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

May 28, 2021

Air Date: May 28, 2021



Climate and Infrastructure

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President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill presents a rare opportunity to pass climate-related legislation through Congress. But it won’t be easy. Harvard economist Joe Aldy advised President Obama on energy and the environment and joins Host Steve Curwood to explain how parts of infrastructure legislation could improve climate protection, and the political hurdles of getting it passed. (11:12)

Beyond the Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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This week looking beyond the headlines, Host Steve Curwood and Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra discuss wintertime “zombie fires” in the Arctic and a new study showing elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in American mothers’ breast milk. They then revisit the discovery of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes ecosystem on June 1st, 1988. (04:25)

Youth Climate Plaintiffs Try Again

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Back in 2015 a group of young people sued the United States for failing to protect the climate and therefore their rights to a livable future, but the case was eventually dismissed. Now the Juliana v. United States youth plaintiffs have gone back to a lower court where a judge has ordered them into mediation with the Biden Justice Dept. on this matter. Young people recently won a similar case in Germany, and the European Court for Human Rights is fast-tracking a climate case brought by youth in Portugal. Host Steve Curwood gets an update from Pat Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School. (11:30)

Audio Postcard: Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica / Hilary Brumberg

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The Osa Peninsula, a remote area on Costa Rica’s southern border, harbors 2.5% of the entire planet's biodiversity in a vanishingly small fraction of Earth’s total surface area. Hilary Brumberg is a researcher with the NGO Osa Conservation and sent us this audio postcard. (03:52)

“Animal, Vegetable Junk”

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Few things are more important to our survival than food, but access to fresh, healthy food has become a luxury for many on the planet, and the food many of us eat contains more meat and sugar than at any point in human history. This history is the subject of a new book by New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman called “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal.” Bittman joins Host Steve Curwood at an online Living on Earth Book Club event to talk about the origins of our industrial agricultural system and how we can strive for a better future. (16:07)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

210528 Transcript

HOSTS: Steve Curwood


REPORTERS: Peter Dykstra,


CURWOOD: From PRX – this is Living On Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

A judge orders the federal government into mediation with a group of young people suing for action on climate change.

PARENTEAU: It's a tricky legal minefield that the Biden administration has to walk, but they could give these young people a real seat at the table, you know, some really meaningful role in moving this process forward.

CURWOOD: Also, the troubling relationship between money and the way we eat.

BITTMAN: Very little about contemporary agriculture has the benefit of either the farmer or the eater.  Profits come first. Farmers come second. Eaters, take what you can get. Ya know...that's not what food was supposed to be for, what food is supposed to be for.

CURWOOD: And we take a trip to the Costa Rican rainforest. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth – Stick Around!

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[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]


Climate and Infrastructure

President Joe Biden test drives the Ford F-150 Lightning all-electric pick up. (Photo: The White House, public domain)

CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

President Joe Biden has been using the bully pulpit and executive authority to put the US on a path towards cutting climate changing emissions 50 percent by 2030. For example, the president recently got behind the wheel of the new electric ford F-150 pickup truck to show off its rapid acceleration and potential for jobs creation, as many will be bought for the federal fleet. But for more enduring climate protection measures the president is looking to his $2 trillion infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan. The Democratically controlled House has already passed it but the Senate’s arcane rules including the filibuster limit the opportunity for Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie breaking vote in favor of the Democrats if there is no Republican cooperation for a budget resolution. Here to explain how infrastructure legislation could improve climate protection and the maneuvering to get it passed is Joe Aldy. He’s a Harvard economist who advised President Obama on energy and the environment. Welcome back to Living on Earth, Joe!

ALDY: Thank you, Steve. It's a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: So it's highly likely that the infrastructure package, the main infrastructure package, at least is going to be done by the Democrats using the budget reconciliation process. So what are the major things that Biden can pass this way to deal with the climate and the environment?

ALDY: So I think the key thing to recognize about budget reconciliation is that it's focused on how the government spends money. And that can be how we do that in the appropriation of funds, through government programs. And it can be how we use the tax code. So how we might cut taxes, or how we might provide tax credits for specific kinds of investment that might benefit the environment and the climate. I think there's clearly an opportunity here to continue to support the build out of renewable power in the electric sector. When we think about President Biden's goals to decarbonize the economy by 2050, to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, to get down to zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2035, virtually any scenario you consider to get to that goal requires a major build out of renewable power. So you could use tax credits for investment, tax credits for production of power from solar, from wind and other renewable sources to help make significant progress towards that goal.

CURWOOD: The President has talked a lot about electric cars, electric trucks; in fact, he made a big point of driving one and pointing out that his dad had been a Ford dealer back in the day, or been a Ford dealership manager. So I'm guessing that these half million electric vehicle charging stations could, should, would be part of this package.

An offshore wind farm. Wind and solar energy tax credits passed using budget reconciliation could help rapidly expand renewable energy. (Photo: Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash)

ALDY: I think we'd certainly see a major push on electric vehicles in a, an infrastructure package. As you noted, President Biden did like how fast that Ford F-150 took off when he floored it. But I think it's gonna be a key role for how we think about the long term climate goals, is to substitute in clean electricity in our light-duty transportation -- in our cars, and our light trucks -- for gasoline and diesel vehicles. So I think you'd see a big push in that as well in an infrastructure program, to build out the charging infrastructure, which I think is important to get people more and more comfortable with the idea of owning an electric vehicle. You know, we've become accustomed here in the United States that on almost any corner, you might be able to find a gasoline station. So you never really worry about running out of gas. And I think we need to have a dense enough charging network so people have the same kind of assurances if they own and operate an electric vehicle.

CURWOOD: And there's a way to do that with the financial part of legislation that would be in a reconciliation bill for infrastructure.

ALDY: Right. So I think you could do a lot that is a combination of both tax credits through the tax code, that helps to leverage private resources. So you make it easier for someone who's going to go buy a new vehicle to decide that they're going to make that switch to electric vehicles. But you can also have specific programs run by government agencies that can help build these out. So you could imagine, say, the Department of Transportation, doing more to help ensure that we are building out EV charging in places that helps ensure that that network is meeting the demand, and the emerging demand, for electrification in transportation.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about fossil fuels directly for a moment, Joe. To what extent do you think a reconciliation-styled measure for infrastructure would address matters regarding coal?

President Biden proposes to build a national network of 500,000 EV charging stations. (Photo: Ivan Radic, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

ALDY: So here's where I think it gets interesting to think about the politics of getting the entire Democratic caucus online if you're going to use budget reconciliation. That means you have to have something that Senator Manchin of West Virginia recognizes is in his interest and in the interests of his constituents. And so I can imagine that part of what would be done in an infrastructure package that's focused on climate is also to think about what one can do to help build out infrastructure and create jobs in those communities, especially say in West Virginia, that have long relied on the fossil fuel industry for employment. So we may see programs, sometimes the under the umbrella term of a just transition, that helps try to create new employment opportunities in alternatives to coal. But we need to think about this as well, I think, longer term, as an opportunity in those parts of the country that rely on oil and gas. So I think there's certainly an opportunity here to make some investment, whether it is a combination of job training and apprenticeships, whether it's trying to think through ways of dealing, say, with abandoned coal mines. There's been some discussion about that in the Biden White House of, of how to use workers from the fossil fuel industry to help clean up these legacy environmental problems from abandoned coal mines and abandoned oil and gas wells, that there may be opportunities here in the near term for employment to make the environment cleaner, but also help enable that kind of transition to new industries and new occupations in these communities and regions of the country that have long relied on the fossil fuel industry.

CURWOOD: What's the role of natural gas in what the White House is proposing for the infrastructure bill?

ALDY: So I think for natural gas, there is one, the need to deal with and manage methane. The fugitive emissions of methane, when we think about oil and gas operations, the potential for some methane leakage when we move natural gas. Some of that might be something that doesn't necessarily need to go through a legislative package, it could be through EPA regulation. I think the other question is how we might be able to use spending in an, in an infrastructure package to try to advance carbon capture technologies. And this may be one of those things where in order to keep all 50 members of the Democratic caucus online, you might need to do something here to say, there is a potential future for natural gas if they can eliminate their CO2 emissions. That may be something that is consistent with your long term climate goals, and addresses your near term political calculus of what do you need to do to keep a few of the swing votes on your side in the Senate. And for that matter, potentially even in the House, because we've been talking all about the Senate. The House is pretty closely divided as well. So it may be that something on carbon capture and storage for natural gas, could be something that, that keeps some of the, you know, the moderate Democrats from Western Pennsylvania, President Biden's second home state, happy in the House, as well as something that you might be able to use as a way to engage and keep Senator Manchin on board in the Senate.

Republican and Democratic party rhetoric on climate change has grown much farther apart in just the past decade. (Photo: Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash)

CURWOOD: You mentioned Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, the Democrat there. And because the Democrats have such a razor thin majority, they need to bring him along for something being done with 51 votes, or for that matter, if there's ever to be a bipartisan agreement, clearly, Senator Manchin would be key in those negotiations. All this talk that so much depends on on one particular individual echoes the criticisms that some make that our system is well, frankly, kind of broken these days, that this is hardly democratic, if one particular Senator seems to hold all the cards.

ALDY: Well, that is what happens, I think, when you have a 50-50 Senate, and you have a Republican party that really only knows how to say the word "No." You know, when I look at this, I think this is emblematic of a larger problem that we have with our politics, that it is very difficult to constructively engage the Republican Party on anything on public policy that's not cutting taxes. I don't think they're really that serious about engaging on infrastructure despite the rhetoric we heard during the 2016 campaign, and early in the Trump administration, that they actually wanted to do something on that. It's baffling to me when I look back at, say, 2008. You know, as you noted, I worked for President Obama and in the 2008 campaign, there was virtually no difference in the policy prescription and the long term goals on climate change between the Republican and the Democratic candidates for president. They couldn't have been more different in the 2020 campaign. And so it's just, it's fascinating to me how we've seen this, this divergence on climate and on other issues between the two parties, that has been truly a barrier at the federal level. And I think that this is something where we see a crisis here, certainly on climate change. But the barrier to delivering a meaningful response to climate change is the crisis in our democracy.

The nation’s transmission and energy storage capabilities need a major upgrade in order for renewable energy to reliably provide 80% or more of the power on the grid. (Photo: Matthew T Rader, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

CURWOOD: Joe, what climate policies has the President talked about wanting that are on the edges of what could be included in a reconciliation or, in fact, highly likely to be left out? What things might America miss from the perspective of the Democrats, if they use this budget reconciliation process now to move forward with infrastructure, in terms of climate?

ALDY: The challenge with using budget reconciliation is that if you want to do something that requires regulations, that's really hard to satisfy the rules of reconciliation. Like I said, reconciliation is focused on spending. So if you want to create a new regulatory authority, you typically have to use a different legislative vehicle than a reconciliation package. And that means you probably lose what I think is the single most important sentence in the Biden infrastructure proposal. And that is for a clean electricity standard for the US power sector. This is, I think, the most important policy to try to deliver on the President's goal of zero carbon emissions in the power sector by 2035. It is something that I think is critical for sending those long term signals the private sector needs to build out new renewables, but also to build out the other technology to complement renewables, whether it's new transmission or large scale storage of electricity so that we can have a power system that relies on a dramatically scaled up role for renewable power. And so that, that to me is the single biggest issue or policy that's in the Biden proposal that would likely fall out under a reconciliation package.

Joe Aldy is an economist and professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. (Photo: Courtesy of Joe Aldy)

CURWOOD: Joe Aldy is an economist and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who advised President Obama on energy and the environment. Professor Aldy, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

ALDY: Thank you Steve. I've enjoyed it.

Related links:
- Center for American Progress “How the American Jobs Plan Delivers Climate Action”
- E&E News | “Infrastructure: Democrats Losing Patience with Bipartisan Talks”
- The Washington Post | “White House to Face Key Decisions on Climate, Elder Care If Bipartisan Deal with GOP Emerges”
- White House fact sheet about the American Jobs Plan
- About Harvard Professor Joe Aldy

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[MUSIC: Mirabai Ceiba, “Agua de Luna” on Agua de Luna, by Angelika Baumbach and Markus Sieber, Mirabai Ceiba Music]

CURWOOD: Coming up – keeping young voices alive in the quest for climate justice in the courts. Keep Listening to Living on Earth

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Sailors for the Sea and Oceana. Helping boaters race clean, sail green and protect the seas they love. More information at sailors for the sea dot org.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Peter Bence, “Africa” on The Awesome Piano, by David Paich and Jeff Porcaro, Steinway & Sons Music]

Beyond the Headlines

The boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere store enormous amounts of carbon in their deep, peat-rich soils. But overwintering “zombie” wildfires threaten to release this carbon into the atmosphere. (Photo: Karthik Sridharan via Flickr, Public Domain)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

It's time now to take a look beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter's on the line now, I think from Atlanta, Georgia, where when he's not looking beyond those headlines for us, he's working as an editor for Environmental Health News, thats EHN.org and dailyclimate.org. Hi there Peter, how you doing, what you got for us this week?

DYKSTRA: I'm doing well, Steve. And today's segment is brought to you by the letter Z. And we'll start with zombie fires up in the Arctic: Alaska, Western Canada. Zombie fires, probably a good search engine optimization name, but it also refers to a real menace. Those are fires that grow in the peat beneath the Arctic snow and ice in the winter time, those fires stay smoldering all winter. And as soon as there's enough vegetation growing back in the Arctic spring, that vegetation can catch fire. It can make what's already a bad thing in the Arctic, into a 24/7, 365 thing.

CURWOOD: Oh, no zombies! Peter, that peat is what Mother Nature is trying to turn into coal. But if it goes the other way, it means that it's releasing a lot of carbon out of the High Arctic, this zombie thing does not sound good to me.

DYKSTRA: Obviously, if it's turning into coal, it's already high carbon. And those overwintering fires can start things all over again without any real provocation in the spring. Those zombie fires may proliferate, and you'll have a zombie jamboree throughout the Arctic.

CURWOOD: What else do you have for us today?

A new study has found alarming levels of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFCs) in US mothers’ breast milk. PFCs accumulate in humans and are linked to a range of serious health conditions. (Photo: Hannah Balan via Unsplash, CC 2.0)

DYKSTRA: There's a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that found what are considered to be alarming levels of "forever chemicals" in US mother's breast milk. That's the nickname given to some particularly sinister chemicals called PFAS. That stands for perfluoroalkyl substances or polyfluoroalklyl substances. They're found in food packaging and clothing, carpeting, water and stain resistant chemicals. And they just don't go away.

CURWOOD: Yeah, well in Massachusetts officials have started testing local water supplies. And of those tested so far some 20% are showing PFAS levels above what is considered recommended.

DYKSTRA: Yeah, and the PFAS chemicals are linked to various cancers to birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, plummeting sperm counts, and a range of other serious health problems. At this point, the federal government has set no level they would consider safe for PFAS chemicals in breast milk.

CURWOOD: Hey, Peter, let's take a look now back at the annals of history and tell me what you see?

A current-measuring instrument encrusted with invasive zebra mussels in Lake Michigan, US. (Photo: M. McCormick, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: Well, I threatened that we'd be starting this off brought to you by the letter Z, we're also ending it. We're ending it with the zebra mussels, because on June 1st, 1988, these little invaders were first found in the Great Lakes system. Zebra mussels are native to the Caspian Sea, and they likely hitched rides around the world on the hulls of freighters and tankers. About fingernail size, and they love fast-moving waters. So they congregate around water intake pipes for factories, and for power plants and municipal drinking water systems.

CURWOOD: They can really make a mess, and they out compete the native bivalves. So at the same time that they're crowding things, they're pushing the species that were there to begin with out.

DYKSTRA: Right. The one saving grace, and that's the only one, is that they help clarify the water because as filter feeders, they can remove a lot of bad stuff from water, but also when they out-compete they play havoc with the ecology of the Great Lakes and other places and also economic havoc because they cost millions of dollars to businesses industries, government facilities when they have to clean the muscles off all their water intake pipes.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is editor with Environmental Health News as EHN.org and dailyclimate.org. We'll talk to you again real soon!

DYKSTRA: All right, Steve. From zombies to zebras, this has been brought to you by the letter Z. We'll talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: There's more on these stories on the Living on Earth website, that's LOE.org.

Related links:
- WIRED | “A Zombie-Fire Outbreak May Be Growing in the North”
- The Guardian | “Study Finds Alarming Levels Of ‘Forever Chemicals’ In US Mothers’ Breast Milk”
- USGS | “What Are Zebra Mussels and Why Should We Care About Them?”

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[MUSIC: Rockapella, “Zombie Jamboree” on Primer, by Conrad Mauge, Jr.; Sean Altman (3rd verse lyrics), Independent label]

Youth Climate Plaintiffs Try Again

The Juliana et al. v. United States plaintiffs first filed their lawsuit in 2015, when they ranged in age from eight to nineteen. Photographed here are some of the plaintiffs, some of their legal team, and some of their supporters outside the US States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in late 2017. (Photo: Robin Loznak)

CURWOOD: Back in 2015 a group of young people sued the United States for failing to protect the climate and therefore their rights to a livable future. And after a series of appeals around procedure, in early 2020 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit finally dismissed the case, which is called Juliana v. United States. But never say never. The youth plaintiffs went back to a lower court where a judge ordered them into meditation with the federal government on this issue. Young people recently won a similar case in Germany, and the European Court for Human Rights is fast tracking a climate case brought by youth in Portugal. Pat Parenteau is a professor at the Vermont Law School he joins us now. Pat, welcome back to Living on Earth!

PARENTEAU: Thanks, Steve, good to be with you.

CURWOOD: Last time we spoke, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth District had dismissed the Juliana v. United States case. That, of course, is the case involving the bid by young people to have the federal government look after their future and climate. What was their reasoning there?

PARENTEAU: Their reasoning was that the youth plaintiffs were asking the courts to do things that only the legislative and executive branches can do. They threw them out on the doctrine of standing. They did recognize that climate change is not only impacting these individual, young people. Some of them lived, you know, in Louisiana being flooded, some of them lived in the Arctic Circle, watching the ice disappear, and so forth. So they found injury. And they found that the government actually could possibly - this was one of those early preliminary rulings where they weren't ruling on the final merits of the case. But they said, it's possible that the government has been doing some things that are making the situation worse. Now, we all know that they have been doing those things. But the court said, at least at this juncture of the case, the plaintiffs have made out a case that the government is doing things like leasing oil and gas, promoting fossil fuel development, and so forth, that's actually making climate change worse, and impacting the future of these young plaintiffs. Where the case finally stumbled, was on the last step, which is what can the courts do about it? And there, the Ninth Circuit panel threw up their hands, and basically said, there's really nothing that the courts can do. We can't set energy policy for the country. We can't order, you know, the production of electric vehicles and so forth. All the things that are needed to really address the climate crisis; the courts are not in a position to do that. So they dismissed the case.

CURWOOD: How chicken was the court, Pat? I mean, we've seen the United States Supreme Court say that you've got to send black kids to school with white kids - ordering policy?

PARENTEAU: Yeah, I think it was a failure of the judiciary. At a minimum, they should have let this case go to trial, they should have let the young people put on their case for why now is the moment when we have to be taking decisive action and precisely what that action should be. The plaintiffs were ready to put on the stand a cavalcade of all star witnesses: scientists, engineers, economists, everybody that knows what needs to be done and what the government could be doing and should be doing. They were ready to put that on the record for all to see. And the courts really failed, in my view not to let that happen. It could have moved the needle faster if that had happened.

Youth plaintiff Levi Draheim rides on the shoulders of a supporter as he makes his way to a rally in July of 2019, following a hearing in the Juliana v. United States climate change lawsuit. (Photo: Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust)

CURWOOD: And yet, despite the federal court system kind of chickening out on this case, they haven't completely and the case is still alive. Why, how is it that the case is still alive?

PARENTEAU: Yeah, it's never say die. So the plaintiffs' lawyers, led by Julia Olson and several other lawyers have gone back to the Oregon Federal District Court back to Judge Aiken, who issued the original ruling, kind of a landmark ruling really, recognizing that there was a basis in the US Constitution, to a right to a climate system capable of supporting human life, something you would think and hope our constitution did provide, right. And so she said, I believe that there is a legal basis for this case, it should go to trial. But of course, subsequent events resulted in the case being dismissed, as we've discussed. Now, it's back before Judge Aiken and the plaintiffs' lawyers are asking her to reopen the case with a more narrowly focused request, that you issue a declaratory judgment that the government has this responsibility, and is failing in the responsibility, and then let the government decide what they're going to do about it, but at least go that far in the judicial process, to state that there is a basis in law to require the government to do more than it's doing, and also to stop doing some things that are making situation worse. So it's a more refined and a more narrowly focused case. And that motion to reopen the case is now pending before judge Aiken.

CURWOOD: And I understand that there is an element of mediation that has now entered into this litigation, what's going on, what's being done there?

PARENTEAU: Right. So Judge Aiken has a very interesting approach to the role of the court, and one with which I strongly agree. She characterizes her role as that of a facilitator, a convener. She's directing the government Department of Justice and Our Children's Trust, representing the Juliana plaintiffs into mediation before retired Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin. Judge Coffin was involved in an earlier stage of the Juliana case, but he's now been retired for several years. He's a very well known federal court mediator. He's had some very successful attempts to get parties in complex cases to agree on some common ground. So he is now conducting interviews with the Biden Administration, in effect, in the Department of Justice, and with the Our Children's Trust, plaintiffs' lawyers to see if he can open a door for real negotiation. And Judge Aiken, almost like the principal of a school directing these rambunctious children to behave, she has given them stern instructions that she wants this mediation to be meaningful. She noted that things have changed, obviously, dramatically in the country since the case was first filed. We have a new administration, one that seems committed to doing all that needs to be done or as much as can be done to address the climate crisis, but still no real tangible results yet. And she said the plaintiffs have acknowledged that they probably were asking the courts to do too much in the initial round. So Judge Aiken is saying, take advantage of this new opportunity, this new moment and critical moment in time and sincerely apply yourself to trying to come up with some kind of an agreement that can move the country forward in a way that we know we need to do. A really remarkable statement, I think from a federal judge.

CURWOOD: And of course, the original case was filed, what back in 2015. Right? So we have seen six years of an angry climate imposing its wrath on civilization since then, it's a different view, even in these last six years, of the climate emergency.

PARENTEAU: Right. Last year saw the largest number of hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. This year, the USGS, US Geological Survey, is saying that last year's fire season is going to be even worse this year, which have already begun. So yes, Steve, things have gotten much worse, in the years since this case has been languishing in the courts. And Judge Aiken made specific reference to the fact that time is getting away from us. And we're in danger of having this situation spin out of control if we don't get serious.

CURWOOD: Pat, you've worked in government. In fact, at one point you were a general counsel for a Regional Office of the Environmental Protection Agency. What do you think that President Biden, the Department of Justice, and the folks who consider the environment and climate in the administration are going to do in response to this order?

PARENTEAU: Boy, I hope they do something to try to settle this case, because one of the big fears is, if the plaintiffs get stiffed, once again, by the Department of Justice in the Biden administration, they're going to try to take this case to the Supreme Court and a lot of us are very concerned with this conservative Supreme Court, and what they might do with not only the Juliana case, if it gets there, but the larger question of standing to bring any kind of case to the courts to challenge fossil fuel development. And also rule perhaps once and for all, there is no constitutional basis for a claim to a safe climate. So, you know, the Biden administration has an opportunity, if they take advantage of it to figure out an agreement that would avoid having the plaintiffs push this issue, and tempt some of the more conservative justices on the Supreme Court to take it. The trick is going to be what can the Biden administration agree to in a court settlement, that doesn't put them at jeopardy in moving forward with some of the changes they want to make to policies and rules from the last administration, because the Biden administration has to go through the same legal process to undo what Trump did, as Trump actually failed to do in setting some of these policies. So it's a tricky legal minefield that the Biden administration has to walk, but they could come up with process oriented agreements, for example, they could create a youth council and give them access at the highest levels of government through the counsel of Environmental Quality and through some of the offices that the White House has set up to move climate policy forward. In other words, they could give these young people a real seat at the table, you know. They're still not able to vote, and they're still at the mercy of their parents and the government to look out after their long term interests. But at least the Biden administration could give them some really meaningful role in moving this process forward.

Former EPA Regional Counsel Pat Parenteau teaches environmental law at Vermont Law School. (Photo: Courtesy of Vermont Law School)

CURWOOD: So, what do you think would be considered a win, then, for the youth plaintiffs in the Juliana case?

PARENTEAU: I think they're looking for something more substantive. They haven't tipped their hand on what they're looking for. But they'll probably want some firmer commitments to ending some of the policies that you know, have been promoting us in the wrong direction. And it's possible that the Biden administration could make some commitments with the kinds of qualifiers about - we have to go through normal rulemaking process, we have to follow the procedures of law so that these things all get upheld eventually, because they're going to be challenged in court by the red state attorneys general who are already suing left and right to try to block the Biden administration. So there's some things that the lawyers at the Department of Justice, I think could creatively come up with that would give the plaintiffs enough of a victory for them to claim that they have moved the needle that they've made progress. But unless the Department of Justice is willing to take some risks, and actually make some of these commitments, I fear that this latest effort at mediation may fail.

CURWOOD: Pat Parenteau is a professor at Vermont Law School and former general counsel for Regional Office of the EPA. Pat, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

PARENTEAU: Good to spend time with you, Steve.

Related links:
- Our Children’s Trust’s press release on Judge Aiken’s order for a settlement conference
- More on Juliana v. US
- Listen to our most recent segment on the Juliana case with Pat Parenteau
- More on Pat Parenteau

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[MUSIC: Paula Cole, “Universal Empathy” on Revolution, by Paula Cole, 675 Records]

Audio Postcard: Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica

Hilary Brumberg is the Lowlands Ridge to Reef Program Coordinator at Osa Conservation (Photo: Nina Cordero)

CURWOOD: Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse nations on Earth. The Osa Peninsula, on the southern border, for instance, is a tiny fraction of the planet but home to roughly 2.5% of the planet's biodiversity. Hilary Brumberg is a researcher with the NGO Osa Conservation. She sent this audio postcard.

The Osa Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It harbors 2.5% of the entire planet's biodiversity in less than a thousandth of a percent of its total surface area. (Photo: Lucy Kleiner)

BRUMBERG: My name is Hilary Brumberg, and I am the Lowlands Ridge to Reef Program Manager here at Osa Conservation in the Costa Rican rainforest. Right now, I'm standing in one of the restoration and rewilding plots here at Osa Conservation. And this project is really exciting for me because when I first arrived in Costa Rica, just four years ago, this whole area was abandoned cattle pasture. And then I worked closely with our team, mostly local conservationists and dedicated scientists, to reforest this land. And it's spectacular because just four years later, the trees are already a couple of stories tall and providing us with great shade, which is much appreciated on these hot days in Costa Rica.

All four of Costa Rica’s primate species are found in the Osa Peninsula, including the Central American Spider Monkeys pictured above. Others include the Mantled Howler, the White-Faced Capuchin, and the Central American Squirrel Monkey. (Photo: Lucy Kleiner)

I love working in ecological restoration because I feel like nature's little helper. I'm helping undo some of the damage that humans have caused on our ecosystems by reforesting, and attracting wildlife through rewilding techniques. Regrowing a rain forest is a very long and rewarding process. The very first step is that our team of botanists will go out in the rain forest and collect seeds from other trees. Sometimes this will even include having to climb trees in order to collect the fruits before the monkeys get to them. Then, we will germinate the seeds and grow them into little saplings. And we mostly focus on endemic, endangered, and rare trees in order to facilitate climate change resilience and to attract biodiversity.

The largest population of Scarlet Macaws in Costa Rica is in the Osa Peninsula. (Photo: Lucy Kleiner)

When the trees are big enough and ready to be planted, we will then work the local community to strategically identify locations to plant the trees. We mostly work in biological corridors that connect the national parks in the area, Corcovado and Piedras Blancas, and La Amistad International Peace Park. And we also mostly focus on reforesting rivers because that's where you can get more bang for your buck, or return on conservation investment in a lot of ways because not only are you protecting the forest, but you're also protecting the river water quality. And then the rivers will flow out into the Golfo Dulce or the ocean. And so that also protects marine and coastal ecosystems.

A community tree planting day in the Osa Peninsula. (Photo: Courtesy of Hilary Brumberg)

When living in the rainforest, there's a lot of opportunities for solitude. But there aren't a lot of opportunities for silence. Here, there's always a lot of life and a lot of sounds happening. So it can be anything from the howler monkeys waking you up at 4:30 in the morning, the dawn chorus of the birds, or frogs and insects chirping away at night, or even when the animals are being quiet you can hear the loud crashing waves onto the beaches of the Osa peninsula. And so I'm always incredibly grateful to be able to listen to these spectacular sounds. And when I call home, what can be really fun is that my friends and my family will get to hear in the background all of the sounds of the rainforest. And they're always like pointing out to me different bird calls that they hear or different frog sounds or how I'm down by the beach, they’ll get to hear the waves. That's a very special way to share what I'm living with my loved ones back home.

CURWOOD: Hilary Brumberg is a researcher with Osa Conservation in Costa Rica.

Related links:
- More about Osa Conservation
- Hilary Brumberg’s latest research on riparian forest buffers to conserve river water quality
- National Geographic’s recent coverage of the Osa Peninsula
- Video: Rewilding Forests and Communities, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

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[MUSIC: Mirabei Ceiba, “Luz de la Manana” on Aqua de Luna, by by Angelika Baumbach and Markus Sieber, Mirabai Ceiba Music]

CURWOOD: Coming up – Animal, Vegetable, Junk we’ll take a look at the relationship between money and the food we eat. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from you, our listeners, and United Technologies, combining passion for science with engineering to create solutions designed for sustainability in aerospace, building industries, and food refrigeration.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Rouge, “La Demoiselle” on Festival Rouge, by Steve Rice, Rouge Music]

“Animal, Vegetable Junk”

Mark Bittman defines junk food as just about any food that didn’t exist before the 20th century. (Photo: Tracy Benjamin, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Few things are more important to our survival than food, but today's food system often bears little resemblance to that of our ancestors. Access to fresh, healthy food has become a luxury for many on the planet. And the food many of us eat contains more meat and sugar than at any point in human history. Industrial agriculture is the subject of a new book by New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman. His book is called "Animal, Vegetable Junk: The History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal." It looks into the origins of our Western food system and ways to have healthier food. Mark Bittman joined us as part of our Living on Earth Book Club live event series, and to start our conversation I asked him why he says social stratification in human society largely began with the advent of agriculture:

BITTMAN: Before there was agriculture, there was very little, if any social stratification and even if there was, it was because I was tougher than you. It wasn't an inherited wealth, it wasn't inherited social stature. Once there was agriculture, people could start accumulating surplus. Once people started accumulating surplus, they could become traders, they could become business people, there became a society where not everybody was a farmer and social stratification began. Fast forward, say 9,500 years out of the 10,000 years we're talking about. I mean fast forward to say the middle ages or 1,500 or so. Land started to be used for cash crops and nobleman, and they were mostly men started taking land away from peasants and dictating to peasants what they could grow. And say, we want you to grow things we can sell, and here you can have this little plot of land on the side, we hope you can sustain you and your family on that. And food began to be traded. We saw the rise of capitalism and later industrialization, we saw the rise of commodity crops, which meant that food was being grown not to nourish people, not to feed farmers and their families and their neighbors and their areas, but to be sold. And what ultimately developed, where we're at now, is a system where everybody is supposed to grow as much as they can of what they grow well. So we, the United States grows, corn and soybeans and animal products well. We do that, we sell it on the open market, we get cash, we buy food, from wherever else it's from, presumably from places that grow it well. This is sort of theoretically, I mean, this is neoliberalism really, you do what you do best.

CURWOOD: Mark, you're trying to sell me this, but you don't believe this.

BITTMAN: No, I don't believe that this is the way it ought to work. But this is the way that it is working.

Wheat is one of the most abundant commodity crops in the U.S. (Photo: Georginchen, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


BITTMAN: This is the way that it's developed. I'm not saying this is a good thing. This is where we're at. We've lost the ability to sustain ourselves. As the early days of COVID showed we've we've lost the ability to sustain our regions. And I think one of the benefits of COVID, or one of the upsides of COVID is that we've seen the importance of regional agriculture, of local agriculture. CSAs are selling out, farmers markets are crowded, and so on, because people understand that local food, local food systems are something we can rely upon if we encourage their growth. So it's a, you know, it's a mouthful, it's a lot to say.

CURWOOD: Well, it is. But you know, one way to read this book, actually is as a critique of capitalism, and classism. In other words, you write at one point, food security isn't an agricultural issue. It's a political one. Hunger isn't a symptom of non-production. It's a symptom of inequality, of abuse of power, and wealth. Explain what you mean here.

BITTMAN: I mean, there are no hungry people with money. It's pretty simple, really, you know, you will say, you think of the poorest country you can think of or the poorest place on Earth, or whatever it is. If I send you there with 500 bucks, you'll eat just fine. I mean, this is about power. This is about equality. This is, hunger is about money. And, what's happening now is that the United States and joined by multinational corporations from around the world would like the whole world to enter into that kind of market that I was talking about before where no one grows crops for themselves, their family, their area. Everyone grows crops to sell on the world market. That is not a sustainable system.

CURWOOD: I mean, one of the parts of your book, as you critique capitalism, you point out that at its heart, economic growth, and the capitalistic system that we have right now is predicated on ever growing, but at the end of the day, that's not realistic. You can't keep expanding and expanding on a finite planet.

BITTMAN: Right? You know, what is it? Neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. There's only a finite amount of stuff. So, permanent growth is, it's a myth. It's a very pleasant myth. If we keep growing, then everybody will eventually prosper. But we can't keep growing. There's a limited amount of land. We've reached the limit of arable land. There's a limited amount of resources: potassium, phosphorus, nit--well, nitrogen is virtually unlimited--but we have to figure out, it's not just in food, obviously, it's in many walks of life. We have to figure out how to be sustainable, how this race, how we can endure as a big family of, let's say, a stable seven to ten billion person family. It's not going to get bigger than that. But we can support that number of people on this Earth if we're smart. If we believe in permanent growth, everybody just gets more and more and more, then we can't.

CURWOOD: I think the food system believes in permanent growth of people's waistlines, especially in the ghetto. Because you point out that at one point, the Small Business Administration was willing to lend in Brown and Black neighborhoods, but they lent for, and I'll let you finish.

Henry Heinz was instrumental in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first food labeling law in the United States. (Photo: Mike Mozart, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BITTMAN: They went for the development of fast food and of course, gas stations. Gas stations are very important. But yeah, the SBA, very cynically said, we're going to help inner city, people, codeword for Black and Brown people. We're going to help inner city people develop businesses, but the kind of business we're going to encourage are Burger King and McDonald's essentially, which was what was around in the 70s and 80s. And this happened simultaneously with those fast food companies realizing that business by foot was just as good if not better than business by car.

CURWOOD: And they have what you call UPF, ultra-processed foods, which are addictive, right? I mean, the flavor-meisters make things like the potato chip, the fried chicken that you get at fast food, the burgers, they're loaded with chemicals that have been developed in laboratories, to addict us to them.

BITTMAN: Yeah, I mean, UPF, ultra-processed food is becoming sort of the catch word for junk, the kind of more formal catch word for junk. And one way to define junk food really is that it doesn't exist in nature and didn't exist before the 20th century. That's one easy way to look at it. Michael Moss, a former colleague of mine from the Times, his new book is called Hooked. And it is a study of the addiction of the addictive qualities of ultra-processed foods, how food engineers, psychologists and marketers have banded together to make ultra-processed foods literally addictive, if not on the same level as caffeine, heroin and nicotine, very, very close to that. As anyone who's tried to stop eating sugar can tell you, there is a physical craving when you try to stop eating sugar. I mean, you will feel it. It's not an easy thing to do.

CURWOOD: There's an anecdote in here about Mr. Heinz, Henry Heinz, you know, the ketchup, dude. What was his role in changing the future of processed foods in this country? And how are we living with those decisions today?

BITTMAN: It's funny, Henry Heinz was in part instrumental in getting the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 passed, which was our first food labeling law. And he did that by taking a chemical called sodium benzoate out of ketchup and in part substituting sugar for that. But the point was that he gained a competitive advantage by doing that, and by then questioning why there was sodium benzoate in all of his competitors' ketchups, while helping the US, the federal government, pass a law that said, you had to disclose all your ingredients on your label, including sodium benzoate, obviously. Sodium benzoate, it turns out is harmless. But that's, besides the point.

CURWOOD: A little less addictive than sugar as well, right?

Mark Bittman is hopeful that farmers markets could become a key element of a decentralized agricultural system. (Photo: Gemma Billings, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BITTMAN: Less harmful than sugar too. But ever since then, manufacturers have manipulated the labeling laws and manipulated government attempts to try to limit damaging aspects of food. And we see that every time, every time the government makes nutritional recommendations, eat less fat, eat more fiber, and so on. We see labeling that is, this food is low fat, or this food is high fiber. The point is not whether manufacturers can take out or put in the undesirable or more desirable ingredients. The point is, manufacturers have no interest in providing us with real food. They have interest in providing us with value-added food that's been manipulated and hyper-processed, and so on. And they can do that to almost any nutritional standard that the government chooses to name. So until the government recognizes that this begins, until we recognize and force the government to act on the notion that this begins with agriculture, this begins with growing real food. This begins with growing food to eat, as opposed food to hyper process and turn into things that aren't recognizable as food. Until, then we're going to have a sick food system, we're going to have a system that engenders chronic disease and ultimately causes premature death.

CURWOOD: Yes. You know, early on in your book, you point out that as societies made the transition into ag, people literally became shorter and less, less healthy. You want to talk a little bit about that? I mean, since we're all in this together, we look around and we see everybody looks about the same and everything. But actually, there's been quite a difference over the years.

Mark Bittman’s latest book is a chronological account of our global food systems and what we can learn about it. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Bittman)

BITTMAN: There were a number of turning points in the course of history that if people knew, then what we know now might have gone differently. And there's an argument, Jared Diamond put it forward first, I think. And that argument is that the development of agriculture could be seen as a mistake because it and there's evidence, as as you just said, that hunter and gatherers were much healthier, much stronger than every generation of humans until about the 20th century. So but, you know, here's the thing. We know that we've made mistakes in history, and we know that we can't go back and fix them. What we can do is try to make those mistakes right. And what we can do is use the knowledge that we have now to try to do things better going forward. We have way more knowledge than we've ever had. Do we have the political will do we have the intent, to try to do things right, to try to work together as a community, to try to structure food so that it's affordable and available and accessible to everybody, not just to people with lots of money, to try to structure agriculture so that it's less damaging to the Earth, so that we don't have this incredible moral dilemma of raising and killing billions of animals that we basically torture from birth till death? Can we make those kinds of decisions? And can we implement those kinds of decisions?

CURWOOD: So much of what you've been talking about is industrialized agriculture. Our modern version of the enclosures that hit the serf or our modern version of the slave system that hit people, you know, back in the day and the ancient civilizations. So what will a decentralized agricultural system look like? And how do we get there? How do we do it? How do we get there?

BITTMAN: I don't know what it will look like. But it's not just about food. It's about strengthening democracy. It's about enabling more people to vote and talking to more people about voting, it's about building community, it's about organizing community. Food is an important issue. And in a way, I've come to feel like my job is to say, it's not just about climate change. It's not just about inequality. It's not just about the environment, racism, gender discrimination, all those things are super, super important. Let's elevate food to the realm of those other things. And let's put it in the mix and talk about it. Because it's something that everybody can agree on. Everybody can easily agree that we ought to have good food and that everybody ought to be able to eat it. So it has to be done regionally, the supply chain needs to be shorter, we need to have smaller farms, more regional food system, these are things that we're pretty sure we're going to be seeing, fewer pesticides, more agroecology or regenerative farming.

Mark Bittman is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of more than 30 books including the How to Cook Everything series. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Bittman)

CURWOOD: And say more about agroecology. Not everybody listening to us or watching us is familiar with the way you describe it in the book.

BITTMAN: No, no one is. And one of the great things about agroecology, which is just a mash up of agriculture and ecology, is that it's such a terrible word that it has a chance of not being co-opted by big food. I mean, can you see cereal boxes that say 100% agroecologically grown? I mean, that might be a little tricky, whereas organic was an easy one. But agroecology acknowledges the need for short-term change, let's say organic principles, reduced pesticides, better soil health, better treatment of animals, fewer genetically-engineered products and so on down the line, but it acknowledges that those are just first-steps in getting land back into the hands of people, of building a just and equitable food system, and of building a just and equitable society, because ecology recognizes that we are one family. Ecology recognizes that we all live on the Earth, and that we have to protect the Earth, love the Earth, embrace the Earth, help the Earth survive. Those are important things. And it's not just a question of, do I eat organic food? Or do I eat less meat or whatever? It's a question of justice. It's a question of equality. It's a question of fairness, it's a question of sustainability. Those are sort of the big issues in agroecology, unlike organic, agroecology recognizes that this is a progression. We start by by doing what we can to build a better food system. It starts small, but it's about building community. It's about organizing, it's about strengthening democracy, better voting rights, and so on down the line.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you. The book, of course, is called Animal, Vegetable, Junk. The subtitle is, The History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal. And the author, of course has been our guest today, Mark Bittman. Mark, thanks so much for taking the time with us today

BITTMAN: It was great, Steve. Thank you for your thoughtful interview. It was good to see you.

CURWOOD: Our conversation with Mark Bittman was part of our ongoing live event series, the Living on Earth Book Club. To find out how you can attend—online only for now-- please sign up for our newsletter on the Living on Earth website.That's L-O-E dot O-R-G.

Related links:
- Brief bio of Mark Bittman:
- Click to purchase “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” (Affiliate link helps donate to LOE and supports indie bookstores)
- Find other books featured on Living on Earth (Affiliate link helps donate to LOE and local indie bookstores)

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[MUSIC: Nestor Torres, “Musing” on Tresures Of The Heart, Shanachie]

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