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

Year in Review

Air Date: Week of

Mark Hertsgaard, Living On Earth’s political observer, looks back at the major environmental events of the year with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Joining me to discuss the presidential races and other environmental highlights of 1999 is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, so you've just heard an assessment of Steve Forbes' environmental agenda. How do you think the issue is playing with the rest of the field?

HERTSGAARD: It's been surprisingly prominent. Of course, the big event was Friends of the Earth deciding to endorse Bill Bradley rather than Al Gore for president, and that certainly served as a wake-up call, not only to Mr. Gore but I think to politicians in general. This year, we'd already seen George Bush, Jr., for example, declare that he believes that global warming is real after all. And John McCain, his chief rival for the Republican nomination, has said that the environment could be the sleeper issue in this campaign. So clearly, the politicians are taking notice of this.

CURWOOD: Well, politicians watch polls, and the polls tell us, right, that the environment is getting close to the top of the list for voters' concerns, even among Republicans. Is Washington responding to this information?

HERTSGAARD: Well, interestingly enough, Steve, in the face of all this, it's pretty much been business as usual inside of Washington. That is to say, the Clinton administration has made a couple of important environmental initiatives, but on Capitol Hill most Congressional Republicans, and not a few Democrats, I should say, have been dragging their feet trying to secure corporate favors with last-minute anti-environmental riders we've talked about a lot on this show. And President Clinton, as usual, has spoken against those riders and then in the end ended up signing most of them.

CURWOOD: You don't have to say, it's kind of puzzling to have a business-as-usual attitude in the face of some of the scientific information we're getting. I'm thinking of the report from the United Nations, a kind of state of the planet report called Geo 2000. You saw that, didn't you, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: Sure. In fact, I was in Europe when that came out in September, Steve. Front page news in the major newspapers in Germany. Checked when I got back here; U.S. press had completely ignored it, which is astonishing. There are absolutely extraordinary and important findings there, such as GEO 2000 said 25 percent -- 25 percent -- of the world's mammal species, 11 percent of its bird species, are now at risk of total extinction. GEO 2000 also drew attention to what I think is going to be one of the major environmental issues of the twenty-first century: water. They warn that we're facing a full-scale emergency, and they estimate that by the year 2025, two out of every three humans will be living in water-stressed conditions.

CURWOOD: There's also been some other amazing scientific reports this year. You want to talk about the Amazon?

HERTSGAARD: I'd love to. I think that is another one of the really key studies. Scientists have discovered that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed twice as fast as previously believed. Largely because droughts down there are causing parts of the rainforest to combust spontaneously. And the accelerated pace of destruction is also worrying, because, you know, just remember the current rate of global deforestation is set to leave us without any rainforests at all by the year 2050. So that's very worrisome. And Steve, I'd mention one other study, which is the conclusion by U.S. government scientists that it is humans, rather than natural changes, that are the most significant factor behind global warming.

CURWOOD: Well, now, why is that so significant? I mean, scientists have been saying for years that humans do help cause climate change, right?

HERTSGAARD: Well, that's true. But they've never specified how much of it we're responsible for. In 1995, of course, the famous report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said climate change has begun. And there was the very famous line: "a discernable human influence on it." But we didn't know how much. This year, scientists have looked at that, and they have concluded that humans have been the most significant factor behind the warming of recent decades. If that finding stands up to scrutiny, it is incredibly important because, look, if we humans were responsible for only, let's say, two percent of global warming, it wouldn't make much difference what we do. So why stop cutting down rainforests? Why stop using fossil fuels? Now, though, we know that it is our own actions that will largely determine how much climate disruption we and our descendants face. That is incredibly important.

CURWOOD: Mark, what other events from this past year really stand out?

HERTSGAARD: Well, of course, WTO, Steve. And we've talked a lot about that already on this show, so I'll just mention two facts that make, I think, WTO something that will last in history. First, never again after the Seattle meetings, never again will these incredibly important decisions about world trade, globalization, and all of their environmental effects -- never again will they be made behind closed doors without public participation, without press scrutiny. Second, the reason that Seattle succeeded in that regard is largely because environmentalists have now formed a working, authentic partnership with labor unions and other members of civil society: human rights groups, overseas activists. This kind of political coalition could be incredibly important in the years to come. And I see it, actually, in global terms, there is a shift, I think, going on in environmentalism to becoming harder-edged, more in-your-face, more directly challenging of corporate and government authority. I think in particular to one of the other big events of this year, genetically-modified foods. The civil disobedience, the consumer boycotts, especially in Europe, educated people, got the general public to sit up and take notice. They didn't like what they heard. They didn't like that there is no testing of these, that there is no labeling. And as a result, the biotech industry is now on the run. Farmers are refusing to plant these crops. Baby-food makers are refusing to use them. The biggest bank in Europe has told its big institutional investors: get out of biotech. And then of course, finally Monsanto, as if to surrender, said okay, we won't commercialize the terminator gene. That would never have happened if there hadn't been this kind of militant opposition, and I think it's a harbinger for what we may be seeing if this kind of activism grows.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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