that there’s, in the central Texas there’s six more proposed. We don’t understand why all at once we need all these power plants.
YOUNG: Cervenka helped organize some 180 local residents into a group called T-Power—Texans Protecting Our Water, Environment and Resources. They’re fighting a proposal by the company TXU power to quickly build 11 coal power plants. Those would replace some plants that burn natural gas. When gas prices rose sharply the Texas government put the TXU permits on a fast track that could shorten the legal process that normally takes more than a year to just six months.
JUDGE: Do you swear, or affirm, that the testimony you will give to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
CERVENKA: I do
YOUNG: At a hearing in Waco, Cervenka tells a judge he’s worried about the sulfur, particulate matter and mercury pollution the coal plants could bring.
CERVENKA: (on witness stand) My wife and I both have asthma, we both are cancer survivors. I see lots of things happening on the farm that concern me.
YOUNG: One by one, residents laid out their concerns about personal health, the local economy and about the global climate.
ANDERSON: Well, we have to look at the whole enchilada—that’s a local term here! Ha-ha.
YOUNG: Charles Doc Anderson, a Republican, represents McLennan County in the Texas House of Representatives. Anderson is among a growing group of Texas lawmakers who want to slow down the permitting process to more fully consider cumulative effects of the power plants, including the effects of carbon dioxide.
ANDERSON: CO2 is not currently by the EPA considered a pollutant, however, it will be, in time. I mean nationwide Texas has the largest footprint as far as CO2 production. I think our leaders would be seen in years to come as very progressive if we approach that right now at the get-go and start to worry about the CO2.
YOUNG: The proposed TXU plants alone would emit some 78 million tons of CO2 each year. That’s more than the total carbon emissions from some countries, like Portugal or Denmark. And it would swamp the carbon cuts California and some Northeastern states are working toward. TXU says projections of population growth and grid capacity show Texas needs the power, and fast.
MORGAN: We’re going to be facing a supply crunch come, starting in 2008. So we’re looking forward and we’re seeing we need to get some power plants built.
YOUNG: Company spokesperson Kim Morgan says new plants will replace some older ones and will have strict emissions controls, helping Texas reduce its notorious problems with air pollution.
MORGAN: TXU has voluntarily agreed to do a 20% reduction across our entire fleet in the emissions of key concern which are sulfur dioxide, known as SOX, nitrogen oxide, known as NOX, and mercury. So that’s a 500 million dollar retrofit program that we’re embarking on. So at the end of the day after all of these new units are built and on line, outwards in 2010 our emissions will actually be 20% lower than in 05.
YOUNG: But that’s not changing many minds at the hearing, where TXU’s opponents lined up with protest signs.
DARDEN: It says, ‘Waco: the black heart of Texas,’ with a coal stack there.
DARDEN: Well we don’t have coal plants right now in McLennan and we’re gonna have four. I don’t know how they’re doing their math but when you add four and you take away none, to me that’s an increase in emissions.
YOUNG: Others turned out in support of the power company. Ray Henderson sneers at the protesters.
HENDERSON: Oh, they don’t even know what they’re holding up there. They don’t have any idea about the signs that they’re saying and how that relates to real coal power production.
YOUNG: Henderson and Marlin Early work at a local power station equipment company.
HENDERSON: I think that the power plants, these coal plants they’re producing will be good for the economy and good for environment and good for the people who have to buy electricity.
YOUNG: Henderson and Early say their experience in the industry taught them that pollution controls work. And global warming? That’s not on their list of concerns.
EARLY: Well, you know, nobody can say for sure that we’re making global warming happen. For every scientist that believes there is, there’s one or two who believes there’s not.
YOUNG: But many others are concerned about climate change. Karen Hadden directs a group called SEED--sustainable energy and economic development. Hadden went on a ten-day hunger strike to protest coal power.
HADDEN: Certainly, we think the best answer is energy efficiency, renewable energy. Especially in Texas we should be rich from our sun and wind.
YOUNG: Hadden says the momentum toward action on global warming is what has TXU racing to build now.
HADDEN: TXU is definitely trying to skirt the regulations that they see coming and they know that the responsible thing to do would be to build cleaner plants if they’re going to build them and take their time and be more in line with these coming regulations. They’re trying to grandfather a whole generation of coal burning power plants in Texas before these regulations come through.
YOUNG: TXU spokesperson Morgan denies that.
MORGAN: Absolutely not! Again, what we know here today and what we’re basing our business decisions on is the fact that Texas needs more power.
YOUNG: Clearly with these power plants you would be putting out more carbon dioxide.
MORGAN: Clearly, but it’s a matter of scale. We have to keep in mind that Texas is actually the 11th largest electricity market in the world. We feel that the solution for carbon dioxide is technology. We firmly believe it’s coming, but it just isn’t there today.
HOVORKA: We’re not waiting for a technology we don’t know about to be invented. The technology’s ready.
YOUNG: Geologist Sue Hovorka works with the Texas bureau of economic geology and a project called the gulf coast carbon center. She and her colleagues have been looking deep into the heart of Texas—about a mile deep—with sophisticated monitoring devices. Their six-million dollar project pumped carbon dioxide into the briny water and porous rock of an old oil field to see if it will stay where they put it.
YOUNG: Geologic sequestration is an important part of an ambitious, billion-dollar research effort by the US Department of Energy called FutureGen. The goal is a coal power plant with near-zero emissions. Last summer Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Jeff Jarrett announced that Texas is among the candidate sites to house the final FutureGen project.
JARRETT: The United States has a lot of coal and the world has a lot of coal and I believe that the world is going to use that coal and they’re going to be using that coal for decades to come. And we believe that when we are successful with FutureGen that it will set the gold standard for power generation not only in the U.S. but around the World.
YOUNG: What sets FutureGen apart from current coal power plants is that it would not burn coal—it would gasify coal. That makes the capture of carbon dioxide much easier. The gasification technology, called IGCC, has great promise. A few companies already use it and several others plan to. But the FutureGen power plant is still at least five years from starting. And its carbon capture technology would not apply to emissions from the existing style of power plants that burn coal, plants like the ones TXU wants to build.
ROCHELLE: We’re caught between the future and the here and now.
YOUNG: That’s University of Texas chemical engineering professor, Gary Rochelle.Rochelle is at work on ways to strip CO2 from those old fashioned coal-burning plants.
ROCHELLE: This is one of my research laboratories.
[BUZZING OF EQUIPMENT]
YOUNG: Rochelle walks me through a miniature version of the system that could take CO2 from a power plant’s exhaust. Carbon dioxide pumps through a container of an aqueous solution.
ROCHELLE: In the aqueous solution there’s an organic molecule that we call an amine, it’s got a nitrogen bonded to a carbon and it acts like a base. And carbon dioxide is a weak acid. So it’s kind of an acid base reaction.
YOUNG: So imagining something like this on a very big scale.
ROCHELLE: So you have to really use your imagination. If you use your imagination you see that piece of metal about the size of a finger—and that’s what we use in the laboratory. The liquid runs down the wall of that. And then gas runs beside it. And we measure how much CO2 transfers from the gas to that wet wall. And wet walls like that are exactly what’s inside the big 50 foot diameter scrubber, there’s just a whole bunch of those wet walls. We want to pack as many of em’ as we can because the more wall we have the better the CO2 will absorb.
YOUNG: The amine capture technology is not new, Rochelle is just improving the chemistry to make it more practical on a large scale. He says that could happen by the year 2015. It would not be easy or cheap. It would require a large apparatus at each power plant and would use from 20 to 30 percent of the power to operate.
ROCHELLE: It’s expensive, it takes a lot of energy. Nobody wants to do it. But it’s the technology we’ve got. And in my opinion it’s the technology we’re going to have in the year 2030. And there’s no federal government funding to work with the problems that this technology has.
YOUNG: (to Rochelle) What do you think it would take to get, you know, the company that runs an existing coal-fired power plant to adopt this technology which is going to take up a lot of space? I’m guessing it would be pretty costly - what would it take for companies to be interested in the kind of technology that you’re developing?
ROCHELLE: Quite literally it takes an act of congress. The answer is technological but it needs a law. Voluntary enforcement or adoption of this technology is not going to happen to any major extent.
[SOUNDS OF CATTLE MILLING ABOUT]
YOUNG: Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Robert Cervenka kicks at the dusty ground and wonders if climate change is already at work in the form of a deep drought.
CERVENKA: This is three or four years we’ve had it already and it’s gettin’ pretty dang serious. In the 50s we had a terrible drought but this is about as bad as they come here. We have some stock ponds I haven’t seen dry in my lifetime that are now without water.
YOUNG: He says it’s as if the arid region is spreading. He worries about what burning more coal will do.
CERVENKA: Well I’m 76 years old it doesn’t matter to me. Before these power plants probably affect me I’ll be gone. But I have nine grandchildren and I got two sons and two daughters, I’d like to leave this place a little better than I found it.
YOUNG: For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Waco, Texas.
- TXU Corp page on new power plants
- Power plant opponents
- Environmental Defense on TXU power and climate change
- Department of Energy’s FutureGen Project
- Wikipedia entry on carbon capture and storage
- Texas FutureGen
[MUSIC: Ry Cooder "Nothing Out There" from ‘Paris, Texas’ (Warner Bros – 1985)]
GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth…
[BERT PARKS SINGING – "HERE SHE COMES…MISS AMERICA]
GELLERMAN: They compete in swimsuits, evening gowns, and talent, and choose an issue they care strongly about. This year, Miss Rhode Island takes the first ever stand on global warming.
PAGE: We need to make this issue seem like a patriotic issue. And I thought that if I could connect this issue with something as traditional and iconic as the Miss America competition, that would be one way that I could contribute to this movement.
GELLERMAN: Will climate change get the crown? Next week on Living on Earth.
We leave you this week with some wily coyotes.
[COYOTE HOWLS SFX]
GELLERMAN: This pack of hungry "kai-yotes" was on the prowl after sundown.
Fred and Ginney Trumbull recorded the rowdy bunch in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near the Arizona-Mexican border.
[COYOTE SOUNDS: "Coyotes" recorded by Fred & Ginney Trumbull from ‘Pulse of the Planet’ (Pulse Planet – 2002)]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Ian Gray, Ingrid Lobet, Emily Taylor, Peter Thomson and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin.
Dennis Foley is our technical director. Our executive producer is Steve Curwood. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.
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