Rethinking the "Debate" Over Climate Science/ Mitra Taj
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As Republicans make progress on efforts to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, Democrats are fighting back with science. But a recent hearing on climate change science did nothing to change partisan disagreements over the reasons for planetary warming. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Mitra Taj reports the divide over climate change may not always be about the science. (05:45)
China's Five Year Plan
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China has released its new blueprint for the future of the country. As Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute tells host Bruce Gellerman the five year plan is more environmentally ambitious than anything China has proposed in the past. (05:30)
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Forty-five million different chemicals are commercially available around the world — and many of these chemicals go untested. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Professor Patricia Hunt from Washington State University who wrote a letter in the journal Science, calling for more stringent review of chemicals. Her letter was co-signed by scientific societies representing 40,000 researchers and clinicians. (06:55)
Lost Frogs Update
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Many species of amphibians have vanished without a trace, due to habitat loss, climate change, and disease. So Robin Moore, an amphibian expert at Conservation International, led The Search for Lost Frogs, which sent researchers around the globe looking for these “missing” species. Moore tells host Bruce Gellerman that the search produced both major disappointments and startling discoveries. (06:45)
We Like Lichen
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Lichens are all around us— they grow on rocks, trees, fences. The fungi are intricate bacterial communities made up of multiple species. Producer Ari Daniel Shapiro looked at some of the fungi with a couple of Harvard scientists who are examining lichen ecosystems and how they react to changes in climate and pollution. (05:00)
May Be Alien Bacteria
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A NASA scientist claims to have found alien microcrobial life in a meteor that landed on Earth. But director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson is skeptical of the science. He tells host Bruce Gellerman, his concerns with the research as well as his concerns about funding to continue the exploration of space. (06:25)
Can a Hollywood Producer inspire Americans on Climate?
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A Hollywood producer is using his creative skills and contacts to try to convince the public that climate change is a problem. Marshall Herskovitz, whose credits include The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall and Traffic, tells host Bruce Gellerman this his new campaign and media projects will urge Americans to dramatically reduce their energy use. (08:30)
A flock of yellow-headed and red-crowned parrots gather in downtown Pasadena, California.
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Deborah Seligsohn, Patricia Hunt, Robin Moore, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Marshall Herskovitz
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Ari Daniel Shapiro
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The House holds a heated hearing over the science of global warming. One Republican says you don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the political winds are blowing.
BURGESS: If the vast preponderance of science and scientists agree with you and your position, why have you not closed the deal with the public? Why, when I go home to my district and have my town halls, why is the public not clamoring for me to control carbon in the atmosphere and drive up energy prices?
GELLERMAN: The politics of climate science. Also, a call to change the way the government reviews everyday chemicals.
HUNT: There are hundreds of studies looking at the effects of bisphenol A, most of them using experimental animals. And when the regulatory panels sit down and look at them, quite frankly they don't know what to do with a lot of the research.
GELLERMAN: And we get down and dirty with lichen. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth - stick around!
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. House Republicans are working hard to keep one of their major campaign promises. They're making progress on rallying support in Congress for legislation that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Michigan Republican Fred Upton is author of the bill.
UPTON: EPA's regs are a backdoor attempt by unelected bureaucrats to implement the highly unpopular cap-and-trade legislation that was rejected just last year.
GELLERMAN: Upton says getting the bill passed is one of his top priorities. He calls it the Energy Tax Prevention Act. But as Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports, most Democrats just call it an attack on science.
TAJ: Congress has held dozens of hearings on the science of climate change, but Representative Henry Waxman, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wanted one more. He says the Republican-sponsored EPA bill attempts to rewrite science.
WAXMAN: The Upton-Inhofe bill would remove EPA's authority to protect the American public from carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change. The bill would legislate a scientific finding out of existence, and it would remove the administration's main tools to address one of the most critical problems facing the world today.
TAJ: The hearing reflected two parallel views. Democrats like Jay Inslee called the GOP anti-science.
INSLEE: In listening to this hearing, I am convinced that if we had Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein at this table instead of you fine scientists, one of these parties would still not accept the clear science until the entire Antarctic ice sheet has melted or hell has frozen over, whichever comes first.
TAJ: Meanwhile, Republicans like Morgan Griffith focused on a different planet.
GRIFFITH: Why are the ice caps on Mars melting? Is it in fact - and has there been a study - a shift in the orbit of Mars, or is it that the sun is putting out more radiant heat?
TAJ: By the end of the hearing, no one had changed their views.
[GAVEL ADJOURNS MEETING: "That concludes today's hearing."]
TAJ: The science of climate change has turned into a partisan issue. Polls show that more than three quarters of Democrats across the country trust the science, compared to about a third of Republicans. And now with the recent influx of climate skeptics into Congress, climate action advocates are rethinking the merits of engaging in the so-called "science debate” at all.
SCHMIDT: You know, most of the Congressman don't actually want to discuss the science, and the ones that did really made a bit of a hash of it, and that's okay - they're not scientists.
TAJ: Gavin Schmidt IS a scientist. He makes climate models for NASA, and keeps tabs on climate science misinformation on the blog RealClimate.org. He says policymakers should just cut to the chase.
SCHMIDT: Look, obviously I want people to agree on the science. When people say dumb things about the science, it bothers me immensely. But it's not about the science. They're using the science as a proxy for their value positions and politics is the art of getting something done. You know, is my issue that I just want people to agree with me? Quite frankly, I'd much rather something was done.
TAJ: New findings from the social sciences support Schmidt's instincts that the fight over climate science is a distraction. Business professor Andrew Hoffman has written a new paper on the topic. He says the divide over climate change is starting to look like abortion or gun control - another intractable culture war.
HOFFMAN: If we can move the debate away from those that would like to divide us and towards the middle of people who really want to reason this through, then I think we'll have a more fruitful conversation.
TAJ: Hoffman says there are lots of ways to frame the debate so conservatives aren't put off. When policymakers discuss solutions, they could invoke morality, national security, or jobs.
HOFFMAN: Renewable energy is a burgeoning viable sector within the economy, and to label it green - and the word "green" itself in many cases is like a red flag in front of a bull - a lot of people hear green, they hear liberal, left-leaning. So I think green tech, green jobs”¦really people hear that on a particular end of the spectrum and just hear social agenda - intrusion in the market. And you know, I think it's interesting with the evangelicals - those that are saying we need to attend to climate change will not call themselves environmentalists. That's liberal. They are caring creationists.
TAJ: But others think the key to victory will be a simple message and persistence. David Roberts blogs on politics for the environmental website, Grist.org.
ROBERTS: There's no coordination and repetition and that's what gets a message over, not cleverness. You know, I mean I know everybody's in love with framing and everything now and there are important ways in how you frame things and appealing to emotions and narrative - that stuff matters. But on the other side, there's just this drumbeat: tax, tax, tax, government, government, government. It's very simple. It's been established for years. All they have to do is invoke it.
TAJ: Since the so-called “Climategate” scandal, scientists have been in damage control mode. Chris Mooney, an author who focuses on the challenge of science communication, says reinserting reality into the debate over emissions cuts could lend it urgency.
MOONEY: The way the issue's been talked about I really think that to some extent you do have to face head on the question of whether it's happening or not. Because if you don't think that it's happening, these kinds of solutions don't seem as pressing. Right - I mean, why do we need to remake the economy and green it and invest so much in renewable energy if we're not warming the planet? Why shouldn't we just burn all the fossil fuels? I mean, if they're not causing it, what's the big rush?
TAJ: Even if it passes the House, the EPA-blocking bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, and a promised veto from the White House. But while efforts to overturn greenhouse gas regulations might be stopped, the gap between climate science and political science persists. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitra Taj in Washington.
GELLERMAN: China's latest blueprint for the future has a distinctively green tinge.
The People's Republic, already the world's second largest economy, is also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China's new five-year plan deals with both the environment and the economy.
It projects the gross domestic product will rise 40 percent by 2015, while the use of energy needed to produce all that economic growth will increase by just 16 percent. Deborah Seligsohn calls that an ambitious goal. Seligsohn is a principle advisor for the World Resources Institute's China Climate and Energy Program.
SELIGSOHN: It's the first time they've had a major climate section in their five-year plan. The focus on environment is also much, much larger than it's ever been before. They also announced separately from the plan that they plan to put a total cap on energy use in the country.
GELLERMAN: An energy cap?
SELIGSOHN: Yes, it would limit total amount of energy use. They're going to make more stuff with less energy per unit growth. So they're going to reduce the rate of increase, and it will require them to really increase the amount of energy efficiency they do and also the amount of non-fossil fuel - hydro, wind, solar, nuclear.
GELLERMAN: Coal accounts for, what, 80 percent of China's emissions or more. How are they going to continue making more stuff and use coal and still reduce their carbon footprint?
SELIGSOHN: Well, I think the percentage of coal in the mix is going to go down. They also are doing a lot to just improve the efficiency of coal, and they're trying to put”¦use some natural gas instead of coal as well. All of those reduce the amount of CO2 per unit of output.
GELLERMAN: Well, they do have a lot of people. They have 1 and a third billion people and they all want cars - they have huge traffic jams that go on for days - how are they going to deal with that?
SELIGSOHN: They may all want cars, but they're not all going to buy cars. I mean it's important to keep the vehicle numbers in perspective. In the United States, everybody in the whole country basically relies on cars. In China, it's a few big cities that operate like the US - the rest of the country is still much, much poorer. But part of this plan is an incredibly ambitious transportation plan.
They're talking about increasing their high-speed rail network so the inter-city transportation”¦several-fold, actually. And they're also talking about a massive increase in urban subway lines. So, they're trying to give people good alternatives to using their own car. And actually, the global evidence is that what controls vehicle use is simply not building the roads - building the other forms of transportation. Whether the people buy the cars or not is not as important as whether they have a place to use them.
GELLERMAN: Well, in terms of infrastructure, this past year China just surpassed the United States as the nation with the most installed wind power, but as I understand it, 30 percent of that wind power isn't plugged into the grid!
SELIGSOHN: It gets plugged into the grid - they just run about a four-month lag.
SELIGSOHN: And their wind power goals for the next five years are much more ambitious. They're talking about 70 giga-watts in the next five years, which is more than double what they currently have. And so not only do they have the most wind power installed in the world, they're growing at the fastest rate, and they're just leaving everybody else way behind.
GELLERMAN: I heard they also want to go green with trees - they have a huge re-forestry program.
SELIGSOHN: They've had a huge re-forestry program for the entire 60-year history of the People's Republic of China. They started in 1949 with 8.6 percent tree cover, and today it's around 20 percent. And the goal in the next plan is to get up to 21-point-something. They're also setting a forest stock volume goal to make sure that these forests are dense and healthy.
GELLERMAN: You know, Deborah, China is of course a planned economy - it's top-down, and the government can dictate what it wants to do, but are the people embracing an environmental ethic? Is environmentalism becoming part of the culture?
SELIGSOHN: China is a very complicated place. I would not call it purely top-down - I think everyone who comes here feels the bottom-up ferment, especially in terms of economic activity. But, in terms of the environmental thing, what's been so interesting is that the environmental ministry has actually used public opinion very, very effectively to support its role.
Realizing the public really cares about the environment - that people worry about, ”˜what's my air like,' ”˜what's my water like' - they've used that quite assiduously. They are much more open with the public, they meet with the press, the minister of environment put a long, long very frank letter on his webpage about what China's critical environmental issues are and what needs to be done. So, this time around, they're going much more ambitious.
GELLERMAN: Well, Deborah Seligsohn, thank you very much, really appreciate it.
SELIGSOHN: You're welcome!
GELLERMAN: Deborah Seligsohn is a Principal Advisor to the World Resources Institute's China Climate and Energy Program - we spoke to her in Beijing.
GELLERMAN: Just ahead - why you should like lowly lichens. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The American Chemical Society registers twelve thousand new substances every day. And according to their records, there are nearly 45 million different commercially available chemicals sold worldwide. But data on the potential hazards these chemicals pose is available for only a very small percentage.
That's why Professor Patricia Hunt has sounded a call for swifter and sounder testing of chemicals. She's a reproductive biologist at The Washington State University School of Molecular Biosciences and author of a letter that appears in the current issue of the journal Science. In it, Professor Hunt writes about the need for new ways to safeguard chemicals. The letter is signed by scientific organizations representing 40,000 researchers and clinicians. And Professor Hunt, welcome to Living on Earth.
HUNT: Thank you, it's nice to be here.
GELLERMAN: Did I get that right - there are actually 12,000 new substances registered daily?
HUNT: Yeah, that's correct. It doesn't mean that all of those chemicals go into production and enter our lives. And what we're really concerned about is those that act like hormones in our body. And, of course, the ones that are also of most concern are the ones that are high-volume chemicals, the ones that are produced and are in our lives on a daily basis.
GELLERMAN: But they're currently being tested, right?
HUNT: If they are added to our food, or to the drugs that we take, the pharmaceutical drugs, we test the living daylights out of them.
GELLERMAN: That would be the EPA, the FDA.
HUNT: Right. But much less testing is done of those chemicals that are used for other purposes, and so a lot of those get into our lives and we learn later that they perhaps are not so safe.
GELLERMAN: Well don't these agencies test for these possible hormonal properties?
HUNT: Therein lies a problem: because traditionally, the way toxicologists have test - to gauge the toxicity of a chemical - is a standard set of guidelines for testing. And those guidelines, it turns out, don't work very well for chemicals that mimic the actions of hormones.
These chemicals sort of defy the standard toxicology thought process, which is: the dose makes the poison. In other words, if a little bit of a chemical is harmful to you, more should be even worse, and even more should elicit an even stronger effect. And these chemicals that act like hormones or interfere with hormones don't quite behave like that.
So they pose a real problem, and the federal regulatory agencies have realized that it's a problem and that we need new testing guidelines, but getting these new guidelines is a slow process.
GELLERMAN: So, how do these agencies review chemicals now?
HUNT: They put together review panels to look at specific chemicals. The one on most people's minds right now is bisphenol A, or BPA, because it's received so much attention in the press. And what they'll do is review all of the research that's been published and decide whether or not our current estimates of safe levels of human exposure are adequate, or whether they should be readdressed.
GELLERMAN: So what are you proposing?
HUNT: The field of toxicology testing has actually moved beyond toxicologists and we need a broader expertise. What we're offering is the expertise of different scientific societies: reproductive biologists, developmental biologists, endocrinologists - people who actually work on hormones - and geneticists. And we've asked that these regulatory agencies seek the advice or the council of these societies when they constitute panels to review chemicals.
GELLERMAN: Do we have the ability to test
differently? Not the expertise, but the science?
HUNT: Okay, now you're getting at what, to me, is the heart of the problem. Right now, when these panels sit down to review a chemical like bisphenol A, they're faced with a really daunting task. There are hundreds of studies looking at the effects of bisphenol A - most of them using experimental animals. And when the regulatory panels sit down and look at them, quite frankly, they don't know what to do with a lot of the research.
The studies that have been done using the standard toxicology testing guidelines are easy - they know how to deal with those, so those studies are always included. A lot of the academic studies, like some of the work that we've done in our laboratory, are a bit more puzzling, and frequently those studies just get set aside.
And this is where a wider expertise on some of these panels would be helpful, because some of these studies use very sensitive end points, newer technology, and really give us a very good look at exactly what these chemicals can do in bodies. Even though they're rat bodies or mouse bodies, they're actually very good model systems for what they would do in the human body.
GELLERMAN: So are there human studies that have found these effects, or all they all laboratory studies?
HUNT: It's really hard to study humans directly. There have been some human studies asking things like: are bisphenol A levels correlated with miscarriages? But that's a really difficult study to do because these are looking at correlations and trying to make conclusions. You know, it's hard to establish cause and effect in humans.
I mean, we know this from smoking. We had a lot of data from animals, but actually establishing cause and effect in humans took many, many years. And the problem with these chemicals is, there are so many of them and some of them are present in our daily lives at pretty significant levels. And so, if these are having effects, and if they're having effects on our developing babies and infants, it may take us a couple of generations to actually get that proof - that definitive proof - in humans.
GELLERMAN: So, in effect, we are actually doing these human tests - we're doing them on us!
HUNT: Yeah, that's one way to look at it isn't it? (Laughs). And you know, in the case of something like bisphenol A, we have essentially run this experiment in humans before, because the whole diethylstilbestrol, or DES exposure, was exactly that - an experiment in humans.
It was given to women in the hope that it would prevent miscarriage. And as a result, there are thousands of DES-exposed sons and daughters. And we can in fact see some of these changes. There are some fertility effects, some increased cancer rates, some behavioral changes in these humans that were exposed to DES. And so we have every reason to suspect that some of these same effects would be seen from chemicals like bispehnol A, the phthalates, other endocrine disrupting chemicals.
GELLERMAN: And we'll only see those generations later.
HUNT: Exactly. So that makes us dependent on those rodent studies. And in fact, in the case of DES, those rodent studies were terrific. They came after the human studies, and it turned out that human was a really good model for the mouse.
GELLERMAN: You know the government has big-time budget problems. Where would you get the expertise to satisfy the requirement here?
HUNT: Well I think what we're asking for is a very subtle change, and one that I don't think is going to cost any additional money, or going to be very difficult to accomplish, because the panels are already being convened to assess chemicals - there are already new guidelines being developed. All we're asking for is to take into account some of the expertise that it's now become clear we need to assess some of these chemicals.
GELLERMAN: Well Professor Hunt, thank you so very much, appreciate it.
HUNT: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Patricia Hunt is a reproductive biologist at the Washington State University School of Molecular Biosciences.
Click here to read the letter
GELLERMAN: Teams of scientific sleuths have just finished scanning the globe for lost frogs. The researchers weren't searching for your ordinary garden-variety frog, but a hundred species of amphibians that haven't been seen in at least a decade - some haven't been sighted in more than a century, like the Sharp Snouted Day Frog, which has been missing for 13 years.
[SOUND OF THE SHARP SNOUTED DAY FROG]
GELLERMAN: Well the results of the global frog survey are now in, and there are many surprises, and some major disappointments. Robin Moore, an amphibian expert at Conservation International, led the search. And Robin, we spoke last fall when you just started looking for the frogs. Welcome back!
MOORE: Thank you for having me!
GELLERMAN: You hoped to find a hundred lost species of frogs, and you didn't even come close.
MOORE: Yeah, we found a total of four in the end. So it was a disappointing number for sure.
GELLERMAN: Well number one on your top-ten list of lost frogs to find was something called the Golden Toad in Costa Rica. Did you find it?
MOORE: We did not find the Golden Toad. That was one I was disappointed about. I was hoping that some species may come out the woodwork, you know - some species that we thought had gone may turn up to be there. But the Golden Toad was one that just remained elusive and did not turn up.
GELLERMAN: What do you think happened to it?
MOORE: It would seem that this deadly fungus that's been wiping throughout the world may have been responsible. And it may be a combination of the fungus with climate change”¦and I think it's likely that, as in the case of a lot of amphibians, it's just a lot of factors are conspiring to make a sort of deadly cocktail of threats to amphibians.
GELLERMAN: You had high hopes for the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad - what happened to the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad? I love the way that sounds.
MOORE: (Laughs). Yeah, the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad, ironically, lives in Colombia. It hasn't been seen in almost a hundred years. I was hopeful that we might come across this, and unfortunately we didn't find this species. But our lack of finding our lost species in Colombia was made up for by some potentially new species that we came across. So, it was kind of a bittersweet expedition.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess you found a frog, a species of frog, that has no name - it was never been found before.
MOORE: Well, there's a toad with red eyes that really is an unusual species - it has no name, it's never been found. So it's really - right now - a mystery as to what this is. We've been doing a little brainstorming on what to call it and we're not sure actually what we will name it. We want to call it something that's descriptive and sort of appropriate to where we found it and what it looks like, because it's very unusual with these red eyes.
GELLERMAN: You found it in the rainforest, right?
GELLERMAN: How about the Colombia Red-Eye Rainforester?
MOORE: Yeah. (Laughs). Yeah, it could be!
GELLERMAN: You really struck it rich in India. There was one frog that was found in a trashcan?
MOORE: Yeah, we came across one of the lost frogs - hadn't been seen for 30 years - in a rubbish bin, in a trashcan.
GELLERMAN: So how did you know to look in a trashcan for a frog?
MOORE: I wasn't actually looking for a frog when I lifted the lid of the trashcan - I was disposing of a banana skin. So it really was unexpected. It started bouncing around the inside of the rubbish bin, so I just pulled it out, and Dr. Biju, who we were with from the University of Delhi, was able to instantly recognize it as one of the lost frogs.
GELLERMAN: You also went to Haiti. And I think the real challenge there is not just finding the frogs, but finding the forest.
MOORE: One of the things we wanted to highlight with our expedition there is that there is still some forest left. There's some small patch of beautiful cloud forest perched on top of this rugged mountain - very remote, isolated area. So we went to show the world that there is still incredible biodiversity and species that live nowhere else. One of the species we came across is the Ventriloquial Frog.
[CALL OF THE VENTRILOQUIAL FROG]
MOORE: We were able to hear its call - it has a very distinctive call.
GELLERMAN: Kind of weird!
MOORE: Yeah, it's quite a complex call for such a little frog. And one of the interesting features is that it actually throws its call. So how we usually find these frogs is we listen for the call, and then we hone in on the source of the call and we find the frog. With this one, we were honing in and it was leading us to nowhere - the frog was throwing its call, so it made it very challenging to actually find this thing.
GELLERMAN: The one I really am curious about is one in Haiti called the Mozart Frog - why is it called the Mozart Frog?
MOORE: Yeah, it's got a very interesting name and interesting story actually. The person that described that frog took some call recordings and when he plotted them out on an audiogram, they bore a remarkable resemblance to the musical notes in one of Mozart's scores.
[CALL OF THE MOZART FROG]
MOORE: So, he called it the Mozart Frog after this.
GELLERMAN: You also found a frog with a very “froggy” voice.
[SOUND OF THE MACAYA BURROWING FROG]
MOORE: Yeah, we also found the Macaya Burrowing Frog. This is another surprise because this had never been found in this area before. So it had the team a little baffled actually, when we heard and when we found this one because it really”¦it wasn't even on our list of ones that we hoped to find.
GELLERMAN: Do you have a favorite frog call that you can mimic?
MOORE: (Laughs). I”¦There is a video online where I was asked to do some frog calls and I've never lived it down. But I think one of my favorite ones is a frog in Australia called the Pobblebonk Frog. And it basically just goes: pobblebonk, pobblebonk, pobblebonk. It's basically named after exactly how the call sounds - pobblebonk.
GELLERMAN: What is it about frogs that you find so fascinating?
MOORE: I always found them fascinating growing up. I think it was the fact that I could pick them up and play with them and I could take the tadpoles home and watch them develop. I felt a very intimate connection with them that I couldn't get with birds or mammals that would bite me.
And now that I'm older, amphibians, to me, are at the forefront of an extinction crisis, so they're an exceptionally important group of vertebrates that are sounding an alarm - they're telling us something is wrong. And they play a very important role in our ecosystems that we're all reliant on. So to me, they're extremely fascinating, but also very important animals.
GELLERMAN: Well, Robin Moore, I really enjoyed talking with you - thank you very much.
MOORE: Okay, thank you very much.
GELLERMAN: Robin Moore travels the world in search of amphibians for Conservation International.
GELLERMAN: In the first stanza of his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” William Blake writes an ode to the ordinary and asks us to open our eyes to the miracles lying right before us. It begins:
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
With Blake's rhyme and verse in mind, reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro tracked down a couple of biologists who are taking the Romantic poet at his word.
SHAPIRO: In the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts - in bustling Harvard Square - there's a small cemetery called the Old Burying Ground. Twelve hundred historic tombstones huddle inside, including a handful of local Revolutionary War heroes.
PRINGLE: You can see it here, 1765.
SHAPIRO: Anne Pringle is an Associate Professor at Harvard. And this isn't her first time walking through this snow-covered cemetery.
PRINGLE: The funniest comment I ever got was somebody”¦somebody who thought that I was mourning, and they were wondering why I was mourning for so very long on my hands and knees in front of a particular tombstone.
SHAPIRO: And what were you doing in fact?
PRINGLE: I was counting lichens.
SHAPIRO: Pringle's a mycologist. That is: she studies fungi. And lichens are a special type of fungus. They're often first to colonize new habitats, and they can grow on tree bark, fence posts, and stones, including tombstones like the ones in this cemetery. But, that's not all.
[PAPER PACKET CRUMPLING]
SHAPIRO: Back in her office, Pringle unfolds a paper packet containing a kind of lichen called Xanthoparmelia plittii. She points out the tiny, crusty swirls the color of spearmint.
PRINGLE: Lichens are symbioses - that means that they are made up of multiple species living together. And generally, a lichen is one individual fungus, and living inside, embedded in the matrix of that fungus, there are algae, and maybe more than one species of algae.
SHAPIRO: It's a complicated organism. A lichen is a fungus with algae living inside it. The algae photosynthesize, converting carbon dioxide into sugars - food that the fungus can consume. It's not clear whether the algae get anything out of the arrangement, except maybe a home they wouldn't otherwise have.
PRINGLE: What's also interesting about a lichen is realizing that it's an entire habitat for other creatures inside it: of bacteria, of other fungi. So, when you look at a lichen, when you're walking by, it's not just an individual - it's an entire ecosystem, sort of like a tropical rainforest in miniature, just maybe the size of the palm of your hand growing on a fencepost.
SHAPIRO: Within the lichen, how many species are there - of the bacteria, the fungi, the algae?
PRINGLE: Oh, I don't know. Hundreds, order of magnitude.
SHAPIRO: Next door, in Pringle's lab, mycologist Benjamin Wolfe holds up what looks like a giant black potato chip the size of his hand. This lichen's a different species - Umbilicaria mammulata - but the story”¦it's the same.
WOLFE: So if you look on the back of it, you see it's, like, this very rough, velvety, kind of surface. If you touch it, yeah”¦
[VELVET RUBBING SOUND]
WOLFE: Those little nooks and crannies are great places for bacteria to live. And I've done a little bit of work using these high-powered microscopes to zoom in on the back of these and you see these huge microbial landscapes - little bacterial gardens nestled into this forest of these underbellies of the lichens. So it's, sort of, this idea of a world within a world.
SHAPIRO: Unlike other types of fungi that live pretty much concealed inside trees or in the dirt, lichens - these worlds within worlds - are exposed entirely to the elements.
SHAPIRO: So at a place like the Old Burying Ground in Cambridge, the lichens dotting the tombstones have to handle whatever the environment throws their way. Usually, lichens do really well, but not always. Anne Pringle:
PRINGLE: Here in a cemetery, there used to be a thriving community of lichens, and now there isn't because of the pollution that humans have created. When we walk into a cemetery in rural Massachusetts, it's a very different landscape. The tombstones are covered in green. They're covered in very beautiful leaf-like lichens. It's an entire world that just has disappeared from this local habitat.
SHAPIRO: Pringle is comparing the lichens in urban and rural settings - to see how long they live, and how they grow and reproduce. She can use this information to think about how fungi more generally might react to changes in climate and pollution, and what that might mean for entire ecosystems - both the little ones living on and in the fungi, and the big ones that depend on fungi as decomposers. For Living on Earth, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.
GELLERMAN: Ari Daniel Shapiro's story comes to us from the series “One Species at a Time,” which is produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. For more information, go to our website l-o-e dot org. And there you'll find some photos of lichens and a link where you can post some of your own pictures.
GELLERMAN: Coming up - Hollywood rolls out the red carpet for a green future. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And, from Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Little green men they're not, but according to a top NASA scientist, the marks on some rare meteorites are fossil evidence of extraterrestrial life. But the U. S. space agency quickly distanced itself from the announcement, and the claim was disputed by some scientists.
Well, when things turn ET, we don't phone home”¦we call astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Hi Dr. T!
DeGRASSE TYSON: Well, thanks for having me back on!
GELLERMAN: So this wasn't just any NASA scientist - this was a senior astrobiologist Richard Hoover who claims that he found fossil evidence in a meteorite that was found in 1800-and-something in France.
DeGRASSE TYSON: Okay, so here's the problem. The problem is not that he didn't find these little creature-looking-things that he said he found - that's not the issue here. The issue is whether these creatures have an origin that is extraterrestrial, or whether it is in fact a contamination from Earth organisms after the asteroid had landed.
To a biologist - to mainstream biologists - he has not convinced anyone that his creatures are of extraterrestrial origin. Microbial life is not out of the question. It, in fact, is considered more likely than any other kind. So that's not the issue - can you convince me of this extraordinary result? Well I need extraordinary evidence in support of this extraordinary result. And in spite of the attempts of the author, it was not successfully placed in a mainstream journal.
GELLERMAN: So this one was published in the Journal of Cosmology - I guess it's an online journal”¦
DeGRASSE TYSON: It's an online journal - nothing in principle wrong with an online journal - except that this paper was originally submitted to more reputable journals, print journals, and was not accepted at the peer-review level. Not all journals are created equal. And by the way, this particular journal has published other papers that were, sort of, charitable to the idea that life.. the panspermia idea, that life may have started somewhere else, traveled through space, and then landed on Earth.
GELLERMAN: So, Dr. Tyson, would you be surprised if there was fossil evidence of extraterrestrial life, or if there wasn't evidence of extraterrestrial life?
DeGRASSE TYSON: Anyone who's studied the size of the universe and how long the universe has been around and the richness of the chemistry that pervades all star systems - no one is denying the likelihood of there being life, especially of a microbial nature. You may remember in the 1990s, there was a report of possible life found on a Mars meteorite.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, President Clinton got on the White House lawn and he said, ”˜You know, this may be life from outer space.'
DeGRASSE TYSON: You remember that! And that may have been the first time the President got involved in a NASA press release. That research paper survived peer-review at the time and was published in the American Journal of Science. The lead author is still on board with his original results. And I've read the critiques of it, so the critiques are strong - they're not completely airtight, but they're strong. And so I would say that - last I had checked and followed this - that the jury is still out.
GELLERMAN: Well, we know for sure there is life in outer space, and that's”¦us.
DeGRASSE TYSON: That's us. Well that's inner space (Laughs). So there's life ”˜in space,' yes - and that would be life on Earth, for sure.
GELLERMAN: Well, there's also life in outer space - for 30 years, we've had, you know, shuttle missions going into outer space. I guess the whole program shuts down in June, we've just had the”¦
DeGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, the entire shuttle program is winding down, that's right.
GELLERMAN: There were high expectations back in 1981 when the first mission went up - they were supposed to launch, like, once a week!
DeGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, so, with the manned program, critics of that - who are the most extreme of the space zealots, and others - criticized it for being a mission to nowhere. I've even publicly said, ”˜We've been boldly going where hundreds have gone before.' And so if you want to think of NASA as a frontier space agency, low earth orbit - which is where the shuttle and the space station are - does not count as a frontier.
It's certainly an engineering frontier - the space station is an engineering marvel, no question about it. But I don't think anyone would count it as the space frontier we all imagined for ourselves as we here are getting more deeply into the 21st century.
GELLERMAN: Well, what is the future of manned space flight? It doesn't look like it's got a bold future?
DeGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, I'm kind of on the fence on this - because I hear the speeches by President Obama, and he talks about a vibrant future for NASA where he's investing money in launch architecture that would get us to Mars - except that time horizon is longer than his tenure as President, even if he's a two-term President.
So the promises that he's making have slightly less”¦fewer teeth in them than the promise that Kennedy made in 1961 when he said we're going to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade is out. So for Obama to say we'll go to Mars by 2035, I don't know what that means really.
GELLERMAN: And his latest budget actually slices NASA's budget.
DeGRASSE TYSON: I understand the state of mind that would lead you to that - you say to yourself, ”˜There's money up there, but we have real problems down here.' And I understand, I understand. But what it neglects is considering how little NASA's funding actually is. NASA's actual budget is one half of one penny on a tax dollar. When people learn that, they say, ”˜Oh, I didn't know that.'
That pays for the space shuttles, the space stations, the rovers, the Hubble telescope, all the NASA centers, all the astronauts, Kennedy Space Center, all of it. And to go find this one half of one percent and somehow blame the woes of the country on the money being spent there, that's some”¦if you make that statement, it means you haven't actually scrutinized the budget of this nation to see where the real money is spent. And so, I gave a speech one time, and I ended it by saying, you know, ”˜How much is the universe worth to you?' We're a wealthy nation, so we should be able to do it all.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. T, it's always a great pleasure, thank you very much.
DeGRASSE TYSON: Thanks for having me! It's been like months! I feel like, you know, you don't call, you don't write. (Laughs).
DeGRASSE TYSON: But it's great, always great talking to you guys up there at Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, Planet Earth.
GELLERMAN: Lights, camera, action”¦climate change? Hollywood recently rolled out the red carpet for a star-studded cast of UN officials. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the organization's climate chief Christiana Figueres took center stage. They urged film and TV industry bigwigs to pitch in and put their talents to use to raise awareness about global warming.
Among the 400 Hollywood celebs in the audience was Marshall Herskovitz - the producer of the TV series “thirtysomething” and “My So Called Life.” He also produced a dozen films, including “Blood Diamond” and “I am Sam.” Now, Marshall Herskovitz has two new projects underway dealing with climate change in which he says he's going to put many of the Hollywood tricks-of-the-trade to use.
HERSKOVITZ: Ten years ago, I found myself thinking, gee, you know, I'm in a business where we make a movie, no one has heard of it, we then have a marketing department that spends 30 or 40 million dollars, and then, a few weeks later, 80 percent of America knows about the film and some large percentage of those people want to go see it. That's a very well established craft. Why are we not applying that to climate change? But as we've seen, it's pretty damn hard to move America on this, and there's still a need for a campaign and so I'm still working on it.
GELLERMAN: So what's your campaign?
HERSKOVITZ: (Laughs). Well, I'm not at liberty to give too many details yet - because it's not something we've publicly announced, even though I'm sitting here talking about it - but we're talking about what may be the largest campaign ever mounted. And it's not just about climate change - it's about the idea of an energy revolution.
I will say this: it's based on the notion that we are in a very rare moment in history where the solving of one problem would actually solve four or five or six other intractable societal problems we have in the United States - unemployment, the deficit, our trade deficit, health, national security - and you don't even have to believe in the existence of climate change to understand that an energy revolution may be the very thing we need as an economy just to move forward into the century.
GELLERMAN: So what is Hollywood's role in this regard then?
HERSKOVITZ: Well, remember, climate change is maybe the first threat in the history of the world where a species has the intelligence to see something coming 50 or 100 or 150 years before the worst part of the threat, and has a chance to do something about it.
But nevertheless, it's tough to get people to take it seriously, and it's been tough in Hollywood. You know, a lot of us have been trying to figure out how you tell stories about climate change without being preachy, without sort of hitting people over the head, and I think it's been difficult.
GELLERMAN: There have been attempts: Al Gore's “Inconvenient Truth,” which was a surprise hit, I mean it was like a PowerPoint presentation”¦but there was the big blockbuster - I thought it was a stinker actually - “The Day After Tomorrow.”
HERSKOVITZ: Yeah, with deference to my friend Mark Gordon who was the producer, I think that film did more harm than good to the cause, actually, because it was very hard for people to take seriously that such a scenario could happen.
GELLERMAN: But “WALL-E,” the cartoon, was spectacular!
HERSKOVITZ: Yeah! (Laughs). I think “WALL-E” is one of the greatest films ever made. I think “WALL-E” is truly brilliant. And, also, “Avatar.” I think both of them had amazing messages that are the kinds of messages that influence people long after the movie comes out - really heartfelt films that touch people and will be remembered.
GELLERMAN: Well, isn't that the idea: that you don't hit people over the head with the message, but you weave the message into the motion picture.
HERSKOVITZ: Well, yes, it's the idea, except for the fact that we are either in a planetary emergency or we're not. (Laughs). And it's fine to say, ”˜don't hit people over the head,' but in fact, we need to hit people over the head. We need people to act right now, and we need people to act in a huge manner. It's very hard to get across to people the scale at which we have to act.
People think that if they change their light bulbs, or if they buy a car that gets 32 miles-per-gallon, that they're contributing to the solution of the problem. But that's not going to stop climate change. We need a revolution. We need the kind of thing that took place in World War Two. Let me just talk for a minute about World War Two because I think it's a model for how we can visualize what we do have to do.
Many folks who have been born in the last 20 or 30 years don't know that every automobile plant in the United States was shut down in early 1942 and retooled to make tanks and armored vehicles, and that no cars were produced in the United States from 1942 to1946 - that's almost unthinkable today. But think of the power that those people had to determine their own destiny. What I'm talking about now is that we have to recreate what was, at that moment, a sort of unstoppable, self-accelerating, self-propelling force of innovation.
That's what we need. That's the only thing that's going to give us a chance to make a dent in climate change. But it's that size and scope that we need and that we need to communicate.
GELLERMAN: So is there an intended demographic that you're shooting for in this project?
HERSKOVITZ: If you're talking about a film, remember, I'm working on two different things: I'm working on a campaign and a film - those are two separate”¦and they would remain separate. So, I think, if you're talking about a big blockbuster film with a big budget that has a lot of action in it, it's going to appeal to a lot of people. In terms of the campaign I'm talking about, there is a demographic that we're looking toward in that, and I think it's what you would call the 40 percent in the middle.
I think if you look at American society - you know, that 40 or 45 percent in the middle are swayable. A lot of those people, if you look at polls, actually believe climate change is real, they just have no idea what we're going to do about it. They feel befuddled by it because no one's ever told them how we are going to solve the problem. So I think the campaign I'm talking about is targeting that middle and saying, ”˜you know what, there is a solution, there's a great solution, and it's going to make America great.'
GELLERMAN: So you say it's hard to get across the scale - the dimensions of this problem - so how are you going to do that?
HERSKOVITZ: You need to illustrate for people the size of the problem and the size of the solution. You know, it's funny, there's an analogy I like to use - which may or may not work for you - but if a group of scientists decided that there was enough evidence to show that an asteroid was going to collide with the Earth in the year 2030 unless we deviated it from its path by 10 percent, we would all understand that if we deviated it from its path two percent, or three percent, or four percent - we'd still get hit.
And the only way to do it is to show it - is to actually visualize for people what the world is going to look like when we use 80 percent less carbon then we do now. What are the cars going to look like, what are our houses going to look like, what's business going to look like? And the answer is: it's going to look pretty much like it does now, except better.
GELLERMAN: So, the 40 percent that you mentioned in the middle, how are they going to come into contact with your campaign?
HERSKOVITZ: When I talk about a campaign, I'm talking about the modern tools of advertising and marketing, which are incredibly complex and go all the way from television to magazines to online social media to”¦by the way, on the ground political organizing. So we're prepared to put this campaign out on many, many different platforms - I think that's the only way we'll succeed.
GELLERMAN: So without giving away any big secrets, when's the campaign launching?
HERSKOVITZ: Uh”¦unfortunately, that's still one of the secrets.
HERSKOVITZ: No, the campaign cannot launch until it has put together all of the circumstances necessary to make sure that it succeeds. And I don't have all those put together yet. I do have an amazing team - I'm not going to announce that yet - but it's a team that has propelled people into the Presidency, and won other campaigns and done a lot of big things in the world of advertising as well. So it's an absolute ”˜A-Team' of people, and it's going to take a lot of money.
I like to think it's sometimes like having six chickens and seven eggs, and figuring out which comes first. You need this endorsement to get that money and that money to get this testing and it's very complex, and I'm hoping that we can go public, certainly, by the fall of this year.
GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Herskovitz, it's been a great pleasure, I really enjoyed talking with you.
HERSKOVITZ: Thank you, same here, I appreciate it.
GELLERMAN: Marshall Herskovitz is a Hollywood producer, writer, director, and climate activist, whose new projects will be coming to a screen near you!
[SOUND OF PASADENA PARROTS]
GELLERMAN: Yakkety-yak, don't talk back! We leave you this week in beautiful but noisy downtown Pasadena.
[DOWNTOWN PASADENA, PARROTS]
GELLERMAN: These yellow-headed and red-crowned parrots are causing quite a racket in California's crown of the valley. The parrots are endangered in Mexico, but this flock likely descended from escaped pets that flew the coop. Jeff Rice took out his microphone and captured their yakking for the University of Utah Marriott Library, westernsoundscape dot org.
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org - and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don't forget to check out the LOE facebook page. It's PRI's Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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