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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of

Pollution in China is so bad that pilots need special training on how to land in the smog (photo: bigstockphoto.com)

Peter Dykstra, publisher of the Daily Climate and Environmental Health News, tells host Steve Curwood about a bizarre (and perhaps satirical) article from China detailing the silver linings to the country's serious smog problem. Also a look back at the life of Chico Mendes, and a look ahead at the arrival of outspoken Keystone XL critic John Podesta as a presidential counselor.


DYKSTRA: And now for some stories from beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra, who publishes the Daily Climate.org and Environmental Health News.

CURWOOD: Hi there, Peter.

DYKSTRA: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, what’s beyond the headlines this week?

DYKSTRA: Steve, we’re going to start you out in that nest of naysaying, that den of dysfunction - our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. And Jon Podesta has a new job there. Jon’s a Washington heavyweight, he was President Clinton’s last White House chief of staff. For the past decade, he’s run a think tank called the Center for American Progress. Jon Podesta’s going to be a special advisor to President Obama, and his portfolio will focus on energy and environment, and that’s something he did a lot for President Clinton.

CURWOOD: So I imagine environmental advocates are doing a happy dance, and maybe some folks in industry aren’t so pleased.

DYKSTRA: Well, you know what, I’ve seen very little public reaction on the industry side, but green groups, yes, absolutely they’re pleased. There’s also one big question mark with all this that I see. He’s been very publicly critical for the past few years of the Keystone XL pipeline project. So critical that he’s going to sit out on any discussions in the White House about Keystone. So you’ve got one of the highest profile environmental issues the White House has now; you have a guy coming in with strong opinions, and because he has strong opinions, he’s not going to make his opinions known. To me that’s like Jon Podesta coming in and saying he’ll be a vegetarian except for the bacon and the lamb chops and the cheeseburgers. So we’re going to have to see how that works.

CURWOOD: But would he come back to the White House if he weren’t given assurances that Keystone isn’t going to have to happen on his watch?

DYKSTRA: You bring up a very good point. Presidents obviously worry about their legacy, key assistants to presidents also worry about their legacy, and Jon Podesta’s really staked out, a very, very strong environmental stand. As an opponent of Keystone I doubt he’d want to come back and on this watch as soon as he gets there have something he feels so strongly about go in the opposite direction.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that you’ve dug up - well, I guess kind of an odd sounding story from China.

DYKSTRA: It’s so odd, in fact, that it sounds a little tongue-in-cheek, and it concerns all of the bad news you’ve heard for years from China about the growing pollution problems there. This week, the city of Shanghai set all-time records for air pollution. There’s another story that said that Chinese pilots that fly into the international airport in Beijing are going to have to receive special smog landing training just to be able to land a plane there on some of the worst days. CCTV, China Central Television, this massive government-run broadcaster, had another story this past week on its website. It made people so angry that it was pulled down from the website almost immediately. It listed five reasons why China’s massive pollution problem might actually be a good thing.

CURWOOD: Ummmm. Five reasons why China’s massive pollution might actually be a good thing? Such as what, Peter?

DYKSTRA: OK. Get pencils and paper ready. Here are your five reasons why pollution is a good thing for China, according to the story.

- It unifies the Chinese people ,
- Smog makes them more equal,
- It raises citizen awareness,
- It inspires plenty of pollution jokes,
- It inspires people to be more knowledgable about the science of what’s polluting them.

...at least that’s what the web piece on CCTV said.

CURWOOD: Well, are you sure this wasn’t supposed to be satire? Maybe some clever writer slid it past a sleeping censor?

DYKSTRA: Well, if you know anything about CCTV, it’s not exactly a hotbed of snark, it’s never going to be confused for The Onion. It might have been a satire, it might have been a serious attempt to put lipstick on a pig and make this awful pollution problem look good. Either way, it’s a statement on how bad things have gotten in China.

CURWOOD: OK. Before you go, Peter. Tell us what you have for us on the calendar.

DYKSTRA: Sometimes, we get to end these on an upbeat note, and sometimes we just have to put that aside and end on an important note. It was 25 years ago this week that Chico Mendes was murdered.

Chico Mendes was a rubber tapper who fought against deforestation in the Amazon before plantation owners murdered him 25 years ago (photo: bigstockphoto.com)

CURWOOD: Now, some folks may have forgotten about Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper who organized in the Amazon. Why don’t you remind us?

DYKSTRA: Chico was a union leader. He came from a family of rubber tappers. He tried to stop the exploitation of some of the workers in the Amazon. One of the issues down there is that the plantation owners would ban the teaching of math, for the rubber tappers and their families because if the rubber tappers learned how to do math, they would find out how badly they were getting ripped off by the plantation owners.

One of the things that Chico is best remembered for is that he was also working to protect the Amazon, and he became kind of an environmental icon around the world, and then he was found dead in his home. The plantation owner where he worked, the plantation owner’s son, and another worker were convicted of murder. While he was alive, and since he’s been gone, Chico Mendes has inspired the protection of millions of acres in the Amazon, but there are millions more acres every year that get cut down.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Peter.

DYKSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve, talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is publisher of Environmental Health News and DailyClimate.org.
And you can find links to all these stories at our website, LOE.org.



Peter Dykstra is the editor of Environmental Health News

and the Daily Climate

Follow him on Twitter


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