Removing Dams Healing Rivers
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Dams are coming down across the United States, giving new life to river ecosystems. John Catena supervises National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast restoration team. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that dam removal not only clears the way for migrating fish, but also helps improve local communities. (05:40)
Will the U.S. join the Law of the Sea?
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The race is on for oil and minerals under the melting Arctic ice. But the U.S. is still not on board with the Law of the Sea, the UN treaty on who gets access to ocean resources. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young talks with Sen. John Kerry about his effort to get the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea. (06:30)
Power Shift -The Trouble With Mass Transit/ Bruce Gellerman
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Business is booming for mass transit but for some cities it could be the end of the line. Host Bruce Gellerman finds Boston public transportation facing fare hikes and service cuts. (15:00)
BirdNote ® How Much Birds Sing/ Michael Stein
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The average bird regales us with song more than a thousand times a day. Michael Stein reports on the frequency of bird song. (02:00)
Climate Change Stokes Wildfires
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Within a generation climate change will increase the frequency of wild fires across most of the globe. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, used satellite images and climate models to forecast the spread of wildfire. She tells host Bruce Gellerman that hotter temperatures, drought and changing rain patterns will increase wildfire on 80 percent of the planet. (06:10)
Call to Ban Toxic Chemicals
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When environmental advocate Laura Turner Seydel found out that her family’s blood was full of toxic chemicals, she decided to take action. Turner Seydel tells Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about her participation in the first intergenerational toxic body burden test and the changes she made to lessen her family’s exposure to chemicals. (08:15)
America’s New Chief Poet
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Natasha Trethewey is the new U.S. Poet Laureate. Trethewey, a professor of English at Emory University, first read her poem “Monument” on Living on Earth in 2010. We present her poem and also hear about what inspires her to write verse. (03:25)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: John Catena, Katharine Hayhoe, Laura Turner Seydel, Natasha Trethewey
REPORTERS: Jeff Young
NOTES: Michael Stein
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Business is booming for mass transit but in some cities it’s busting budgets. In Boston, fare hikes and service cuts will only get you so far.
POLLACK: The MBTA's in pretty dire shape, and we've basically been charging all the bills and making the minimum payments on the credit card and we just figured out that if you keep making the minimum payments you never pay it off.
GELLERMAN: Mass transit - in some cities it’s running on empty. Also, the Law of the Sea rules the waves but the US never ratified the treaty, so who rules in the race for ocean resources?
KERRY: There are parts of the Arctic shelf that are exclusive to the United States, and China and Russia are up there right now mapping those sites and looking at the areas they would like to exploit.
GELLERMAN: After 30 years will the Law of the Sea become the law of the land for the US? We'll have those stories this week on Living on Earth - stick around!
PRI REPORTER: 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, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
[CHANTING, DRUM BEAT]
GELLERMAN: Earlier this month, members of the Penobscot tribe held a ritual honor dance on the banks of the Penobscot River in Maine. The ceremony helped mark the destruction of the Great Works Dam.
It was built 125 years ago and over time helped turn the Penobscot - the second largest river in New England - into one of the most endangered rivers in the nation. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was on hand as wrecking crews started to take the dam down.
SALAZAR: Alright, so this historic moment on the Penobscot River, this great example for Maine and for the United States of America, has finally come.
GELLERMAN: Dismantling the Great Works Dam is a 62 million dollar project led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. John Catena is NOAA's Northeast Regional Supervisor for Restoration.
CATENA: Well, there’s multiple benefits. Getting fish back up into their grounds where they can reproduce; it’s a basic fact that fish that migrate from the ocean into these rivers need to get to their spawning grounds to reproduce and live out their lifecycle. And so that is the basic benefit of these projects; it's to get these fish back to their spawning grounds, allow them to reproduce, repopulate the rivers.
That leads to a whole cascading effect of feeding other birds that prey on these kinds of fish. Certainly allowing fishermen to get out on the river again, and fish for these species and get back out into the ocean. These fish historically were prey to cod, haddock, bluefish, tuna - any number of different species - and so as we attempt to populate these rivers with these dam removal projects, it has benefits out into the ocean very significantly.
GELLERMAN: I guess not too long ago there were about thirty one hundred salmon that were making their way down the river.
CATENA: Just last year, in fact. There was a record year for salmon returns. They’re typically on the Penobscot maybe on the order of one thousand to fifteen hundred.
GELLERMAN: And 125 years ago before this dam was built?
CATENA: Well, numbers that are thrown around are about one hundred thousand - do we know that for a fact? You know, it’s tough to say.
GELLERMAN: I understand that on one of the rivers, the Kennebec in Maine, they went from zero alewife, little tiny fish, to three million.
CATENA: Yeah, the Kennebec River is a great success story. The first dam that was removed on that system is the Edwards Dam - came down in 1999. And you’re correct - there were no alewives that were running in that river at the time.
The state of Maine was very aggressive in trying to repopulate that river by stocking - taking alewives from other locations in the state - putting them in those ponds upstream; that allowed to get a jumpstart on the population and the population has just taken off like a rocket, so it’s… we’re now at about three million fish in that river.
GELLERMAN: I know that, finally, a thousand dams had come down in the United States over the last century.
GELLERMAN: There are like 66,000 dams in the United States!
CATENA: Yeah. It’s been terrific because we’ve really built a lot of momentum. The community that’s interested in dam removal over the last five to ten years really has seen these projects grow tremendously.
There’s been interest on the part of the public, on the part of the Congress, on the part of the Agencies, and it’s not only the benefits that we care about at our agency - that is the fisheries benefits - but oftentimes these are local liabilities to communities, they are safety hazards, they are financial liabilities because they’re in disrepair.
They’ve been sitting there for 100 years, they’re no longer in use now… we’ve talked a lot about the Penobscot, which are hydroelectric facilities, but most of the projects that we work on are old mill dams.
GELLERMAN: So, where are these dams coming down? East coast, west coast? Middle of the country?
CATENA: Well, it’s really all over the country. My area of focus is in the Northeastern United States - from Maine to Virginia - and because of the number of dams the industrial revolution in our part of the country here - there are just thousands of opportunities. So there is a concentration certainly of dams coming down in the northeast and then I’d say in the Northwestern United States is probably the other hotspot for dam removals.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, last year I guess the biggest dam of all came down - the Elwha Dam.
CATENA: The Elwha dam, right.
GELLERMAN: What’s curious is that, while we’re taking down our dams - or want to take down many of the dams that we have over these many centuries - countries that are developing are building dams - I’m thinking of the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. And the other dams - they’ve got scores of dams.
CATENA: Yeah, China and Brazil in particular are going very strong in looking at hydroelectric production and other uses for dams. And you’re right - our country went through it a long time ago and those countries as a means of development are looking at the same type of issue, and I just hope that they’re taking into account the kind of lessons that we’ve learned here – in taking into account fish passage needs.
GELLERMAN: So, if we have something like 66,000 river dams in the United States, and we’ve only removed 1,000 over the last 100 years - how many dams do you think should come down?
CATENA: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve quantified that. We are going through an effort to really look throughout our region of the United States - in the Northeast from Maine to Virginia - to identify the most critical rivers for the benefit of the species that we care about and really start working and attacking those priority watersheds.
But it’s certainly in the thousands that need to be coming down to help really get the populations back where they need to be. So this is a long term effort, it’s really just starting, again it’s been in the last five to ten years when things have started to pick up. We took a couple hundred years to make these problems, so it’s going to take some time to resolve them.
GELLERMAN: John Catena is Northeast Regional Supervisor for Restoration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. John, thank you for coming in.
CATENA: Oh, you're welcome. Excellent.
GELLERMAN: Well from rivers we now go to oceans. It’s been 30 years since the UN Law of the Sea was first established, and the United States still hasn’t ratified the treaty. The Law of the Sea defines a nation’s rights and responsibilities in, on and under the world’s oceans and the treaty has global implications for national security, commerce and the environment.
Democratic Senator John Kerry is once again taking up the treaty – he’s Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spoke with the Senator from Massachusetts as he began holding hearings into the Law of the Sea…and Jeff joins me in the studio, hi Jeff.
YOUNG: Hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: So, 30 years since the treaty was first established - give us an idea of which countries are in and which aren’t.
YOUNG: One hundred sixty two countries have ratified; that’s nearly every major developed country - except the U.S.. The U.S. is in this small group with countries like North Korea, Iran and Libya that have not ratified.
GELLERMAN: So why not? What’s going on?
YOUNG: You know, it’s been this political football that’s been kicked around through five presidential administrations now. The most recent round of this was this past week’s hearings in the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee. The main point we heard there is that without being a party to this treaty, the U.S. simply lacks authority as we see more and more disputes over who gets access to the ocean’s resources.
GELLERMAN: So, give me an example, where is this happening.
YOUNG: The Arctic. The Arctic’s a prime example because we have the climate is warming, the ice is retreating, you have shipping lanes opening up that weren’t there before, there’s this race on for oil and maybe mining of the seabed. So, before the hearings I called Senator Kerry, and he told me that he thinks the U.S. is at a disadvantage there.
KERRY: We are the only Arctic nation that is not a signatory to this treaty. And frankly it’s in our interest - we have major companies: communications companies, mining companies, oil and gas companies, others - who very much want certainty about their investments, which are in the millions of dollars if they go out there and do it. And they want a guarantee that they’re doing it with legality.
YOUNG: You see a scenario where people are exploiting resources and we’re not even part of the discussion.
KERRY: Correct. There are parts of the Arctic shelf that are exclusive to the United States. And China and Russia are up there, right now, mapping those sites and looking at the areas they would like to exploit. It is possible that if the United States is not a signatory you could have them drilling in a disputed area and you have no recourse, except perhaps force, but you’d have no legality supporting your use of force because you wouldn’t have had an adjudicated claim.
YOUNG: Bruce, you might remember some time ago a Russian submarine actually planting a flag on the floor of the sea under the Arctic ice. That was symbolic, but it’s symbolic of the kind of dispute that the Senator’s talking about.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, I remember that! So, a lot at stake. The Senator mentioned big companies who want to get to the oil, gas and minerals under the sea, but obviously there are some very big environmental issues here as well.
YOUNG: Yeah, and politically, it creates one of these “Washington strange bedfellows” situations. In this case, we have the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute teaming up with major environmental groups to try to get the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea.
GELLERMAN: So big oil and big green hand in hand?
YOUNG: It’s an unusual sight. More often they’re at each other’s throats, right? I asked Andrew Rosenberg about this. He’s a professor of natural resources and he’s followed this issue very closely. Professor Rosenberg says that without the treaty it’s tough to get environmental concerns on the agenda.
ROSENBERG: There certainly will be oil and gas and other mineral exploration. And done well - that’s of course an important economic activity. But done poorly or with weaker standards, obviously it can be a high-risk activity. So, from an environmental perspective, we want to ensure that we have a full role, sitting at the table, can strongly make our points in the form that will be setting much of the legal framework for those activities. Without a policy framework, how do you do that?
YOUNG: And that’s why there’s pretty strong bipartisan political support for ratification. You’ve got a number of people on both sides of the aisle who say: ‘Hey, it’s best if the U.S .at least has a seat at the table.’
GELLERMAN: So what’s the opposition? Who’s against this, and why?
YOUNG: The opposition comes from those who simply distrust the UN. They look at the Law of the Sea and other treaties as a threat to US sovereignty.
GELLERMAN: So it’s ideological.
YOUNG: Mostly, but there’s also concern about money. Opponents especially dislike the treaty’s provisions that would split up royalties from drilling and mining and things like that. And this wouldn’t affect things that happened inside the 200 miles from the coast - the exclusive economic zone. The question here is about how to handle things that are farther out on the continental shelf. And here’s how Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe puts it at one of the hearings.
INHOFE: And this is the first time in history that an international organization, the UN in this case, would possess taxing authority over this country.
YOUNG: The state department and the military largely dismiss that argument, they support ratification. But this sovereignty issue - it holds strong appeal for some conservatives and I’ll tell you another thing, Bruce, the opposition here has a very useful rhetorical tool in the acronym: Law of the Sea Treaty.
YOUNG: Lost! So you hear this “LOST cause,” “LOST at Sea,” that sort of thing. And I also…listening to the hearings I had this strong sense of deja vu. And I realized, you know I first reported on this issue seven years ago when the Senate last considered it. And the arguments sound almost exactly the same today! It really just shows you how stuck this issue has become.
GELLERMAN: So why does Senator Kerry think things might be different now?
YOUNG: Well, I asked him that. And it’s about a sense of urgency that he sees and that’s mostly about China. You have China pursuing resources in the ocean, you have China staking out parts of the Pacific, and not surprisingly, China’s a big topic at the hearings.
GELLERMAN: So does Senator Kerry have the votes he needs?
YOUNG: Not clear. Of course you need a supermajority: 67 votes to ratify a treaty, so it’s an uphill climb right there. You have some moderate Republicans like Indiana’s Richard Lugar who will be leaving the Senate, so there’s a limited window to get those votes. The proponents don’t want this to get wrapped up in election politics so I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see a vote on this by the full Senate until after November.
GELLERMAN: OK, well thank you very much for coming in Jeff.
YOUNG: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: That’s Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.
[MUSIC: Groove Collective “Grier’s Near” from Live and Hard To Find (KUFALA Records 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: The wheels are coming off the bus - money woes for mass transit. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: John Beasley: “Ubiquitous” from 3 Brave Souls (BFM Jazz 2012)]
The Joint Ocean Commission website
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Use of public transit in the U.S. is soaring. In cities across the country, people are riding buses, trains, trolleys, and subways in record numbers. But that’s stressing the transit system’s ability to carry passengers and stressing cities financially, some to the breaking point. Brian Kane is a mass transit policy expert.
KANE: There’s pretty much one way to run railroads and some places do it very well and some have more challenges than others, but generally the challenges outweigh the lack of them. [LAUGHS]
GELLERMAN: And nowhere are the challenges to urban mass transit as great as in greater Boston. Some of the challenges are unique to the region, but what’s happening here also serves as a precautionary case study for the rest of the nation. A bit of history is in order.
[BELLS OF BOSTON COMMON]
GELLERMAN: Just across the street from the gold-dome Massachusetts State House is Boston Common. It’s the oldest city park in the U.S.. Puritans used it as a cow pasture and British troops camped here while Colonial tea partiers revolted. Today it’s a great place for a quiet stroll. But Boston brahmin Henry Lee says at the turn of the 20th century, streets around the park were so thick with horse-drawn traffic and animal waste, crossing was difficult and dangerous.
LEE: In the 1890’s the traffic on Tremont Street was so tremendous - horses and carriages - that they decided to put trolley cars across the common.
GELLERMAN: Henry Lee is the former president of a group that protects Boston Common.
LEE: And there was outrage among citizenry to desecrating the Common with trolley car tracks. And a group of women marched on the state house, and the legislature, all male then, was completely cowed and gave in and rescinded the rule. Then everybody said, well, what’s the solution? And it was decided - why don’t we put the trolley cars underground?
[SOUND OF PARK STREET METRO]
GELLERMAN: And they did. In 1897 America’s first urban, underground railway opened at the edge of Boston Common. Boston historian Susan Wilson calls Park Street station the birthplace of mass transit in the United States.
Here in a darkened tunnel she points to a 110-foot long mural commemorating the subway’s history. The mosaic is embedded with memorabilia from the era.
WILSON: If you look over to the right you’ll see it says, “Park Street, the first subway in America.” And there’s all kinds of wheels and spokes and pulleys and mosaic stuff. Oh, and this is my favorite thing: five-cent fare - lasted 25 years.
GELLERMAN: In fact, adjusted for inflation, Boston’s subway fares actually stayed the same from 1897 until the year 2000. An attempt to raise fares in the late 1940’s drew an angry response from riders who were tired of the T being used for political patronage.
The Progressive Party’s candidate for mayor took up the issue, and made the Massachusetts Transit Authority the subject of his campaign song.
[MUSIC : Well let me tell you of the story of a man named Charlie / On a tragic and fateful day, / He put ten cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family / Went to ride on the MTA. / Well, did he ever return? No, he never returned / And his fate is still unlearned. / He…]
WILSON: The song was about a five-cent exit tax that was being added to what was called at that time the MTA.
[MUSIC CONTINUES: He’s the man who never returned...]
WILSON: Today we call it the MBTA.
GELLERMAN: The MTA has since morphed into the MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or the T, as it’s called. It includes not just subways but buses, ferries, commuter trains and trolleys. These days, the T services 176 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts, making it the fourth largest mass transit system in the nation. It also has the dubious distinction of being the most in debt.
Stephanie Pollack is Associate Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
POLLACK: The MBTA is in pretty dire shape. We’ve basically been charging all the bills and making the minimum payments on the credit card. And we just figured out that if you keep making the minimum payment, you never pay it off.
GELLERMAN: Until a dozen years ago, budgeting wasn’t a problem for the T because it didn’t have a budget. If, at the end of a fiscal year, there was a shortfall in running the Transit service, state lawmakers reached into general revenues and made up the difference. Then in 2000, the legislature passed a measure called Forward Funding. The mass transit system was told to come up with a balanced budget and as part of the deal got 20 percent of all the revenue from the state sales tax. Again, Stephanie Pollack.
POLLACK: And that was actually a huge victory. It amounts to half a billion dollars a year in revenue that the MBTA has that no one can touch. The problem is that that gift came with some strings attached, including some pretty substantial debt and the requirement that the MBTA pay its own way in the future.
GELLERMAN: The strings were attached to the giant construction project known as Boston’s Big Dig. It’s a system of tunnels, roads and bridges under and around the downtown area. The Big Dig was the largest, most complex and costly highway project in U.S. history.
In exchange for getting money from the state’s sales tax, the T inherited three point three billion dollars in Big Dig debt. Delayed by a decade and plagued by design flaws, the price tag for the highway project tripled. Dan McNichol is author of the book “The Big Dig.”
MCNICHOL: This is where the big leak took place. Everything on the Big Dig was big, and the leak here pushed hundreds and hundreds of gallons every minute into the Big Dig tunnels. It was a major embarrassment: a 15 billion dollar tunnel, and it was leaking before it was even two or three years old.
GELLERMAN: Today, the T is drowning in Big Dig red ink. Revenue from the state sales tax didn’t increase as expected. So the T has had to borrow money. It’s issued bonds, and now its debt troubles have literally compounded. That original 3 point 3 billion owed to bondholders plus new debt has ballooned to almost 9 billion dollars.
For the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority, forward funding has spiraled out of control. Brian Kane, Budget and Policy Analyst with the T Advisory Board, wrote a report about the problem. He called it, “Born Broke.”
KANE: But for that transference of debt, forward funding would have been a smashing success. Unfortunately, with the transference of that amount of debt and the mandate to pay the debt service on that debt, the T’s finances have been broken since 2000.
So to maintain the system they borrow money. They borrow hundreds of millions of dollars every year to maintain the system and they pay that back out of the operating budget every year. And going forward, they will continue to basically pay every dollar they earn in fares basically in debt service.
GELLERMAN: If I had to pay for my ride right now on the subway, what would it really cost?
KANE: Roughly six dollars, of which you pay two. Fares are roughly 450 million dollars a year and debt service is roughly 450 million dollars a year. They don’t have enough money to operate the system, let alone maintain it.
GELLERMAN: By 2004 it was obvious the wheels were coming off the MBTA. Massachusetts Governor at the time, Mitt Romney, asked state lawmakers to set up an independent panel to investigate the T’s troubles. Their final report came out 3 years later, just as Romney’s Democrat successor was taking office. Governor Deval Patrick urged the legislature to agree to one of the panel’s major recommendations, asking for a big boost in the state’s fuel tax to fund mass transit.
The proposal got nowhere fast. But fares sure have; they’ve gone up three times since the year 2000, while the T’s budgetary hole has only gotten deeper. At the start of this year, the T didn't have enough money to run the system. It was 160 million dollars short. So officials proposed a 43 percent increase in fares and draconian cuts in service. Transit riders were outraged.
The T backpedaled. It sold off some real estate, cut workers and benefits, and the fare hikes were cut in half, and services largely preserved. But transit riders with disabilities will bear a disproportionate share of the rate hikes. For those who use the federally mandated transit system known in Boston as The Ride, the cost of a trip will double. 61-year old Wilhelmina Melrose calls The Ride her lifeline.
MELROSE: Either there’s gonna be a lot of appointments I’m not gonna make, or I just have to cut my grocery shopping down, and I’m a diabetic and, you know, the doctors want you to eat properly.
GELLERMAN: At the end of this month, fares for Wilhelmina Melrose and others with disabilities taking The Ride, will increase from two dollars to four. But the actual cost of this trip for the MBTA is about 40 dollars. Ten percent of the T’s budget goes to providing service for one percent of its passengers. MBTA policy analyst Brian Kane says transit systems nationwide are confronted with the same basic questions: who benefits from mass transit, and who pays?
KANE: You know, it’s important that people with disabilities have access to transportation services. But it’s also important that we figure out the right financial model to pay for that. And putting it on the backs of the public transportation provider of mass transit is not necessarily the right way. Mass transit is wholesale, paratransit is retail, and it doesn’t always make sense to do those things together.
POLLACK: You know transit is expensive: it makes sense but it’s not a moneymaker.
GELLERMAN: Again, Stephanie Pollack from Northeastern University.
POLLACK: It’s not a moneymaker pretty much anywhere in the world, and it’s not designed to be a moneymaker. That’s not to say riders couldn’t pay more. Some of the finest systems in the world - you pay more and you get more. In the United States we’ve more fallen into the - you pay less and you get less. The concern in a place like Boston, with a hundred-year old system that’s aging, is we’re going to pay more and get less. That’s the worst of all worlds.
KANE: Every time someone gets on the T, the authority loses money. But that’s ok: this is a public good.
GELLERMAN: Mass Transit policy analyst Brian Kane:
KANE: This is what economists call a merit-good, that benefits society, that all of society pays for through subsidies. We just have to find the right model, and it is out there. Other places do it very well and have very good financial models. California - Los Angeles County, for instance - just taxed themselves, voted to increase their own sales taxes to provide better subway service in LA, which is the car capital of the world. And it’s working; they’re building brand new subway lines in Los Angeles right now that’s going to transform that city.
GELLERMAN: Brian Kane says even city drivers benefit from mass transit, because there’s less traffic on the road, fewer accidents, and more parking spaces. And we all benefit because there’s less pollution and climate changing emissions. The MBTA is the largest user of electricity in Massachusetts, and per passenger mile, it emits a lot less CO2 than cars, says Stephanie Pollack:
POLLACK: You know we talk about efficiency when we talk about buildings, but there’s actually something called location efficiency, which is how transportation actually reduces your carbon footprint. When things are closer together, you can walk for some of your needs, you can bike for some of your needs. If things are farther apart, you can’t do that. Transit is actually what makes density possible, because if you think about putting a lot of homes or a lot of square feet of business on a very small piece of land and then having everybody drive there, it doesn’t work. Transit is what makes cities possible.
GELLERMAN: In St. Louis, advocates of mass transit came up with a slogan: “Transit - some of us ride it, all of us need it, and all of us need to help pay for it.” It was designed to convince voters there to tax themselves more for the service.
POLLACK: One of the places that transit advocates sometimes get stuck is that, well, money comes from one of two places: it comes from taxpayers in general or it comes from the people who are using the system. And so if fares are higher taxes are lower, and if taxes are higher fares are lower, and it’s kind of a zero sum game.
So a lot of places have started to say, yeah but if there are all these other groups that benefit from the system what if they pay? So in Chicago, universities participate in something called the Universal Pass system. And they pay for unlimited transit access for all of their students, whether their students use it or not, and their college ID’s are their transit passes. But they write a check to the Chicago Transit Authority every semester for - I think it’s roughly 100 dollars per student per semester. And so the transit authority can count on that revenue, the students get the benefit of transit, the universities not only support the transit system, but they have fewer people driving to their campuses. Everybody wins - new source of money.
GELLERMAN: Transit ridership in Boston and around the country has been steadily rising, and today, with 75 percent of Americans living in urban areas, that trend is expected to continue. Brian Kane says that makes mass transit more important than ever:
KANE: I think young people, new people just moving into the city, even people like myself with young families, want to live near public transportation. I think the days of the ex-urb are over. And I think people are coming back into the city and want density and they want public transportation, because it’s a huge quality of life. Investing in public transportation is investing in our city, in our society, in our state, and in our people.
It is by far the right thing to do because of the environmental benefits that it buys, because of the congestion mitigation that it buys, the air quality improvements that it buys and the economic development that it buys. We have it here. We just need to reinvest in ourselves and realize that.
GELLERMAN: But in some cities, where budgets are already busted, those investments aren’t being made. Repeated cuts in services and fare hikes can only go so far before passengers rebel.
[PROTESTERS IN PITTSBURG]
Earlier this month, demonstrators were arrested in Pittsburg, protesting a decision to reduce bus service there by 35 percent.
[BOSTON PROTESTERS CHANTING “FREE CHARLIE”]
GELLERMAN: And in Boston, angry transit riders faced with more cuts in services and yet another fare increase, also took to the streets, echoing an earlier fight against the rising price of public mass transit.
[PROTESTORS SINGING: But did he ever return? No he never returned. / And his fate is still unlearned. / He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston / He’s the man who never returned…]
- Brian Kane wrote “Born Broke: How the MBTA found itself with too much debt, the corrosive effects of this debt, and a comparison of the T’s deficit to its peers”
- Transportation Finance in Massachusetts: Volume 2 Building a Sustainable Transportation Financing System
GELLERMAN: Well let us now return to more natural sounds….here’s this week’s BirdNote®.
[BIRD NOTE® THEME]
GELLERMAN: Since most birds are social creatures they greet the day with a song. It’s a neighborly way of saying good morning. But the tune depends on the type of bird and time of year. Here’s BirdNote®’s Michael Stein.
[BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK SONG]
STEIN: This rollicking song belongs to a Black-headed Grosbeak.
[BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK SONG]
STEIN: Like most birds, the male grosbeak begins singing in earnest a few days after reaching his traditional nesting grounds in spring.
[BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK SONG]
STEIN: And, like most birds, he sings frequently when trying to attract a mate. He’ll sing a bit less while he and his mate incubate eggs, but pick up the pace again after the young hatch.
[BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK SONG]
STEIN: By late summer, his singing will cease. Ever wonder how much a bird sings in one day? Some patient observers have shown that a typical songbird belts out its song between 1,000 and 2,500 times per day. Even though most bird songs last only a few seconds, that’s a lot of warbling! On nights with a full moon, male Sage Thrashers have been known to proclaim their long-winded songs all night.
[SAGE THRASHER SONG]
STEIN: But the North American record-holder may well be the Red-eyed Vireo. One such vireo delivered its short song over 22,000 times in ten hours!
[RED-EYED VIREO SONG]
STEIN: I’m Michael Stein.
GELLERMAN: To see some photos of the birds whose praises we sang, wing it to our website LOE dot org.
[MUSIC:Andrew Bird “Give It Away” from Break It Yourself (Mom + Pop Records 2012)]
GELLERMAN: Be sure to check out our website for a new feature we call Living on Earth Now: regular updates, news stories and features. Check out the one about the latest research into manmade earthquakes! That’s LOE dot org. And coming up - a world gone wild: climate change and wildfires. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
- Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Song of the Black-headed Grosbeak recorded by T.G. Sander; song of Sage Thrasher recorded by G.A. Keller; song of the Red-eyed Vireo recorded by W.L. Hershberger.
- BirdNote ® How Much Birds Sing was written by Bob Sundstrom.
PRI ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems; The Gordon and BettyMoore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth, on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUT-AWAY MUSIC: Manuel Galban: “Tierno Amanecer” from Blue Cha Cha (Concord Music 2012)]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Summer isn’t even officially underway and already wildfires have burned tens of thousands of acres across the U.S., displaced hundreds of people from their homes and done millions of dollars in destruction.
[FIRE NEWSREELS: Spreading wildifres and extreme heat, nature is wreaking havoc across the united states. / Firefighters in Colorado and New Mexico are battling massive wildfires that are moving fast. / Extreme fire danger in eastern Arizona and much of New Mexico today, we’re off to a pretty early start here and we didn’t have a whole lot of snow this past winter.]
GELLERMAN: Drier winters and unusually warm summers are what’s in store as climate change alters weather patterns around the world. According to new research, as greenhouse gases warm the earth, we can expect more wildfires in the near future. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, is co-author of the study, which appears in the journal Ecosphere. Professor, welcome to Living on Earth.
HAYHOE: It's a pleasure.
GELLERMAN: So, in order to have a wildfire, you’ve gotta have three ingredients according to your paper, right?
GELLERMAN: You’ve gotta have something to burn…
HAYHOE: That’s right.
GELLERMAN: You’ve gotta have the right atmospheric conditions.
GELLERMAN: And you need a spark.
HAYHOE: (Laughs.) That’s right.
GELLERMAN: So, how does climate change affect those things?
HAYHOE: Well the spark, often these days, comes from people because there are so many of us all across the planet. But the precursor conditions can be affected by climate. Climate change is shifting rainfall patterns around the world - some places are getting wetter and other places are getting drier. We’re also seeing that climate change is increasing our average temperatures, which raises the risk of having those hot, dry conditions that we need for a wildfire to spread.
GELLERMAN: Now the reason that you know that is because you looked at 16 global climate models.
HAYHOE: And we also looked at the whole planet using satellite data that showed us where fires have happened in the past. And what we found was very interesting - in many places, including a lot of the places where we live in North America, we do expect climate change to increase the risk of fire. This is really no surprise: a lot of other studies have found that too. But what we also found was that in some parts of the world, climate change might actually decrease the risk of fires by bringing wetter conditions.
GELLERMAN: I know that in reading your paper, some of it’s kind of counter-intuitive. In some places you get more rain, but you also get more fire.
HAYHOE: I know! And that’s because fire in different parts of the world is controlled by different factors. In some places it’s more temperature sensitive, other places it’s more rainfall sensitive, other times it depends on what’s happening the year before or in a given year.
GELLERMAN: So, for example, you might have more rain in one season, it would grow more stuff, which could burn and then when it gets dry, it’ll burn!
HAYHOE: Exactly! It takes a lot of work to try to unpack all the effects that we can have on the planet.
GELLERMAN: Now, you say North America is going to experience more wildfire in the future.
HAYHOE: Yes, particularly in the West.
GELLERMAN: What about in Europe?
HAYHOE: We see broad patterns of increasing risk of fire across much of the mid-latitudes. In Western Europe, we don’t see it as much as in Eastern Europe and across Russia. And a lot of that is because of the different vegetation patterns as well as the different climate patterns that we have. There’s really no one-size-fits-all answer to how climate change will affect wildfire at the global scale. It really depends very strongly on the specific region.
GELLERMAN: So, in Russia, much of it’s tundra - what are you expecting there? They’ve got huge forests in that region.
HAYHOE: Yes, if you look at the maps of our study, we did project to see increases across much of that area as well. And again, it’s not a surprise: other studies have looked at certain regions and they have found similar results. But our study, what was really unique was, we looked at the whole world in one shot to see what the big picture was.
GELLERMAN: What about the tropics and the subtropics?
HAYHOE: Well, in general, across the tropics, those are the places where we saw the greatest chance of decreasing fire risk.
HAYHOE: Yes. This does not factor in any of our agricultural practices or deforestation or anything like that. That’s only looking at climate as a driver of fire. But because of increases in precipitation, and because much of the fire in those areas is related to precipitation, we expect to see decreases there as a result of climate.
GELLERMAN: Well, the subtropics and the tropics are really important because that’s where we have some of these tremendous rainforests which help moderate climate change.
HAYHOE: Yes! Again, there’s a lot going on that we have to look at when we start to really zoom-in to the regional scale. But what we did that’s really effective for a start was taking the global perspective: what does climate change mean for wildfire across the scale of our planet?
GELLERMAN: So, globally, is the world going to go up in flames, or are we going to be dousing it with more precipitation?
HAYHOE: (Laughs.) No, I don’t think this is going to be the end of the world as we know it.
GELLERMAN: Well, that’s a good thing!
HAYHOE: But what’s happening again is that climate change is interacting with vulnerabilities that we already have, that don’t have anything to do with climate change. It’s just the way that we’ve built our societies, we’ve built our agriculture, our industry, our infrastructure. And what climate change is doing is it’s coming along and it’s interacting with each of those in a unique way for each city, for each state, for each region.
GELLERMAN: Now you’re in Texas, right?
GELLERMAN: Last year Texas had something like 28,000 wildfires, destroying four million acres. I was reading that that’s double the previous record!
HAYHOE: Oh yes! The wildfire came within about two hundred yards of our own place. We went to bed three or four nights in a row convinced that it was going to be burned in the morning.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess Texas Governor Perry asked President Obama to declare 252 out of the 254 counties in Texas as disaster areas.
HAYHOE: I know! Isn’t that incredible?
GELERMAN: So, professor, do you think people connect the dots between what they do now, changing climate, and these wildfires?
HAYHOE: I think that most of us are very aware now that when we burn coal or gas or oil, we are releasing heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere that are building up and as they build up, they are actually altering the climate of our planet. Most of us are aware of this, but it’s really difficult because the size of the problem makes us feel helpless.
GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Hayhoe, thanks a lot.
HAYHOE: It was a pleasure.
[MUSIC: Ernest Ranglin “Ball of Fire” from Below The Bassline (Island Records 1996)]
GELLERMAN: Professor Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University. You’ll find a link to her study at our website: L-O-E dot ORG.
- Katherine Hayhoe
- Climate Change and Disruptions to Global Fire Activity
GELLERMAN: We live in a sea of synthetic chemicals - by one count, 80 thousand are used in the United States, and only a few hundred have been tested for safety. And even before we’re born, we’re exposed to these potentially toxic substances. That concerns Laura Turner Seydel. She’s worried that what we don’t know about synthetic chemicals could hurt us.
Laura Turner Seydel is chair of the Captain Planet Foundation, which brings environmental programs to schools. Her dad is media mogul Ted Turner. She recently spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: A number of years ago you decided to have your family’s body burden tested. Now, that’s the total amount of toxic chemicals that are present in our bodies. What led you to do this?
SEYDEL: Well, you know there were really a number of factors, but my family has been part of the environmental movement for years and years and we know that toxins are a big problem in our land, air and water. And when we had the offer to participate in this toxic body burden program, we jumped at this opportunity. And, really, my father, my son and I all agreed to participate and the results have been fascinating.
CURWOOD: And I gather this was something that was just getting started.
SEYDEL: Yes. Actually, we became part of the first inter-generational study. They took 15 vials of blood from each one of us and tested us for about 80 chemicals that are very prevalent in our society today and in many people’s blood. They are known carcinogens, known hormone disruptors and other toxic type chemicals. And it’s really frightening to know that this is going on in our communities and we were happy to be part of it.
CURWOOD: Well, let’s start at the head of the generations - what were the results for your dad’s testing?
SEYDEL: Well, Dad had high levels of mercury and lead. Probably from the fish he ate. He was about 98th percentile for mercury. And then lead, you know he has an older home that probably has lead in the solder and the pipes, and then also there was lead in paints. So even if you paint over the walls, you still get a lot of lead dust from opening and shutting doors and windows. So that’s probably where his came from. But, you know, it’s hard to say for sure.
CURWOOD: Okay, and then what about your body Laura? What did they find?
SEYDEL: Well, it wasn’t surprising when they told me that I had high levels of artificial musk. This is a chemical that is widely used in personal care products: make-up, cleaners, it’s artificial fragrance. And it can be hormone disrupting and a carcinogenic-type chemical. And so, you know, right away it told me I really had to clean out our products in our home that had artificial fragrance.
CURWOOD: And what did they find in your son?
SEYDEL: Well John R had high levels of flame retardant - and you can absorb that through your skin if it’s on your clothes. And for children they make pajamas with flame retardant on it. I always bought those thinking that it was the right thing to do. Also, it’s highly prevalent in dust in homes because all of our electronics and a lot of our furniture has flame retardants in it.
So you can get it into your blood by inhalation. And then he had high levels of Teflon type chemicals, which is kind of a barrier for grease. It’s prevalent in candy wrappers and fast food wrappers, even microwavable popcorn - they use that to line the bags so that the grease does not soak through. So it was alarming to me to know that he had such high levels of chemicals that could really affect his health.
CURWOOD: What changes did you make in your life and in your family’s lives to lessen exposure to these chemicals?
SEYDEL: Well, I really started paying a lot more attention to what I was putting in the shopping cart. A great resource for me, one of them, was going to Skin Deep Database at EWG.org, that lists thousands of personal care products, cosmetics and foods that can have high levels of egregious chemicals so that I as a consumer can make an educated choice about what goes in that shopping cart and what comes home to be consumed by my family.
CURWOOD: I wonder how overwhelmed you felt in this. I mean, there’s so much information out there, so many cautionary advisories in the media, you know, don’t use products with bisphenol-A, don’t use personal care products with parabens. How did you cope with this, well, sometimes people call it an overload of information?
SEYDEL: You know, I love my community and I’ve really enjoyed finding people who are working towards the same goal, which is making sure that until we have legislation protecting us and regulating this kind of business, that we educate ourselves and get the word out as much as possible.
But you know, as much as we educate ourselves and, you know, even if we go to a website and look up what’s the best to use, you still can’t shop your way around it. So that’s why we have to call on our Congress to do the best thing for our communities and for the health of our children and that’s pass these two really special bills - important bills - the Safe Cosmetics Act and the Safe Chemicals Act.
CURWOOD: Tell me - what’s in that proposed legislation and why would it help?
SEYDEL: Well, the Safe Cosmetics Act would be an update for a bill that was passed in the 1940s that’s a page long, that doesn’t require manufacturers of personal care products or cosmetics to list all the ingredients.
For instance, 86 percent of the red lipstick has lead in it - and by law they’re not required to list it. Of course, I don’t think I know any woman who would buy, knowingly, a tube of lipstick that had lead in it. But this bill would require that all ingredients are listed so that the consumer can make an educated choice.
Now, the Safe Chemicals Act would really look at some of the…about 400 of the most egregious chemicals. Europe has banned these outright: known carcinogens, hormone disruptors and this law would put the responsibility back on the manufacturer to prove that these chemicals are really safe for human consumption, for human use, and especially for our children who don’t have the immune systems to protect themselves from an egregious onslaught of toxins.
CURWOOD: We’re just about out of time, Laura, but have you thought about going back and having your family tested again? What, it’s seven years ago you did this first.
SEYDEL: I have thought about that on a regular basis, as a matter of fact, and I can’t tell you how many people out there want to do the same thing. They want to know what’s in their bloodstream. And it’s hard to do: it’s expensive - these tests are expensive - so that’s why it’s even more important that we make sure that we limit exposure to egregious chemicals and just outright ban… ban them. You know, just like Europe has done. They’ve found alternatives; they might be a little bit more expensive, but what’s our health worth, the health of our families, the health of our communities?
CURWOOD: Laura Turner Seydel is an eco-living expert based in Atlanta. She’s the chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation, which brings hands-on environmental programs into schools. Thanks so much for joining me, Laura!
SEYDEL: Thank you, Steve, have a great one.
CURWOOD: To find some links to resources on chemicals and personal health, go to our website - LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: Stanton Moore “Snowball” from Take It To The Street]
- Laura Turner Seydel’s website
- Skin Deep – Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database
- Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- Find out more about The Safe Chemicals Act
- Captain Planet Foundation
GELLERMAN: The United States has a new Poet Laureate—it’s Natasha Trethewey. She joins a distinguished body of bards that goes back 75 years: Robert Frost, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky. The job has few duties except to raise the national passion for poetry, and Natasha Trethewey certainly did that for us at Living on Earth a couple of years ago when she talked about poetry and read from some of her work.
TRETHEWAY: I’m Natasha Tretheway, and I began writing poems on long trips as a child. My father driving in the front seat and my stepmother beside him trying to entertain me when I got bored would say to me, ‘why don’t you write poems about what you see outside of your window?’
And those are some of the earliest poems I began to write, and I suppose that driving through Louisiana and Mississippi, what I was seeing outside of my window was the natural world speeding by. All those pine trees and the piney woods, also the swampy marshlands around New Orleans.
I think that the job of poets and poetry is to record the cultural memory of a people. And certainly our relationship to an engagement with the natural world is part of that.
This is “Monument”:
Today the ants are busy
beside my front steps, weaving
in and out of the hill they’re building.
I watch them emerge and -
like everything I’ve forgotten - disappear
into the subterranean, a world
made by displacement. In the cemetery
last June, I circled, lost -
weeds and grass grown up all around -
the landscape blurred and waving.
At my mother’s grave, ants streamed in
and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising
above her untended plot. Bit by bit,
red dirt piled up, spread
like a rash on the grass; I watched a long time
the ants’ determined work,
how they brought up soil
of which she will be part,
and piled it before me. Believe me when I say
I’ve tried not to begrudge them
their industry, this reminder of what
I haven’t done. Even now,
the mound is a blister on my heart,
a red and humming swarm.
I began writing this poem because I saw the ants building that ant mound outside of my apartment many years ago and it reminded me of a visit to my mother’s grave in which I’d also seen ants building a mound. One of the things that excited me about making the connection between those two things was the poem's title.
Looking up the mound in my dictionary, I learned that a mound is also a monument, and so there those ants were building the monument that I had not erected on my mother’s grave. They were tending to a kind of remembrance that I had neglected to do.
GELLERMAN: Professor Natasha Tretheway teaches English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the nation's new poet laureate.
[MUSIC: Youngbloods “Sunlight” from Ride The Wind (Warner Bros. 1971)]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessican Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Annie Sneed and Annabelle Ford. Special thanks this week to radio station WBUR in Boston. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and don’t forget our Facebook page! It’s PRI’s Living on Earth - and you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth…that’s just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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