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

November 11, 2011

Air Date: November 11, 2011



Huge Increase In Global CO2 Emissions

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Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by six percent in 2010. The Department of Energy’s Tom Boden tells host Bruce Gellerman that the increase is larger than the worst-case scenario suggested by United Nations scientists. (06:10)

Keystone Pipeline Decision Delayed

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The White House has decided to put off making a decision on expanding the Keystone XL Pipeline until after the 2012 elections. The decision was hailed as a victory by opponents to the tar sands pipeline. National Wildlife Federation Senior Vice President Jeremy Symons tells host Bruce Gellerman that the delay could mean the demise of the Keystone project. (05:50)

Catch The Rain / Ingrid Lobet

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In recent years, as places from Atlanta to West Texas have dealt with debilitating drought, people have turned anew to rain catchment. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story. (08:55)

Back to the Future with Electric Cars

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Electric cars have been around a long time but are finally coming into their own. Now, the race is on to build an electric car for the mainstream. Host Bruce Gellerman asks auto writer Jim Motavalli what our future cars might be, and what they share with the past. (07:30)

BirdNote® Aplomado Falcon – Species Recovery in the Works / Mary McCann

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Aplomado Falcons were once widespread residents of the American Southwest, but by the 1950s, they disappeared entirely from the region. But a group began captive breeding the birds and now the species is thriving. BirdNote®’s Mary McCann has more. (01:50)

Antibiotics, Livestock, and the Rise of Superbugs

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Antibiotics are among our strongest defenses against infection and disease. But there's growing evidence that how we use the drugs in livestock could threaten the effectiveness of the medication in people. The vast majority of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to livestock in low doses to promote growth. This might be creating superbugs: bacteria immune to the antibiotics people depend on. Living on Earth investigates. (07:00)

Exploding Plants / Laurie Sanders

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Biologist Joan Edwards likes to look closely at plants, and particularly, plants that move fast. Her research at Williams College focuses on the mechanism of exploding plants, including sphagnum moss. Producer Laurie Sanders joined Edwards in the field and lab to see some fast action. (05:30)


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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Tom Boden, Jeremy Symons, Jim Motavalli
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Laurie Sanders
NOTES: Mary McCann


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Apparently, the sky is not the limit. The amount of climate changing carbon dioxide in the air shot up last year. It’s worse than anyone imagined.

BODEN: From 2009 to 2010 marks the first year ever since 1751 that we've exceeded nine billion tons of carbon released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels.

GELLERMAN: We’re getting close to the climate tipping point. And President Obama decides not to decide the fate of the XL pipeline just yet.

Also, we know a rolling stone doesn’t gather any, but why sphagnum moss explodes has been a mystery.

EDWARDS: Why do they do it? What's the point? Is there some sort of selective advantage for these plants to do something very, very rapidly? And, they do this, of course, all without muscles.

GELLERMAN: Those stories, and a lot more this week, on Living on Earth. Stay with us!


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

Huge Increase In Global CO2 Emissions

Global carbon dioxide emissions. (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

The numbers are grim and the news is worse. We’ve got five years or else. That according to The International Energy Agency, which reports if we don’t dramatically cut emissions of green house gases by 2017, we face irreversible, catastrophic climate change.

That dire prediction comes on the release of the latest figures showing the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is up. Way up. Six percent just last year. That’s the largest increase ever recorded. In fact, it’s even worse than the worst-case scenario considered by UN climate scientists.

Tom Boden compiled the CO2 numbers. He’s director of the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.

BODEN: Well, from 2009 - 2010 marks the first year ever since 1751 that we've exceeded nine billion tons of carbon released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels. The six percent increase that we saw from 2009 to 2010 also represents the largest single jump that we have ever seen, and we have been doing this now for about 25 years, and it constitutes about a half a billion ton increase. So, it’s quite noteworthy.

GELLERMAN: You know, these are numbers. When you think about it, is there a way of visualizing it? Giving me an image of what we’re talking about here?

BODEN: Well, let me try to equate it to this: Most of us can remember back in 1991 when Kuwait was invaded and many of those oilrigs were set ablaze. The Kuwaiti oil fires resulted in a release of about 130 million metric tons, which is on a par with Canada’s annual emissions. So think of that as something of almost four times that magnitude, of all of those oilrigs ablaze and continuously spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

GELLERMAN: But I thought that the global economic recession was slowing the emission of greenhouse gasses in general and carbon dioxide specifically.

BODEN: Well, that’s true, but at least from an emissions standpoint, from a fossil fuel consumption standpoint, all indications are that the global financial crisis is over, and you can clearly see countries that were impacted by the crisis and those that weren’t. The U.S. was one where we did feel the impacts of the financial crisis; emissions dropped in 2009, but rebounded in 2010.

Other countries like China seemed to show no impact whatsoever from the global financial crisis, and emissions just continue to soar. Half of that - roughly 500 million ton increase - came from China alone, and the remainder came from mostly Asian countries - India, for example. And, again, in the case of those two countries, they’re countries that have very large populations, growing economies, and they’re also sitting on, you know, large reserves of coal that they are using to meet their growing energy demands.

GELLERMAN: So, when you measure the world wide atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, you measure it in "ppm" - parts per million - right?

Tom Boden is director of the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Oak Ridge National Lab. (Oak Ridge National Lab)

BODEN: That’s right. And, we have atmospheric concentration measurements that date back to the late 1950s, and those concentrations, those measurements, show us that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen from about 315 parts per million to 390 parts per million presently. And, certainly, the reason for that rise in atmospheric CO2 is due to fossil fuel consumption.

GELLERMAN: There’s some climate activists who say, you know, at 350, if we go over that Katy bar the door, that we’ve reached a tipping point and we need to stay around 350. And you’re saying that we’re up to 390 parts per million.

BODEN: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: So, are we at a tipping point? Have we gone past that?

BODEN: The emissions scenarios that were used in the last IPCC scientific assessment…

GELLERMAN: Those are the UN science studies.

BODEN: That's exactly right. The emissions scenarios that were used - the trajectory that we’re on exceeds some of the most pessimistic of those emissions scenarios. And in those scenarios, the model continued to show something on an order of three to five degree Celsius global warming. We’re on an emissions trajectory that … this is not business as usual.

GELLERMAN: You know, I'm listening to you and I’m wondering - what do we do?

BODEN: What I tell my children is that we are conducting an experiment with Mother Earth. We don’t know the outcome. But, certainly, human beings are perturbing the atmosphere of the planet that we live in. Some of my kids are alarmed. My youngest one worries about the polar bears and whether they’re going to be around.

The good news is: it's a longer-term problem. I think we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. We need to explore alternative energy forms. We need to conserve where we can. We need to look at things like mass transportation. The old adage of “think globally, act locally,” would be my advice. I think, you know, if we all try to be less fossil fuel consumptive in our personal lives that, hopefully, it will have an impact as we try to find bigger solutions down the road.

GELLERMAN: We’ve been talking about the dramatic growth in CO2 emissions worldwide with Tom Boden. Mr. Boden is Director of the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Oakridge National Lab. Well, Mr. Tom Boden, thank you so very much.

BODEN: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

Related link:
Carbon Dioxide Infromation Analysis Center report.

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Keystone Pipeline Decision Delayed

Protesters surround the white house to protest the Keystone pipeline. (Photo: Tar Sands Action)

GELLERMAN: It may not be exactly the decision King Solomon would have made, but President Obama has finally come to a decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He’s decided to put off a decision pending a review of route the seven billion dollar pipeline would take. The current plans call for the pipeline to carry crude from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada over the nation’s largest aquifer and delicate wetlands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Proponents say we need the jobs and oil but environmentalists hate it. Now, the issue won’t be decided until after the presidential election. Joining me from his office in Washington, DC is Jeremy Symons, Senior Vice President at the National Wild Life Federation. Hi, Mr. Symons. Welcome to Living on Earth.

SYMONS: Thanks for having me on the show.

GELLERMAN: So, what do you make of the Obama administration's decision to delay the final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline?

SYMONS: Well, this is a big turning point. There’s been opposition to this pipeline building over the last two years, and it was really not getting the attention it deserved. But enough people weighed in and the president paid attention, and now we’re finally getting the right process that this big decision on our energy future deserves.

This map shows the three main oil sands in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Norman Einstein, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: But there’s no decision, really. Basically, what he’s done is kicked the can down the road. He’s decided not to decide at least for, well, after the election.

SYMONS: Yeah, he kicked the can, but this was a dirty can. I mean, this was all set to be approved and rubber-stamped from the very beginning. And so, we’re actually quite heartened that this project is going to get a do-over. We don’t think it can stand up to the public scrutiny at the end of the day because, fundamentally, Americans just don’t want an addiction for 30, 40, 50 years to dirty, dangerous tar sands from Canada.

GELLERMAN: I’m reading between the lines of this announcement, and it seems like they’re talking about not killing it, but rerouting it so that it doesn’t harm, you know, the wetlands in the Sand Hills and it doesn’t hurt the aquifer.

SYMONS: Well, this pipeline was bad in so many ways. It was the wrong project in the wrong place, and it was the wrong place because the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer is a source of drinking water and irrigation for so much of America’s agricultural heartland. But, you know, you can change the place, but it’s still the wrong project. It still comes down to whether or not anybody anywhere should deal with spills from this tar sands pipeline.

And even the State Department, if you read between the lines of their analysis, said you’re looking at one to two major spills every single year from this pipeline, and it could be up to two million gallons of tar sands sludge, which is particularly toxic. It’s not like conventional oil; this stuff is really nasty.

GELLERMAN: Would you be satisfied with any rerouting of the pipeline?

SYMONS: Well, certainly not with the safety standards they have now. One of the big issues that we’ve been raising at National Wildlife Federation from the beginning is that there’s never been an assessment of the safety risk of tar sands pipelines. We saw a huge spill on the Kalamazoo River last year of almost a million gallons. It still hasn’t been cleaned up, and EPA says that tar sands is so toxic, it’s so difficult to clean up because of the nature - it sinks to the bottom, it’s heavy - they don’t know what to do with it.

So, the first thing we need is we need to look at all tar sands that are starting to be pumped through pipelines with old safety standards and get a full fledged evaluation and new safety standards put in place because, until we do that, this stuff can’t be transported safely at all.

GELLERMAN: Well, there are people who say even if there are no spills, it’s still no the right project, on any planet, because basically, according to NASA scientist James Hanson, if we burn this oil, it’s game over for the planet.

SYMONS: That’s the key thing in building a pipeline. When you build a pipeline, you’re not deciding where you’re going to get your oil tomorrow or the next year or even five years down the road. You’re really deciding where our kids are going to get their oil way down the road. And, when you look at tar sands development, you’re looking at a huge store of carbon up in Canada, and if we start burning that, it causes far more pollution than even conventional oil. We need to be moving the other direction. We need to be moving to American renewable energy sources that don’t spill, that don’t pollute and that don’t run out.

GELLERMAN: It would be amazing if the decision were to kill the pipeline, because that would mean that the United States wasn’t going to tap into the world’s second largest proven reserves of oil.

SYMONS: You know, that’s a false choice though, because at the end of the day, we know one thing for sure - we know that our addiction to oil is at a dead end. It’s not whether we draw a line in the sand. It’s whether the nation stands up and draws a line in the sand and says, “We’re going to take clean energy seriously, and we want to put our dollars behind it.”

GELLERMAN: So, you think opponents to the pipeline are going to sign onto this? Because we spoke to many opponents, Bill McKibben, for one, and he said, you know, this is the line in the tar sands. If the president doesn’t do what we think he should do, we may withhold our active support.

SYMONS: I think the equation is the other way in this case. The real question is whether Washington responds when people get roused to the point that they did here. We saw hundreds of thousands of comments, we saw people marching in front of the White House, even people being arrested in front of the White House, but importantly, we saw thousands of people gathering at town halls along the pipeline route.

I think there’s a new awareness here, and I think politicians on both sides of the aisle, and whether they’re in the White House or in Congress or in state houses, need to really pay attention that Americans expect and deserve a better energy future than this type of investment represents.

GELLERMAN: When you heard the news were you celebrating?

SYMONS: Yeah, we’re excited today. I mean, there’s no question about it, because there were days in this fight where it’s been a really long haul. I mean, I’ve talked to people on both sides of the border - in Canada and in the United States - that have been really trampled in this process, and I think the judgment is going to come out right on this because it’s hard to imagine that we would come out any other way.

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Symons is Senior Vice President for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, DC. Mr. Symons, thank you very much.

SYMONS: Thanks for having me on the show!

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[MUSIC: Symons: Derek Trucks “So Close, So far Away” from joyful Noise (Columbia Records 2002).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: applying ancient ways to catch rainwater in a climate- changing world. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Derek Trucks: “Every Good Boy” from Joyful Noise (Columbia Records 2002).]

Catch The Rain

Texas rainwater expert Billy Kniffen beside one of the tanks that feeds his home in Menard. (Texas Co-op Power)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s just rain! And in a world where water is increasingly scarce don’t look to a super hero in spandex to save the planet. Look to the past. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, ancient methods to catch rain can do a super job.
LOBET: In a growing number of places around the United States, people are taking a second look at their roofs, wondering how much water they might catch.


DOWNEY: In this illustration we are looking at a one-inch frame producing 650 gallons per one thousand square feet of roof.

LOBET: That’s Nate Downey of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’s written a book called “Harvest the Rain, Seeing Every Storm as a Resource” and is on the road giving workshops.

DOWNEY: Who here lives in a place that's really cold in the winter? You probably want to go with an underground cistern. Who here lives in a place that is really warm? You are going to want probably an above ground system, because above ground cisterns are much less expensive than underground cisterns.

A vertical water cistern in Santa Monica, California (Neal Shapiro)

LOBET: Catching water in tanks and cisterns is now common in Santa Fe where the city can ration water during drought and wells can run dry. Landscape contractors like Downey even have a monthly get-together called the semi-arid café to discuss technique and tour new installations. But renewed interest in rain reaches far beyond New Mexico. Here’s a sample of the folks who came out to learn more in Los Angeles:

PORTILLO: I’m here because I’m studying anything and everything related to permaculture, horticulture, agriculture. I want to incorporate water harvesting into whatever it is that I do.

SEVEN: I’ve owned property for the past 40 years and I’m at a point where I need to figure out where we want to put a cistern. I grew up going to an island in Connecticut that used a cistern.

FINLEY: I have a property that used to be a swim school. So I have a 50 by 25 foot pool in there that I collect rain water in, and I put it in barrels, and I need to figure out a another way to do it where I don’t have to physically be there pulling hoses and all that crazy stuff.

LOBET: This workshop is taking place in a café and dance space called Club Fais Do Do in mid city Los Angeles. The club’s owner, Steven Yablok, says he wants to invite nature in to the place where people party. He plans to collect water off his large roof.

YABLOK: The downspouts are easily accessible so we can pick that water off. We have an area in the backyard of the restaurant where we can have storage tanks and use that water for growing some of the foods that we will be serving here.

LOBET: It’s a sort of extension of the local food movement, or rooftop solar. Make your energy here. Collect your water here. Fifteen miles to the west, the City of Santa Monica aims to get all of its water locally. That’s a feat in the southwest. By 2020 the city wants all of its water to come from its own groundwater or rainfall. But don’t call it rainwater capture.

SHAPIRO: I’ll call it rainwater harvesting. Capture can have negative connotations when you think about war and stuff.

LOBET: Neal Shapiro is Watershed Management Program Coordinator for Santa Monica and has advocated rainwater use and water self-sufficiency for years. The city now gives incentives to people who direct their downspouts into rain barrels and use that to water plants.

SHAPIRO: We have rebates of up to 100 dollars per rain barrel or, in some instances, 200 dollars per rain barrel.

LOBET: But rain barrels, Neal Shapiro and other seem to agree, are only the beginning.

SHAPIRO: That’s called the gateway drug to rainwater harvesting - that kind of gets you into it. Then if you really get excited about it, you would move up to the larger systems - containers called cisterns.

LOBET: For Shapiro, there’s something wrong with a system that spends vast amounts of energy to pump water into southern California, then more energy to clean it to drinking water standards, just to flush it down the toilet or water plants.

SHAPIRO: Sixty percent of our water is used outdoors. And that’s for non-potable purposes, so that a huge waste of valuable potable water resources. And indoors, you're talking, 65 percent of that water is used for non-potable purposes. So that’s why I believe we should really start moving in that direction.

LOBET: Atlanta, Georgia just passed an ordinance encouraging rainwater harvest, not just for landscaping and laundry but for drinking, as well. And Billy Kniffen has become famous across his state for figuring out how to run a home on rainwater alone in sun-blasted Texas. He also promotes small structures that collect roof water into troughs for wildlife.

KNIFFEN: Wildlife waterers or wildlife guzzlers have been around the state of Texas for decades.

LOBET: In web videos, Kniffen shows off his systems: roof-to-tank-to-trough.

KNIFFEN: We have to be concerned about squirrels and other critters that might fall into here. And so we want to have some kind of material that’s going to allow those animals when they go swimming to climb back out and get out and not drown. And so this may be what you need to really take care of the habitat on your ranch.

LOBET: In certain ways, this rain movement harkens back to homesteaders and native people’s methods used long before municipal water. In some places, water catchment never really went out of favor. Take Hawaii:

MACOMBER: I think this goes back to the early plantation days.

LOBET: Trisha Macomber is an extension educator at the University of Hawaii. More than a decade ago, she took an interest in water catchment because tens of thousands of people on the Big Island drink rainwater. But the systems were unregulated. She began testing people’s water for bacteria.

MACOMBER: We were running about 46 to 48 percent of positive for fecal indicators - fecal bacteria in the water.

LOBET: That’s dangerous and unacceptable according to EPA guidelines. And it’s not hard to keep your system free of such bacteria. You just need to observe a couple of basic steps.

MACOMBER: Probably the most popular and recommended would be an ultraviolet light system. Usually you do a couple of pre-filters to pull out the sediment, and then run the water through a UV light and that is very effective and you can put it at the point of entry to home - so your whole house as treated water. But, I would say, for a good system that would handle your water pressure to run your dishwasher and all your modern conveniences, probably talking around $1,200 dollars.

LOBET: Another basic step to take if you want to drink your rainwater is to install a device that diverts the first flush of rain after a dry spell into a side channel.

MACOMBER: Because a lot of contaminants land on your roof and on your catchment surface during dry periods, when the rain hits, the first flush of rain pulls the majority of those contaminants off right initially, and if you can divert that away from the tank, then the rest of the water coming in is a lot cleaner.

LOBET: Macomber says attitudes toward rainwater catchment are changing.

MACOMBER: When I started addressing this about 11 years ago, it was still kind of … well, if you were on catchment, you were kind of the other side of the tracks. It meant you were out in the rural areas, you didn’t have the money to get a fancy place in town. But that attitude has really changed and people who used to not be happy with catchment are finding it to be pretty wonderful thing.

LOBET: Despite these changes from Georgia, to Texas, New Mexico to Hawaii, there are some places where water scarcity is not leading to more water harvest. That would include Colorado, where Kevin Rein is deputy state engineer at the Department of Water Resources. There, it’s illegal to collect rainwater.

REIN: In Colorado, a homeowner that is connected to city water supply cannot capture rainwater from the rooftop at all.

LOBET: Water that flows in Colorado, even on someone’s land or roof, must flow un-diverted down to the river. Water rights in Colorado date back 150 years. People have claims to every drop of water that flows into rivers. The only way you can catch your rain is if you measure it and put that much back in.

REIN: Colorado law does recognize that precipitation is a public resource and is to be used within the prior appropriations system.

LOBET: Is this changing at all in Colorado?


LOBET: But elsewhere in the country where water is scarce, you may well see a neighbor, hands on hips, taking a closer look at that roof. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

GELLERMAN: And for more information about harvesting rainwater head over to our website L-O-E dot O-R-G.

Related links:
- Watch a slideshow about rain catchment
- American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association
- City of Santa Monica rainwater harvesting site
- General rainwater info site
- Nate Downey’s rainwater book and landscape business
- Trisha Macomber and the Hawaii Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources rainwater site
- Rainwater landscaping and permaculture company
- Vortechnics line of rainwater harvesting filters

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[MUSIC: Led Zepplin “The Rain Song” from Houses Of The Holy (Atlantic Records 1973).]

Back to the Future with Electric Cars

Thomas Edison pops the hood of an electric car in 1913. The batteries then were likely lead acid. (Smithsonian)

GELLERMAN: Electric cars have a bright future - again. Seems electric vehicles have always been the little engine that almost could, but never quite did. But now, according to auto industry observer Jim Motavalli, their time in the sun may have finally come. His new book is “High Voltage: the Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry.”

MOTAVALLI: Electric cars were pretty successful on the market ‘til around 1920 and they were largely sold to women - they were sold as women’s cars - probably because the female sphere of activity was deemed to be not all that large.

Jim Motavalli poses with the all-electric Nissan Leaf. (Photo: Mary Ann Masarech)

And, the interior of the early EVs were sort of like Victorian living rooms, and they were very plush and they had little opera lamps and bud vases and things like that. But, in many ways, they were not that different from the ones we had today. They had a range of about 50 or 60 miles on lead-acid batteries, and they would charge overnight.

GELLERMAN: So, what happened to electric cars? Why did they get beat out by gas?

MOTAVALLI: Well, basically, around 1907 Charles Kettering, who worked for General Motors, developed the self-starter for the gas vehicle. It’s kind of ironic because the self-starter is an electric motor, but it meant that you didn’t have to crank your car which had the potential of taking your arm off. Also, the gas engine got a whole lot more reliable, quieter, so the technology got better than the electric car at that time.

GELLERMAN: Back then, they used lead-acid batteries; now we’re using very high tech lithium-ion batteries - the same kind of batteries we use in our laptops.

MOTAVALLI: Right, and in fact, in some cars like the Tesla Roadster, they, in fact, are computer batteries. They’re really not very different. You have 6,800 computer batteries in the Tesla Roadster.

GELLERMAN: The Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid, has been around for just about a year now. How is it doing?

MOTAVALLI: It’s a little hard to say how it’s doing. You see a sort of seesaw in which one month the Nissan Leaf is selling more than the Volt, and then the next month, the Volt is selling more than the Leaf, but they’re going ahead and dramatically increasing their capacity to produce the Volt next year. So, I think there are some constraints on the Volt - it is $41,000, and that’s kind of a lot of money.

GELLERMAN: Well, the marketing has really picked up. They’re trying to appeal to the masses. Let’s listen to a commercial:

[AD FOR THE VOLT: The Volt only need about a buck fifty worth of charge a day. And, for longer trips, it can use gas. So, get psyched! It’s a big step up from the leaf blower. Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 North American Car of the Year.]

GELLERMAN: And, here’s the Leaf ad:

[AD FOR THE LEAF: Imagine zero dependency on foreign oil, zero pollutants in our environment, zero depletion of the ozone. Suddenly, zero starts adding up. Which is why we at Nissan built a car inspired by zero.]

GELLERMAN: And, we should say that none of these cars, at least the electric cars, are actually zero emissions. Every car has to have emissions, even if they don’t come out the tailpipe, because they come out of a smokestack - you have to be generating electricity somewhere.

MOTAVALLI: You’re right, these cars are not really zero emissions. That is something of a misnomer because they are all connected to power plants and you really are only as clean as the grid that your electricity comes from. However, one thing you can say is that most cars get dirtier as they get older, but an electric car will actually get cleaner because the grid is getting cleaner. We’re retiring some of the oldest and dirtier plants and, therefore, the equation is better.

GELLERMAN: Actually, you could have zero emissions if you were generating your own electricity. I was looking into rooftop photovoltaics solar on my roof, and the salesperson said ‘You know, you could really make this attractive financially if you use the PV on your roof to charge an electric car.’

MOTAVALLI: That’s very true. I was recently out in San Diego, and the local utility there has a map that shows not only where people are buying the Nissan Leaf, but also which of those houses also have rooftop solar, which is very popular there. It’s probably among the highest concentrations. And companies like Envision Solar and Solar City are offering EV charging as part of the package, so I think we’re going to get into a lot of solar charging. It is a very sensible way to do this.

GELLERMAN: Well, there are some automakers that are taking a slightly different tact - instead of building electric cars, they’re trying to build cars that use standard combustion engines. The Chevy Cruze diesel gets 51 miles per gallon and costs only about $22,000.

MOTAVALLI: Yes. Diesels are a very impressive technology - the so-called ‘clean diesel.’ Bosch is a company that has been lobbying for people to realize what you can do with diesel technology. And they think that only one percent of the market by 2020 is going to be plug in vehicles of various types. I think it’s actually going to be more than that. Fuel prices, I think, are going to go up and four dollars a gallon gasoline is a big turning point for people.

GELLERMAN: You know, the Obama Administration is calling for cars to get 54 and a half miles per gallon by 2025, or I guess equivalent miles per gallon. Is that going to be, you think, diesel, electric, gas, hydrogen fuel cells?

MOTAVALLI: I think it will be a mix of vehicles. If you look at the auto manufacturers, they say it’s a mandate to electrify the automobile. But there are these other technologies that are coming forward - direct injection, and turbo charging, clean diesels - and I think we’re going to see an actual mix of vehicles on the road to get to 54.5 mpg.

GELLERMAN: You know, when you think about it, Jim, are we back to where we started 100 years ago? We had steam cars, electric cars, gas cars, diesel cars - it seems like, we’re, again, back to the future!

Motavalli tracks the recent journey from gas to electric in his new book, High Voltage. (Rodale books)

MOTAVALLI: Yeah, it’s funny, I visited Jay Leno’s car collection in Burbank recently, and he has a whole room of steam cars. And, in 1900, that was one of the dominant technology, and that got a lot more sophisticated quickly. But that technology died out despite some modern attempts by the father of the 8-track tape player, steam power hasn’t really happened. So, you had all those technologies vying for supremacy, and in a way we’re back to that.

GELLERMAN: So, Jim, do you think we are at the point where electric cars are not just going to be a curiosity, but really a car that every person drives around?

MOTAVALLI: Yes. I think that it will happen fairly slowly. I predict that maybe by 2020, 10 percent of the new cars sold will either be electric or plug in hybrid or hybrid or something like that - some variation of that. They’re quiet, they’re very high performance, and they’re zero emissions in the sense that they don’t produce any tailpipe emissions. They don’t even have tailpipes.

So, in terms of driving pleasure, if people think that electric cars are always going to be slow and there won’t be a lot of performance, you should just try the Tesla Roadster, which is probably the most fun I’ve ever had driving a car.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, they go from 0 to 60 in under four seconds!

MOTAVALLI: Right. A whole lot of fun. Why not? Why shouldn’t we be having fun while we’re saving the environment?

GELLERMAN: Jim Motavalli’s new book is called “High Voltage, The Fast Track to Plug-In the Auto Industry.” Jim, thank you so very much.

MOTAVALLI: Great. Thank you.

Related link:
Read Jim Motavalli's blog

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BirdNote® Aplomado Falcon – Species Recovery in the Works

Aplomado Falcon. (Photo: © Patricia Bruno)


GELLERMAN: In many parts of the world, birds are under threat. But sometimes, human intervention can set a species back on track. Mary McCann has our BirdNote®.


MCCANN: The sun rising over a South Texas grassland finds a flock of sparrows, like these Cassin’s Sparrows we’re hearing, perching atop a mesquite bush. They’re awaiting the sun’s first warming rays.

Aplomado Falcon (Photo: © Elaine R. Wilson)


MCCANN: Suddenly the sparrows flee, as a dark bird of prey races toward them - flying just above the ground at break-neck speed. This time, the sparrows escape, and their pursuer, an Aplomado Falcon, alights to survey the landscape.


MCCANN: It’s a truly handsome bird, its plumage a bold pattern of black, white, and rust.


MCCANN: Aplomado Falcons were once widespread residents of the American Southwest, but by the 1950s, they’d disappeared entirely from the region. Loss of habitat, loss of prey, and pesticides all played a role. But in the 1980s, a group called The Peregrine Fund began breeding captive Aplomado Falcons.

Over the next 25 years, 1,500 fledglings were set free in South Texas. At the same time, conservation pacts with private landowners provided more than two million acres of habitat. While work remains to ensure the bird’s recovery, the handsome Aplomado Falcon appears to have regained a solid foothold in the American Southwest.


GELLERMAN: That’s Mary McCann of BirdNote®. To see some photos of the Aplomado Falcon, swoop on down to our website loe.org.

Related links:
- BirdNote® Aplomado Falcon – Species Recovery in the Works was written by Bob Sundstrom.
- Sounds of Cassin’s Sparrow and ambient Texas grassland provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, recorded by G.A. Keller. Single Aplomado Falcon recorded by Alvaro Riccetto, the trio by Andrew Spencer, both for Xeno-Canto.

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[MUSIC: Pat Metheny Group “The Falcon” from The Falcon And The Snowman Soundtrack (Capitol Records 1995).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, everyone agrees that antibiotics used judiciously are miracle drugs. But what does "judicious" mean?

CHILLER: The emergence of resistant bacteria is clearly a threat to the public's health and I think that using antibiotics, misusing antibiotics or using antibiotics in non-judicious ways, is going to contribute to the development of that resistance.

GELLERMAN: Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Grover Washington Jr: “It Feels So Good” from The Ultimate Collection (UMG Music 1998).]

Antibiotics, Livestock, and the Rise of Superbugs

(United States Geological Survey)

GELLERMAN: It's Living On Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Last August, the giant food processing company Cargill voluntarily recalled 36 million pounds of contaminated ground turkey. The Associated Press had the story.

[AP REPORTER: This meat packaging plant in Springdale, Arkansas could be responsible for a nationwide outbreak of salmonella that has killed one person and sickened 77 others. The Agriculture Department and CDC say it’s one of the largest meat recalls ever, spawned from a dangerous strain of salmonella that’s resistant to some common antibiotics. ]

GELLERMAN: The salmonella bacteria was resistant to four kinds of antibiotics commonly used to treat poultry and people. But where the drug resistant bacteria came from, nobody really knows. It could have come from turkey farms, the processing plant, or someplace in between, though there’s growing evidence we created this deadly problem.

For more than 60 years, we’ve been feeding the animals we raise for food on a steady diet of antibiotics. It started by accident. Farmers were testing a newly discovered antibiotic called streptomycin. They found that even healthy animals, fed low doses of the antibiotic, grew fatter faster. And what had been an experiment has become common practice.

Today it’s estimated 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States aren’t used to treat people, they’re bought by farmers. And 90 percent of the antibiotics they buy aren’t used to treat sick animals. The drugs are used to fatten their livestock. Dr. Gail Hansen is a veterinarian with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.

HANSEN: Every time you use an antibiotic, you can be potentially selecting for resistance. So that old saying of ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ works for bacteria, too.

GELLERMAN: How does an antibiotic help an animal grow faster?

HANSEN: That is sort of the 64 million dollar question, I guess. There’s not been a lot of good, definitive studies on it. And, in fact, some of the times when they do studies and they have laboratory conditions, they can’t get that to happen. We do know that back in the 50s and 60s, when they first discovered that this was happening, they found that the animals grew better, sort of, the dirtier the farm was.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Hansen says farmers who feed small amounts of antibiotics - so called sub-therapeutic doses - to their healthy animals, can crowd and confine their livestock, saving space.

Denmark banned the practice back in 1995. The nation is the second largest exporter of pork products in the world and officials feared the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics could breed superbugs - resistant to the drugs we use to fight infections in people.

Studies since the Danish ban demonstrate the prevalence of resistant bacteria has declined in food animals and retail meat, but only occasionally is there a decline in resistant bacteria in people. It’s perplexing. Here in the United States, though, Dr. Hansen says, studies show we’ve got a growing problem.

HANSEN: Our physicians are finding that they are running out of antibiotics to use, and that’s being found all over. And, we’re coming to a point where they’re…what’s being termed a post-antibiotic era - where the antibiotics that we have on hand aren’t working. And, as I said before, we have not a lot of new antibiotics coming down the pipeline.

GELLERMAN: According to the Infectious Disease Society of America, antibiotic resistant infections costs the U.S. healthcare system as much as 34 billion dollars a year and cause tens of thousands of deaths.

The Food and Drug Administration knows we’ve got a problem. Last year, the FDA came out with draft guidelines calling on farmers to voluntarily reduce the use of antibiotics in animal production. The FDA wouldn’t speak to us before the guidelines are completed, but here’s their spokesperson back in 2010:

FDA SPOKESPERSON: Misuse and overuse of these drugs contribute to a rapid development of resistance. FDA believes that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.

GELLERMAN: Now, the FDA has the authority to restrict the use of individual antibiotics and that’s what they did in 2005 when it ordered farmers to stop using the powerful antibiotic Cipro. Yet, despite the agency’s call for farmers to voluntary limit the use of the drugs, sales of agricultural antibiotics continue to rise.

But Dr. Liz Wagstrom, lead veterinarian with the National Pork Producers Council, thinks the FDA’s voluntary scheme is a solution in search of a problem.

WAGSTROM: Bottom line is though, we’ve got numerous peer-reviewed risk assessments that show that the risks to public health is vanishingly small.

GELLERMAN: But, sub-therapeutic doses, that suggests that you’re treating healthy animals that don’t need a therapy.

WAGSTROM: So, what we found out from many experiments when people have tried to take away those low doses of antibiotics, is that they truly are acting to improve the health of the animals, rather than just miraculously causing faster growth. And so, these animals are growing faster because they truly become and are healthier. If we phase out or ban growth promotion, there will be animal health consequences. We will have animals get sick and die, and likely not improve public health.

GELLERMAN: But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public’s health is under threat. Dr. Tom Chiller is associate director for Epidemiologic Science in the CDC’s division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

CHILLER: There’s unrefutable evidence that using antibiotics in animals creates resistant bacteria in those animals. And we also know that some of those outbreaks and the people who get sick, get sick with resistant bacteria. The link is harder to establish because, as you can see, we need to be able to go from the farm to the fork, so to speak.

GELLERMAN: So, Dr. Chiller, to your mind, is the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in animals - is that a threat to the public’s health?

CHILLER: Well, again, I think that the emergence of resistant bacteria is clearly a threat to the public’s health. And, I think that using antibiotics, misusing antibiotics or using antibiotics in non-judicious ways, is going to contribute to the development of that resistance.

GELLERMAN: So, I guess the question is, is the feeding of antibiotics to farm animals a judicious use of these drugs?

CHILLER: Yeah, that’s a good question - I mean, I think that … lets put it this way: we support the use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine to treat, control and prevent infections…

GELLERMAN: You’re stopping short because I don’t hear you saying ‘to grow animals faster.’

CHILLER: Yes. We don’t support the idea that an antibiotic should be used for anything but controlling, preventing and treating infections. And that’s what we need to reserve these drugs for and we feel strongly that that’s what they should be used for.

GELLERMAN: Judicious use of antibiotics. It comes down to how you define that term. But we can’t make an objective determination because we simply don’t have the data. That’s the conclusion of a recent Congressional investigation. The Government Accountability Office studied the FDA’s efforts to get farmers to limit the use of antibiotics voluntarily.

And Lisa Shames, director for Food Safety and Agriculture with the GAO, says there are big gaps, because government officials only gather sales data not information on how the drugs are used on farms.

SHAMES: What we’re looking for is more specificity in the data - for example what species are getting the antibiotics. We’re also looking for the use of the antibiotics - are they being used to treat a disease or are they being used simply to promote the growth of the animal? And these gaps really minimize our understanding of the relationship between the use of antibiotics in food animals and resistance in humans.

GELLERMAN: Meanwhile, in the absence of hard data, school kids in Chicago will soon be eating chicken drumsticks from birds raised without antibiotics. The Chicago Public School System, the nation’s third largest, has announced it’s going to start serving antibiotic-free chicken. But it will only be able to get a quarter of what it wants. The demand is high and there’s not enough drug-free chicken to go around.

Related links:
- The FDA’s 2010 announcement – Draft Guidance on the Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobials in Food-Producing Animals.
- Pew Commission Report on Farm Animal Production
- CDC’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS)
- U.S. Government Accountability Office report on Antibiotic Resistance.
- *****Listen to a longer interview with Tom Chiller of the CDC****

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[MUSIC: Los Amigos Invisibles “Groupie” from the New Sound Of Venezuelan Gozadera (Luakabop Records 1998).]

Exploding Plants

Caption: Sphagnum capsules in various stages: maturing, swollen, and exploded. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

GELLERMAN: As a rule, most plants move in slow-mo and go with the flow of wind and water slowly. But reporter Laurie Sanders met one researcher who studies plants that are down right speedy.

SANDERS: Joan Edwards never imagined her research would end up in the Guinness Book of World Records. But in 2005, Edwards discovered the world’s fastest opening flower - a common plant in the northern woods known as bunchberry, with blossoms that pop open in less than half a millisecond. The finding was, in part, serendipitous, but Edwards says it's had since had an important influence on her research ever since.

EDWARDS: We realized there were other mechanisms by which plants move very, very rapidly. And so started to look at all the different ways that they could move rapidly and also tried to figure out, why do they do it? What’s the point? Is there some sort of selective advantage for these plants to doing something very, very rapidly? And they do this, of course, all without muscles.

SANDERS: Since then, Edwards has spent a lot of her time trying to answer those questions.


SANDERS: One of the plants she’s studying is sphagnum moss. It’s another fast-action plant. Today, we’re visiting a small bog in Pownal, Vermont where she’s hoping to find sphagnum moss in fruit.

The explosion: five frames from a video taken at 10,000 frames per second. Included is every second video-- so from the first to the last frame it is a fast 8/10,000th of a second! (Courtesy of Joan Edwards)

EDWARDS: We’re going to want to look for now are little tiny capsules, and the capsules are about the size of … slightly smaller than a pepper grain - maybe half the size of a pepper grain. And they are very explosive. Up - there are some right here. Unbelievable. We barely stepped onto the bog.

SANDERS: Although you may have never visited a bog, you may have had a firsthand encounter with sphagnum moss. When it’s harvested and dried, it’s sold in garden stores as peat moss. Here, and in bogs everywhere, sphagnum moss is the dominant plant.


EDWARDS: A lot of these have exploded. You see these columnar ones…

SANDERS: Some of the sphagnum stems Edwards is finding today have five or six capsules.

EDWARDS: The round ones haven’t yet exploded. And what will happen is that when they get ready to explode, first of all, they elongate the stalk that they’re on. So they get up above the moss mat and then they gradually dry out and they go from perfectly spherical to columnar. So it gets squished in from the sides, and when the pressure inside builds up, it blows its cap up into the air, as high as maybe 15 cm.


SANDERS: The skies open up,


SANDERS: So we decide to head back to Edwards’ lab at Williams College in Western Massachusetts. As we scramble our way out of the bog, she pauses at another cluster of fruiting sphagnum.

EDWARDS: And I’m sure one of these is going to be a record exploder. They’re never going to explode in this rain, though. They need sunshine. Lots of sunshine.


SANDERS: Back in her lab, one of the tools Edwards uses is a high-speed camera. It’s the same kind of camera that’s used to study ballistics or in industry, to see how machinery parts mesh together.

EDWARDS: So the way this works is we have a camera that will go as high as 100,000 frames per second, which is pretty incredible.

This sphagnum moss capsule has yet to explode. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

SANDERS: At such high speeds, Edwards can film the action and by replaying it at a slower speed, tease out the very rapid movements and figure out what’s going on.


EDWARDS: Look. Here are two that are really ready to go.

SANDERS: Edwards and her students position the moss with its unexploded capsule in front of the camera.

EDWARDS: Okay. We're ready. Lights.

SANDERS: The lights help with filming, and they also hasten the drying process. We wait. And suddenly:


EDWARDS: Oh, my god I heard it. Did you hear it? Is that cool?

SANDERS: Now, in case you didn’t hear it, here it is again. It’s single sharp click, and it lasts less than a thousandth of a second.


SANDERS: Okay, one more time. Ready?


SANDERS: That click is the sound of the capsule lid tearing open. Just before it blows, the air pressure inside the capsule is about the same amount as in the tire of a semi-truck. And when the lid comes off, thousands of bright orange spores are discharged up into the air. Edwards says when they first shoot out, they’re going between 35 and 65 miles an hour. In terms of height, the spores are swirling 75 times higher than the capsule itself.

And Edwards says for sphagnum, that’s the main advantage. In a natural setting, these exploding capsules allow the moss to get its dust-like spores high enough above the ground so that they’re picked up, and carried away, long distances, by the air currents. If all goes well, some of those spores will land in another suitable habitat where they’ll germinate. Edwards looks at the instant replay of the last explosion.

EDWARDS: Oh wow. Oh beautiful, and this is at 1,000 frames per second? Okay, that's good. Very good.

SANDERS: By analyzing the high-speed video, Edwards and a physicist colleague from Pomona College in southern California discovered that the explosion actually takes the form of a vortex ring and slowed down, looks a lot like a smoke ring. Although jellyfish, squid, and dolphins are all known to make vortex rings, this, Edwards says, is the first report of a vortex ring generated by a plant. For Living on Earth, I’m Laurie Sanders.

GELLERMAN: To see a video clip of exploding Sphagnum capsules, pop over to our website, LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Joan Edwards website
- Check out this movie! Filmed at only 250fps. You can see the vortex ring shoot upwards like a bright bullet with lots of orange spores flinging off to the sides in whirls. (Courtesy of Joan Edwards)
- To see additional videos of exploding sphagnum moss capsules, go to this page and click on individual movie files.

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[MUSIC: Billy Cobham “Spanish Moss” from Crosswinds (Atlantic Records 1974).]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, scientists are searching for clues to determine whether a deadly virus is threatening salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
STEWART: So, what I’m doing is taking out ovarian fluid from each one of these females. We know that ovarian fluid is a highly sensitive fluid for viruses, the one’s we’re looking for.
GELLERMAN: Fishing for answers, next time on Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in the Blue Mountains.


GELLERMAN: Bird calls reverberate in a deep gorge in Blue Mountains National Park. Here, west of Sydney, Australia, it’s a landscape filled with cliffs and waterfalls, and sandstone rock formations that provide habitats for a wide variety of wildlife. Andrew Skeoch recorded these rich sounds for his CD “The Blue Mountains.”


Related link:
“The Blue Mountains” by Andrew Skeoch & Sarah Koschak.

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[“The Blue Mountains” by Andrew Skeoch & Sarah Koschak:]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Helen Palmer, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth, that's one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

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