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

September 24, 2004

Air Date: September 24, 2004



McCain’s Climate Change Campaign

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Republican Senator John McCain has been considered somewhat of a maverick by both his critics and supporters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his stance on global warming. The Bush administration and the Republican party, as a whole, are slow to move to action when it comes to climate change. This hasn’t stopped the Arizona senator from being a leading advocate for curbing global emissions. Host Steve Curwood talks with Senator McCain about his climate agenda, and how the issue first came up four years ago on the campaign trail. (23:20)

Hurricanes and Global Warming

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As images of hurricane destruction pepper the news, host Steve Curwood talks with Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, about the link between hurricane intensity and global warming. (05:30)

Burrowing Owls / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an unusual tool that some owls use to trap their dung beetle dinner. (01:20)

Living on Earth Mailbox

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We dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:30)

Eco-Pilot / Barbara Ferry

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Sandy Lanham pilots her 48 year old Cessna plane with Mexican environmentalists to help them track endangered wildlife. Reporter Barbara Ferry accompanied Lanham on a recent flight. (13:15)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: John McCainREPORTER: Barbara FerryNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona may have lost his bid for the White House four years ago, but sooner or later, he says, he’ll win his campaign to make the American government confront global warming.

MCCAIN: The facts are facts, and climate change is real, and it’s threatening, and it’s inevitable that we act.

CURWOOD: And as for the current contenders for the White House, Senator McCain says both are failing to lead.

MCCAIN: If the president believes there’s not climate change, I think he should talk about it in the campaign. If John Kerry believes that there is, I think he should talk about it in the campaign. I think it’s an issue. But it’s being ignored by both the campaigns and the media.

CURWOOD: A conversation with John McCain about the science and politics of global warming and why he wants Congress to adopt what he calls the Climate Stewardship Act, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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McCain’s Climate Change Campaign

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

In today’s political climate, there are few Republicans leading the fight against climate change. But that’s just what Arizona Senator John McCain is doing. The once and perhaps future presidential candidate with a maverick reputation has emerged as the leading advocate in Congress for action on global warming.


Senator John McCain at Yale University (Photo: Peter Casolino)

MCCAIN: Good morning. Today the committee meets for the third in a series of hearings this year on the very critical topic of the impacts of global climate change… an issue of worldwide importance…

CURWOOD: As chair of the Senate’s commerce and science committee, Senator McCain has brought the top climate scientists in the world to the halls of Congress. The hearings have become his bully pulpit to bring attention to the issue and to take on global warming skeptics.

MCCAIN: There is strong scientific consensus about the fact that global climate change is occurring, and occurring as a result of human activity. Those few scientists and those in industry that claim otherwise do so despite their lying eyes.

CURWOOD: Senator McCain also co-authored the Climate Stewardship Act with Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman. The bill would create the first federal mandatory limits on emissions of climate-changing gases such as carbon dioxide. The measure failed in the Senate last year but did better than expected in a 55 to 43 vote.

And Senator McCain says he is committed to winning passage of the act no matter how long it takes, and compares it to his years-long effort to reform campaign finance law. It’s a curious crusade for someone like John McCain to take up. Many of his fellow Republicans – including President Bush – oppose regulatory action on climate change, and some Republican Senate leaders even deny global warming is a threat.

I sat down with Senator McCain in his Washington office recently to ask him why he’s taken up this fight and where he sees it going. He says it started on the campaign trail four years ago when he was running for president and decided to take a closer look at climate change because voters were asking him to.

MCCAIN: Every town hall meeting that I had, some young person would stand up and say, “What are you going to do about climate change?” And initially … I didn’t disregard the questions, but more and more it got me more interested and more involved. And it wasn’t just in New Hampshire – it was all over the country. There would always be people there who would ask about climate change. And clearly, as an elected representative or a person who wants to represent the people, you should pay attention to their concerns. And I started – and that certainly piqued both my interest and my involvement in the issue.

CURWOOD: People who have championed this from the Senate – I’m thinking of yourself, I’m thinking of Joe Lieberman, I’m thinking of Al Gore – you guys all have run for president and haven’t gotten there.

MCCAIN: (LAUGHS) Well that may be partially coincidence. When I ran in 2000 I didn’t have nearly the concern about climate change as I’ve begun to feel over the last two or three years as the accumulation of scientific evidence has dramatically increased.

CURWOOD: You say it’s important for people to be educated about this. Tell me about the education of John McCain, when you first became aware of climate change as being a major issue. And what motivated you to become really a champion of us looking at it politically?

MCCAIN: I was concerned about it because I’ve heard and read so much about it. But probably what – my position evolved. When we started having these hearings and these incredibly respected scientists who spend their lives studying this issue become more and more unanimous, and more and more definitive in their views about climate change – look, the most cautious people in the world is the scientific community. And the National Academy of Scientists has come out in very definitive language that, quote, “human activity is responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases.” I mean, that’s…there’s no equivocation there. So when the smartest people in the world – I stood fifth from the bottom of my class at the Naval Academy, I don’t claim to be real smart, but I do claim to respect the views and opinions and conclusions of the smartest people in America and the world.

CURWOOD: I understand you just were on a tour that took you to the northern-most fringes of Norway and Spitzbergen. What did you see?

MCCAIN: We saw glaciers that have dramatically diminished over the last ten years. We talked to various scientific research people. There are ten nations up there in this particular place, in Spitzbergen, doing research who also said they had significant evidence of climate change taking place.

CURWOOD: I understand on this trip you actually asked some of the other folks who were traveling with you to take a detour to Spitzbergen. Why did you specifically want to take members of the Congress, the Senate, to see Spitzbergen?

MCCAIN: Well I think that it’s an educational experience. Whenever you actually see some of things that you actually hear about and read about, it has a much greater impact. By the way, we also stopped in Iceland on the way back, and they are seeing significant impacts of climate change as well.

CURWOOD: When I look back at your record on the environment, at least according to League of Conservation Voters, they don’t give you a very good score from their perspective. They give you a 20 percent score. And yet today you’re one of the leading champions here in the national government talking about taking mandatory action for climate change. What is it that brought you to the issue of climate change?

MCCAIN: First of all, as far as the scores of my friends – and they are my friends – in the League of Conservation Voters: one, for example, one of their grading criteria is whether you are pro-life or not, and if you’re pro-life then you’re marked down in their scores. So, in all due respect, I believe that my commitment to the environment – beginning back in the ‘80s working with Mo Udall to put three million acres of Arizona into pristine preservation status – speaks for itself, but...

CURWOOD: So it’s a bad rap they’ve given you, in other words.

MCCAIN: No, we just have differing opinions as to what is an environmental issue. I don’t view the issue of abortion as being an environmental issue, they do. But that’s – look, that doesn’t bother me. The people of Arizona and the people of this country know me and my record well enough that I’m not too concerned with a particular scorecard.

But more importantly than that, what has made me far more dedicated to this issue is the accumulation of scientific evidence and the opinion of the most-respected scientists in the world. That’s what has caused me to increase my commitment. And I know we’re going to address this issue. I mean, there’s not a doubt in my mind. The question is, how much damage has been done? How much are our kids and grandkids gonna pay before we’re able to take significant action?

Now, some things are already happening a little bit. This new commitment and glamour associated with a hybrid engine is now, I think, a nice little sign. The fact that the Europeans are now going to start a cap-and-trade system, that I’m sure will work, will have an effect on our legislation. And amongst young Americans the issue of the environment is becoming a larger and larger issue and ranks in importance with young Americans.

CURWOOD: What are the chances now for passage of the Climate Stewardship Act?

MCCAIN: I think it’s probably, if I had to guess, another year or so. The reason why I say that is because the special interests here – the utilities, particularly, but also the automobile manufacturers, so many others are such powerful lobbies here. What’s interesting is you’re seeing activities amongst various states. The Northeast is forming a coalition of governors, out in California and the West Coast states. So where these lobbies are not as powerful you are seeing action being taken far ahead of that of the Congress.

CURWOOD: The President, President Bush, is well on the record not favoring mandatory action to deal with climate change. You’ve had a number of rather public bear hugs with the President these days; in those moments, do you ever whisper in his ear, “Do something about climate change”?

MCCAIN: (LAUGHS) We spend a lot of time together and I try to respectfully bring to his attention my position on this and other issues. But the one thing I don’t do – and I’ve never done with any president who I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with – is force my agenda on them. The President knows my views on this and other issues in which we are not in agreement. So, I don’t believe that the administration is going to do anything about climate change until after the election. And I’m hopeful then that we could perhaps get some action.

But the fact is we will pass legislation such as that that Joe Lieberman and I have proposed. I mean, the facts are facts, and climate change is real, and it’s threatening, and it’s inevitable that we act. Look, a huge percentage of the world’s coral reefs are dying. What happens if the coral reefs die? Then the fish die, and the beginning of the food chain dies. Recently the Australians declared that the Great Barrier Reef is going to be dead by the year 2030. These comments and findings are gonna sooner or later force the Congress of the United States to act, with or without the agreement of the administration. Of any administration, Bush or Kerry.

CURWOOD: Politics is the big piece of it. So what about the big political question right now, the presidential race? The Democratic nominee favors mandatory action on climate change. The Republican nominee, your party, does not.

MCCAIN: Yep. Tell me the last time that the positions of either candidate had one line in any major newspaper in America. Fact is that it’s not being made an issue in this campaign and I’m sorry it’s not.

CURWOOD: Can’t you make global warming an issue due to your visibility in the Bush campaign? You can step up to the microphone and say something.

MCCAIN: What I do in the Bush campaign is introduce President Bush at various rallies. But I go around the country and campaign for him and I always answer questions. I always answer questions, both from the press and from people who attend. And quite often I’m asked about it and I’m very outspoken and very passionate in my responses.

CURWOOD: How do you reconcile your support for Mr. Bush with your desire for regulation of greenhouse gases?

MCCAIN: Because I support him on most issues, on a majority of issues. We have disagreements, that’s why we campaigned against each other, and I believe that President Bush’s leadership of the nation after September 11 is what qualifies him primarily, and the primary challenge we face is the war on terrorism.

CURWOOD: We’re speaking with Senator John McCain of Arizona about his efforts to combat climate change. Coming up: global agreements, special interests, and why we should reconsider nuclear power. Our conversation with John McCain continues. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Massive Attack “Future Proof” 100th WINDOW (Virgin – 2003)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. If you’re just joining us, our guest is Arizona Senator John McCain who is leading a call for Congress to do something about global climate change. He wants the United States to put limits on climate-changing gases, but allow businesses to use the marketplace to trade greenhouse gas permits – the so-called cap and trade approach.

The Bush administration is against any mandatory limits, and has opposed both Senator McCain’s domestic proposal as well as an international measure to reduce emissions called the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto will become international law if Russia follows through on its promise to ratify it. Meanwhile, the recent devastating hurricanes in the Southeast and the Caribbean have some talking about a connection to climate change. I asked Senator McCain about it.

MCCAIN: It’s risky to attribute a phenomena to the issue of climate change because these phenomena may have happened in the past. But you’re on far safer ground to base your arguments on the accumulation of scientific evidence of temperature rises, of icecap melting, of effects, for example, on the Alaskan natives, of low-lying countries that are seeing more flooding, etc. Let me just give you one small example. For 10,000 years the Inuits, the Alaskan natives, never had the word for “robin” in their language. Now there’s robins all over their villages.

CURWOOD: What specifically can be done, should be done?

MCCAIN: Well, let’s pass the very modest Lieberman/McCain bill. And it’s very modest, it just calls for cap-and-trade and gradual reductions of greenhouse emissions. And then once we pass that let’s start focusing our attention on specifics, including re-opening negotiations with the participants in the Kyoto Treaty; demanding changes in the Kyoto Treaty so that emerging economies such as India and China are included; and then enter into some kind of global agreement to address the issue of climate change.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the Kyoto Protocol for a moment here. Now the Kyoto Protocol, as cast, calls for industrialized nations to go first. You are among I think a unanimous Senate that passed a non-binding resolution saying, no, no, we really shouldn’t get involved unless the developing countries are included. My question is this, though: the developing countries feel that we in the rich part of the world built up our economies with these emissions and that, to be fair, we ought to go first. How do you address this fairness question?

MCCAIN: I address it by saying full agreement amongst industrialized nations would entail a reduction – a reduction – in greenhouse gas emissions, not a status quo. And that’s going to be pretty tough in some areas. And so what we’re asking is that there be some cap put on the emerging industrialized nations, rather than – I don’t blame us having some more stringent requirements, but to have no requirement on a country like China, I mean, you’re not addressing the issue. Finally, let me say the addition of Russia into Kyoto is going to make it move forward. But we all know that the country that manufactures, or is responsible for, 25 percent of greenhouse gases – being left out of it is not going to make any efforts very meaningful.

CURWOOD: So if, for a moment, you could…let’s fast-forward and say that Russia has decided to cede to Kyoto and it’s now the international law, except the United States, and you’d like to get the United States involved in the process. What would be the basic terms that you think the United States should enter the Kyoto process?

MCCAIN: Since we’re 25 percent of the total greenhouse gases that are emitted, then we would have enormous clout. And we should go back to them and say, “We’ll join, but you have to change the terms here for emerging nations. China is becoming an economic and industrial giant and they will be, within ten or 15 or 20 years, a huge contributor. Now there’s got to be curbs put on these emerging nations. Perhaps not as stringent as the mature ones, but there has to be. And in return for that we will join with you. I think there would be very little doubt what the outcome would be.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about technologies out there: nuclear power to combat the threat, or actually the progress of, climate change. How do you feel about that?

MCCAIN: I feel very strongly about nuclear power. And I believe that we need to solve the waste problem. Everybody recognizes that. But the waste problem is a political issue, it’s not a scientific issue. We’re worrying about whether we can keep this stuff safe for 10,000 years or 20,000 years. The fact is it’s a political issue.

The second thing is technology now is developed in the nuclear industry where you can build much smaller nuclear power generators and make it much safer.

Third of all, we’ve had Navy ships cruising around the world for about 60 years, and we’ve never had a nuclear accident with nuclear power plants. So, this abiding fear of another Chernobyl is just sophistry. And you can’t be serious, you can’t be serious about reducing the effect of greenhouse gas emissions unless you factor in nuclear power into the equation.

CURWOOD: What about wind? The amount of money being spent on wind by the federal government is infinitesimal. What do you think the priorities should be?

MCCAIN: Anything – wind, solar, tides – I’ll be for anything. But the realities are, the realities are that if you put up a windmill in every vacant lot in America you still would have a very miniscule effect on the overall energy demands of the United States of America. I’m all for ‘em, I love to see all those little things turning around. But as far as having an actual significant impact – it’s not gonna be. You’re going to have to do other things, such as hybrid car engines, such as much more emphasis on nuclear power, technologies that would make coal clean. There are technologies that are being developed that could make coal clean.

Instead, our friends from coal-mining states would prefer to just protect the industry rather than go through procedures which would just make them less pollutant. Look, 90 percent – not 90 – 70 percent of this is political. Whether it be nuclear power, whether it be putting scrubbers on power plants, whether it be development of new technology for automobile engines. And they don’t want to do it, and we’re going to have to overcome the influence of special interests.

CURWOOD: If the scientific facts compel the kind of action that you’re talking about, what’s stopping us from taking that action?

MCCAIN: The special interests.

CURWOOD: You’d think they wouldn’t want to have a warmer world, either.

MCCAIN: Oh, I think history shows that, for example, the automobile industry opposed seatbelts as being too expensive and would wreck the automobile industry. Airbags. Side airbags. Whatever it is, they’ve always opposed it. And the utilities, public utility companies, are responsible to their stockholders to maximize their profits. Clearly, if you installed some emission controls in clean-ups that it would be more expensive for them. So, I don’t expect them particularly to do anything but what they’re doing. What I expect the Congress to do is not be overly influenced by them.

CURWOOD: You have a relatively new book called “Why Courage Matters.” Where do you see courage, political courage, on this question of climate change?

MCCAIN: Well I see the incredible influence of special interests here and the way we do business legislatively. And it’s very unfortunate, because I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of Americans would like to see us act on this issue of climate change, particularly younger Americans who are going to be paying the price. But we are not only not being courageous, we are ignoring an issue that’s not static. It’s an issue that every day that goes by, as greenhouse gas emissions increase, our challenges increase. Now, some scientists estimate that if we stop right now the increase in greenhouse gas emissions it would be another 20 years before we would see any beneficial effect. In other words, you would still see cumulative damaging effect of what we’re doing now. So it’s very, very serious.

CURWOOD: We’re in over our heads.

MCCAIN: I’m not so sure were in over our heads. We don’t have the political will to stand up, and second of all to educate ourselves. Now, again, if the President believes there’s not climate change I think he should talk about it in the campaign. If John Kerry believes that there is, I think he should talk about it in the campaign. I think it’s an issue. But it’s being ignored by both the campaigns and the media.

CURWOOD: John McCain is a Republican Senator from Arizona. Thank you so much for taking this time.

MCCAIN: Thank you for spending the time with me. It’s always good to be on NPR.

[MUSIC: The Dead Texan “The Struggle” THE DEAD TEXAN (Kranky – 2004)]

Related link:
The Climate Stewardship Act

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Hurricanes and Global Warming

CURWOOD: So what about the question regarding the current batch of devastating hurricanes and any connection to global climate change? There have been a number of stories carried by other news outlets assuring the public that climate change has nothing to do with these storms, but we thought we’d check our own sources.

So we turn now to Kevin Trenberth. He’s head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He’s also a leader of a team of scientists of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that is coordinating reports of the latest scientific research on observed changes. Mr. Trenberth, please tell us, based on the best science you know, what’s the impact of climate change on hurricanes?

TRENBERTH: Well, the way I think of it is that the hurricanes would be there anyway, but the global climate change, and global warming in particular, creates a different background environment in which the hurricanes are working. And in particular the sea-surface temperatures are a little warmer, the whole environment is a bit wetter, a bit moister, there’s more humidity, and that’s the main fuel for the hurricanes. As a result, the hurricanes are a bit more intense, and in particular the rainfall that comes out of them is somewhat greater than it would otherwise be. And the best estimate we have is somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to 15 percent over the last 30 years.

CURWOOD: So what you’re telling me is that we’re not seeing any more hurricanes than we might have seen in the past, but the ones that we are seeing are more intense?

TRENBERTH: Well, that applies to any tropical disturbance, so there may be a tropical disturbance that sort of gets pushed across the threshold and then counts as a hurricane whereas otherwise it wouldn’t. But in general that is the idea, yes, that things are a bit more intense and more rainfall coming out of these things.

CURWOOD: Now, on some of the observations for global climate change we’ve seen the seasons shifting – spring coming earlier in some places, fall a little bit later. What about the season for hurricanes? What changes in the timing of hurricanes might we be seeing?

TRENBERTH: It may start earlier and last longer, and it may also be a little bit more extensive. There may be some regions of the world, in the tropics, where hurricanes form that otherwise they might not have been quite vigorous enough to be called a hurricane.

CURWOOD: How much is the weather changing?

TRENBERTH: Well this is how climate change actually gets manifested, of course. The changes in the hurricanes are consistent with the changes we see in precipitation across the United States. So we’re getting fewer moderate rains and more heavy rains and more instances of potential flooding as a result of that.

CURWOOD: And why are these changes happening?

TRENBERTH: The global warming aspects relate to the changes in composition of the atmosphere. The build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is related to the burning of fossil fuels. And so this relates to our energy use. And we’ve got very clear evidence that the composition of the atmosphere is changing. These gases are greenhouse gases, so they trap the earth’s radiation back out to space and they produce a warming – sort of like acting as a blanket on the planet Earth. And this means that the global mean temperature goes up. But also global water vapor in the atmosphere goes up, and that provides even a feedback because water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas.

CURWOOD: What does this likelihood of stronger hurricanes mean for someplace like the Everglades?

Hurricane damage from Hurricane Dennis (Credit: ©University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Photo by Carlye Calvin)

TRENBERTH: Well the Everglades are very low-lying, of course. The problem really comes down to, firstly, the higher sea level by itself; secondly, when you have high tide and then there is a storm surge on top of that, when those three things come together, suddenly the damage goes, as we might say, nonlinear. Suddenly there are catastrophes and huge chunks of the coastline might disappear altogether and get washed out to sea. Sand beaches can get washed away. Big changes can occur in very short times if those things come together. And I believe that with Hurricane Ivan that we were a little bit lucky that the main landfall occurred when it was relatively low in tide. You know, sooner or later these things will come together, and places like New Orleans, which has a number of areas that are below sea level, are apt to cough it sooner or later.

CURWOOD: So, New Orleans is really looking down the barrel of a gun, is what you’re saying to me?

TRENBERTH: I think that’s true in the longer-term, yes.

CURWOOD: Give me the basics, here. How does a hurricane get formed?

TRENBERTH: Well a hurricane is a collective of individual thunderstorms, and there are disturbances in the Atlantic, there are disturbances which come off of Africa which propagate in the trade winds out into the Atlantic. And then the question is, is this enough to organize the thunderstorms into a collective where they can feed back on themselves and start a circulation that ends up as a tropical storm and ultimately a hurricane.

CURWOOD: Why do they seem to almost always end up in this rather narrow part of the United States and the Caribbean? It’s only really a few hundred miles wide that these storms seem to come to.

TRENBERTH: Well the western part of the tropical oceans is where the warmest water lies, and so hurricanes don’t form in the eastern part of the oceans, for the most part, although there are a few right along the coast of California in the Pacific. But out in most of the central and eastern Pacific hurricanes don’t usually form. On the far western Pacific they’re actually called typhoons, and over in the Indian Ocean they’re called cyclones.

CURWOOD: Kevin Trenberth is head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Thanks for taking this time with me today Kevin.

TRENBERTH: You’re most welcome.

[MUSIC: David Grubbs “Hurricane Season” A GUESS AT THE RIDDLE (Fat-Cat Records – 2004)]

CURWOOD: To hear an extended version of our interview with Kevin Trenberth, go to our website, living on earth dot org.

Related link:
mp3 | RealPlayer)">

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Burrowing Owls

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Flying the friendly skies for the environment. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: In the grasslands and deserts of some southwestern states, you might come across a small scavenging owl. It’s been described by some as a short fat bird on stilts – whose common name is the Burrowing Owl. That’s because it makes its home not in the trees, but in the ground.

A pair of Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) (Photo: Stephen Pitt)

Before breeding season, it scopes out abandoned badger holes as nesting sites. The owl is notorious for hoarding all manner of junk in these burrows, from aluminum cans to animal roadkill. It also lines the outside of its den with fresh droppings from local horses and cows – not exactly the ideal air freshener. But biologists at the University of Florida have discovered the owls might actually be using these droppings as bait for one of their favorite snacks: the dung beetle.

To test this theory, researchers removed the animal waste from a group of owl dens. They then replaced some of the dens with fresh droppings, and left the others empty. After four days, they measured the amount of beetle carcasses around the dens, and found the owls with droppings outside their burrows ate ten times more than those without. Scientists suggest that these owls evolved to use animal droppings as a trapping tool, a strategy they’ve dubbed “bait and wait.”

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; Ford, presenting the Escape Hybrid, whose full hybrid technology allows it to run on gas or electric power. Full hybrid technology details at fordvehicles dot com; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR -- National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Medeski Martin and Wood “New Planet” END OF THE WORLD PARTY (JUST IN CASE) (Blue Note – 2004)]

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Living on Earth Mailbox

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Time now for comments from you, our listeners.


Our recent stories about the Bush administration’s environmental track record and its response to global warming drew plenty of heat from listeners. Judith Sookne tunes in to Living on Earth on WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She thought our report on President Bush’s environmental record did not give enough voice to administration critics.

“Yes, you did interview one expert who told the truth – that this administration has the worst environmental record of any administration, ever,” writes Ms. Sookne. “But most of the report was a careful effort to whitewash that record. You aired Bush doublespeak concerning their policies,” she continues. “And you let them have the last word – more doublespeak, but persuasive.”

Bonnie Parker-Duke listens to Living on Earth over the Internet in Magnolia, Arkansas and heard our story about a recent White House science report that acknowledges the human influence on global warming.

“Has the Bush administration really changed its stance and admitted that this global warming and climate change that we’re involved in might be partially caused by man,” asks Ms. Parker-Duke. “Or is this just something that this administration is saying to appease those of us who believe it -- until after the election when they’ll forget everything that’s been said and do as they please, just as they always have?”

And finally, Richard Brown, a retired nuclear physicist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, agreed with a recent study that says the nation’s major newspaper coverage of climate change sacrificed accurate science reporting by giving disproportionate weight to the views of a small group of skeptics.

“In the extremes there will be very small numbers of people with significant disagreement with the mean,” he writes. “The success of science is that the mean is always being tested. With reason and experiment as the guides, rather than ideology, the mean of scientific opinion is usually quite reliable. An over-emphasis on dissent, says Mr. Brown, is “good entertainment,” but it “ does not help the public to understand the current status of science.”

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Or write us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. Our e-mail address is comments at loe dot org. Once again, comments at loe dot o-r-g. And you can hear our program, and all our previous programs for that matter, by visiting our web site Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot o-r-g. CD's, tapes and transcripts are fifteen dollars.

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CURWOOD: Federal and state fish and wildlife agencies in the U.S. employ hundreds of pilots to track endangered wildlife. But across the border in Mexico, there are very few who do that job. One of them is Sandy Lanham. She flies her 48-year-old Cessna hundreds of hours each year in Mexico’s skies. She searches for leatherback turtle nests, counts endangered pronghorn antelope and scans the Gulf of California for giant Blue whales. As part of the series Border Stories, reporter Barbara Ferry of Homelands Productions has this report from the coast of Baja, California, in La Paz, Mexico.


FERRY: Sandy Lanham walks around her tiny airplane doing a safety check before taking off from La Paz' airport. Her long brown hair whips around her face as she leans over the propeller on the windy tarmac, surrounded by giant Aero Mexico jets taking off and landing.

LANHAM: Feel the propeller, in case a stone hit it the last flight. See if there's any nicks or cracks or anything bad.

FERRY: Lanham's plane, nicknamed Emily, is a 1956 Cessna. Its chipped yellow and brown paint gives it a raggedy look. But Lanham says Emily has earned her scars. The plane is the oldest of its model still in the sky.

Sandy Lanham looks for whales, antelope and other endangered wildlife from her 1956 Cessna.

LANHAM: I like that it’s an old airplane, and I think it's doing the best work of its life, at the end. It appeals to me, gives me hope. I tell people it has bad paint and a good heart. [Laughs]

FERRY: Sandy Lanham founded Environmental Flying Services after working as a flight instructor, a social worker, a belly dancing teacher, and a print saleswoman. She says it was just good luck that she realized she could create a new career out of three things she loves: Mexico, wildlife and flying.

LANHAM: I was living in Mexico for ten months. I had bought an airplane, didn't know what to do with it, had to do something with it, could not afford it. And I went away for the weekend, and when I got back the kids ran up to me – kids living on the block in this Mexican little town – and said, The police are looking for you, the police are looking for you. And, yeah, it scared me.

FERRY: As it turned out, it was the environmental group Conservation International that had asked the police to track down Lanham. The group was looking for a pilot to help with a research project over the Gulf of California. That flight led to others, and Lanham soon found out that researchers were desperate for pilots. Now, 11 years and thousands of miles later, she makes a quick stop into the airport office to file her flight plan, before taking off on today's mission.


FERRY: Today we'll be flying over San Jose Channel, a narrow waterway between the Baja Peninsula and a tiny island. Our mission is to track blue whales, part of a long-term study to understand the importance of the gulf to these largest mammals on Earth. Diane Gendron, a biologist with the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine Sciences in La Paz, heads the study. Armed with binoculars and a camera, Gendron climbs on board, next to Lanham.


FERRY: We take off, leaving behind the brown desert city. Soon we're flying, though it feels more like floating, above the brilliant jewel-like sea.

LANHAM (in plane): Boy, look at the view of that lagoon, with the mountains, brown mountains, reflected in the water. It's incredible.

GENDRON: Yeah, that green, red.

FERRY: The ocean is like a thick soup of marine life. Everywhere we look, we see something. Gendron and Lanham point out schools of dolphin and mackerel, along with fin whales, hump backs, a sperm whale, even a rarely seen Sei whale.

LANHAM: Oh, there's a whale. Oh, maybe that's the sperm, let's go look.

GENDRON: It looks like a blue whale.


FERRY: The blue whales are about 80 feet long, four times bigger than our plane. But as we lean out the open windows, they look like small steamships chugging along in the water.

LANHAM: Looks blue.

GENDRON: It's the blue, isn't it?


GENDRON: Turquoise-lime.


GENDRON: They're so easy. What a pretty place for it to be.

FERRY: Some days, Lanham flies for hours and hours without seeing anything, and though she says the absence of wildlife is valuable information, Lanham admits it's more fun when she circles down low to get a close look at something.

GENDRON (in plane): There’s something out here too. Oh, it was a fluke. I think it’s the humpback.

LANHAM: Oh, great. Sometimes, you fly so low or you drop down so low because of an updraft or, I'm not sure what. You know, all the spout, the blow of the whale, drifted through the open window. I mean, we were literally wiping a blue whale's breath off our faces. [Laughs] Our faces were wet with blue whale breath.

FERRY: Getting this close to the water can be perilous, and there are other dangers: fog can roll in suddenly, tiny stopover airports can run out of fuel. Lanham keeps a life raft on board, as well as a marine radio. And affixed to the dashboard she has a medallion of San Ysidro Labrador. He's the saint Mexicans pray to for rain. Lanham prays to him for no rain, at least not while she's flying.

LANHAM (in plane): I'm going to see if I can get rid of this tower -- there's something else right ahead, let's do him first. Something I'm going to put on your side.

FERRY: During the 700 hours or so she spends in the air each year, Lanham sees wildlife in places no one imagined. Her sightings of threatened shore birds, rare turtle nests, and endangered pronghorn antelope, have helped win critical habitat protection for these species. And Lanham sees animals behave in ways that surprise even the scientists who spend their lives studying them. Just yesterday, she saw a gathering of hundreds of sharks in the water, a sight that baffled marine biologists. Even more common behavior can be a remarkable site from 1000 feet up.

LANHAM: You fly over an area that looks just like when you lift the lid on your washing machine when it's in the agitate cycle, let's say, on the dark clothes. You see your Levi’s and you're not quite sure which is a leg and which is a button. That was kind of going on. You know, I didn't know what was happening. And then, kind of my confusion cleared up pretty quickly. I understood that this was a copulation circle, which took at least three animals – male, female, and a juvenile male, who was helping to hold the female up against the male, holding the animals together so they could copulate.


LANHAM: It is a definite nine, way point 819. Good. And she's going down. Oh, she's a fluker, she's a fluker. Great.

FERRY: Lanham uses a satellite-based global positioning system to record the exact position of all the whales she and Gendron see. Later, Gendron will hook up the GPS to her computer, to download the information for each whale they've spotted.

LANHAM: And I got a sperm whale, right underneath me.

GENDRON: I have a blue whale, too, when you have a chance.

LANHAM: The sperm whale is a 35, one sperm whale.


LANHAM: Yes. For you.

FERRY: After four hours in the sky, we head back to the airport.


FERRY: Back on land, Lanham remembers wanting to be a pilot ever since she was a young girl growing up outside Detroit. Although she loved exploring the woods near her house, the tall trees of Michigan made her feel claustrophobic. She imagined herself flying high up above them, with a long view of the earth. But it wasn't until she became a mother and was going stir crazy at home with her daughter that Lanham signed up for flying lessons.

LANHAM: And after about a year of this, she was in nursery school, and the teachers were having the kids write little books, and it was about what mommies do, what daddies do. And her little book which she brought home was: Daddies go to work, read the books, drive the cars. Mommies take care of the kids, cook the foods, and fly the airplanes. [Laughs]

FERRY: Since those early days, Lanham has learned a lot. She's now known as one of the best bush pilots working in Latin America. And research colleagues, like whale biologist Diane Gendron, say they inherently trust her.

GENDRON: Since the first time I flew with Sandy, I felt very safe. And when she hear me saying that, she always look at me and say, “You can't say that, because it's not safe to fly, you never know what's going to happen.” But what I mean by that is that I feel that I am in good hands.

FERRY: Lanham is so devoted to her work that friends joke she should wear a sign that says, “Will fly for food.” And it's true that, even with all the time she spends writing and occasionally landing grants, Lanham makes a lean living at times. But her clients say Lanham's services are invaluable. Jorge Canzino, of the Center for Biological Research in La Paz, studies endangered pronghorn antelope in the deserts of Baja, California.


VOICEOVER: Without her, we don't fly. Maybe we would look for other options, but with the costs and with the way we work, there really isn't any other way.

FERRY: As an American working in Mexico, Lanham feels frustrated that environmental groups are relatively well funded in the United States, while those south of the border struggle to survive. As she flies back and forth across the border, that political line is as invisible to her as it is to the wildlife which migrate across it.

LANHAM: The border is relevant only to a political system, but if you want to protect ducks in the United States, you have to protect their wintering ground in Mexico. If you want to protect whales, I'm not trying to protect Mexican whales. These are whales that don't recognize the border, not part of their DNA, let's say.

FERRY: After a day of flying, Lanham gathers with her colleagues at a restaurant in La Paz. Over seafood, margaritas, and cigarettes, she entertains them with tales of her airplane adventures. Sometimes, even bathroom stops can be dangerous.

LANHAM: We're in the bushes, when I notice that there are four men like running down the runway towards us, with guns. With guns. Right. So I'm pulling my pants up as I'm running back into the airplane, climbing in, he climbs in, doors shut, no back taxi, no engine warm-up, just crank the thing on and go. I mean go.

FERRY: Running into narcotraficantes, or being mistaken for a drug runner by the Mexican Air Force, are the kinds of adventures Lanham says she'd rather avoid. Of course there are plenty of times when flying is just tedious and exhausting.

LANHAM: When you're flying pronghorn surveys, you're half asleep half the time; it's so boring. Then all of a sudden, out of the corner of your eye, you know, you've got – you catch a movement, and it's an animal that's running, second fastest running animal in the world. It's moving like a sail. And you see a group of ten and I guess you kind of wonder how so much life and how much energy can happen, in a place that's so still.

FERRY: It's moments like these which help explain why, despite the low pay and risks, Lanham thinks she has the ideal job. Some might call it a crazy career choice, but she says she's one of the lucky ones.

LANHAM: If there's any, like, goal in life, it's just to find out what it is that you can do well, put it together in a way that you can both enjoy your life and also do some good, do something that matters. I mean, how can you be any better than that?

FERRY: For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Ferry, in La Paz, Mexico.

CURWOOD: Our story on Sandy Lanham is part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions.

[MUSIC: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos “Aqui Como Alla” MARC RIBOT Y LOS CUBANOS POSTIZOS (Atlantic – 1998)]

Back to top


CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: America is celebrating the 40th anniversary of protected wilderness. But dirt bikers, snowmobilers, all-terrain vehicle owners, and even some mountain bikers are saying “enough with the wilderness.”


MALE: There's a time to draw a line in the sand and say you can't have any more. I mean, that ain't America. Leave it open to everybody. Leave it open or close it off totally.

CURWOOD: The battle over zooming in the wild, next time on Living on Earth. And remember you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.


We take you now far off the coast of Baja Mexico.


CURWOOD: Kathy Turco recorded the annual sojourn of humpback whales to this remote corner of ocean where few boats are known to roam.

[EARTHEAR: “The Cry of Youth” THE DREAMS OF GAIA (EarthEar – 1999)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young - with help from Carl Lindemann, James Curwood and Kelley Cronin. Our Interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our Technical Director is Paul Wabrek. Our show was mixed this week by Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our Website. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of Earthear. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt and more. Women of inspiration speak at the Stonyfield Strong Women programs taking place in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Details at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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