Trump Admin Leaves Clean Energy Funding Unspent
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The Trump Administration is under review by a House oversight panel for withholding funds that Congress designated for clean energy projects. Arjun Krishnaswami, Policy Analyst at the Natural Resource Defense Council, joins Host Bobby Bascomb to discuss the clean energy programs that the money was meant to be spent on. (08:52)
Beyond the Headlines
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Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra tells Host Bobby Bascomb about a major pesticide manufacturer’s decision to stop making the neurotoxin chlorpyrifos, despite EPA giving it a green light. Meanwhile, in an effort to reduce emissions, UPS has ordered 10,000 electric delivery trucks to join its fleet. And in the history calendar, it’s the fifteenth anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol an international attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (04:19)
Bill Weld’s Climate Plan
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Republican Presidential candidate Bill Weld is looking to bring environmental priorities, including more stringent regulations, back to the Grand Old Party. The former Governor of Massachusetts sat down with Host Bobby Bascomb to discuss his plans for addressing the climate crisis and the stark differences between his environmental platform and that of the incumbent, President Trump. (07:55)
The Place Where You Live: Petaluma, CA/ Allie Rigby
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Living on Earth gives a voice to Orion Magazine’s longtime feature in which readers write about their favorite places. This week Allie Rigby takes us to the hills of the Bay Area, where the fog blankets the landscape each day like clockwork. (04:29)
UN and Protections for Climate Refugees
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Climate change refugees are not yet recognized by international policy but a recent ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee has opened the door to new types of protected status. Andrew Harper, the Special Advisor on Climate Action to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, joins Host Bobby Bascomb to talk about what this case means for those affected by climate displacement, and how to protect those most vulnerable to climate impacts. (05:15)
PFAS Chemicals Likely in All Major Water Supplies
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PFAS chemicals, common in nonstick consumer products, are also now ubiquitous in drinking water supplies. David Andrews of the Environmental Working Group joins Host Bobby Bascomb to discuss the recent findings and the concerns for human health. (07:13)
Dueling Dinosaurs Ignite Battle Over Fossil Ownership/ Jay Feinstein
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In 2006, an amateur fossil hunter made an unprecedented find: two dinosaurs fossilized while apparently locked in battle. A court case that followed over mineral versus surface rights brings into question the future of fossil discovery in the US. Living on Earth’s Jay Feinstein has the story. (07:36)
HOST: Bobby Bascomb
GUESTS: David Andrews, Andrew Harper, Arjun Krishnaswami, Bill Weld
REPORTERS: Peter Dykstra, Jay Feinstein, Allie Rigby
BASCOMB: From PRX – this is Living On Earth.
BASCOMB: I’m Bobby Bascomb.
The Department of Energy has failed to administer a third of their budget for renewable energy programs.
KRISHNASWAMI: For every dollar invested the public gains 33 dollars in benefits, so every time the Department of Energy delays in operating these programs it means a delay in economic benefits of investment in clean energy, but it also means a delay in addressing the climate crisis.
BASCOMB: Also, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld positions himself as a green Republican to replace President Trump.
WELD: The President claims credit for deregulation. He said he's making it easier for business? Baloney. Most of the regs that he's repealed are protections for clean air and clean water. It's tough enough to get those in in the first place without Scott Pruitt coming in and repealing all the desirable regulations.
BASCOMB: That and more this week on Living on Earth – Stick Around!
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
BASCOMB: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb, in for Steve Curwood.
The Trump administration recently released its 2021 budget proposal. It promotes oil and gas development including 188 million dollars for mapping the ocean floor, a precursor to offshore mining and oil exploration. On the chopping block are dozens of environmental programs and agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency would lose more than a quarter of its budget and slash staff to its lowest level in thirty years. And the National Park Service, The Endangered Species Act, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would all lose millions from their programming budgets. But one of the steepest cuts is reserved for the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office. Nearly three quarters of their budget would be eliminated. The EERE as it’s known, was recently the focus of a hearing in front of a House oversight panel after it was revealed that the DOE has failed to spend more than 800 million dollars that Congress appropriated for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. For more I’m joined now by Arjun Krishnaswami. He’s a Policy Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who testified at the recent house committee hearing. Arjun, welcome to Living on Earth.
KRISHNASWAMI: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
BASCOMB: So tell me about the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy within the DOE. What is it and what does it do exactly?
KRISHNASWAMI: It’s a great question. The Department of Energy is the largest public funder of clean energy research and development. Within DOE, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE, is the principal office that's focused on renewable energy, clean transportation, and energy efficiency. So the office covers technologies that range from solar panels and wind turbines to clean manufacturing of industrial products and electric vehicle technologies. EERE gives out grants to researchers, businesses, nonprofits, local organizations to advance these technologies and bring their benefits to more people.
BASCOMB: The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has a surplus of about 823 million dollars that hasn't been spent. How big of a portion is that of their budget? I mean, I've heard the government say that this is just natural. Sometimes you can't spend all the money in time and nothing to worry about here.
KRISHNASWAMI: So that 820 or so million dollars is the largest carryover balance in the, in the past 10 years, for context; it's a really large sum of money. And it's about one-third of the office's annual budget, but to really put it into perspective, the department spends about 100 million dollars per year on wind energy technologies. So this carryover balance is eight times the annual budget that DOE spends on developing wind technologies. In a similar vein, the department spends about $200, $250 million dollars on solar. So this is three to four times the annual budget for solar energy. So Congress has given the agency money to do this clean energy innovation work over the last several years and what this really large sum of money means is that the agency is leaving the year having not spent a significant portion of the last several years of appropriated funds, which is both not doing what Congress has asked it to do, but also delaying these really impactful funds from getting to researchers and businesses and to people using clean energy.
BASCOMB: Can you give us some specific examples of things that that money was meant to be spent on?
KRISHNASWAMI: Things like grants to solar businesses that are improving the chemistry of solar panels, or companies that are making the next generation of battery technologies that can help our grid operate smoothly and effectively. Things like grants to local governments that are helping more people take advantage of solar on top of their homes, these sorts of projects that are really beneficial to people, but only when the money actually flows to the companies and organizations to do that work.
BASCOMB: And so why hasn't the money flowed to those companies and organizations? What's the, what's the holdup?
KRISHNASWAMI: The agency has been putting out money more slowly than it has in the past and has been announcing funds later in the year and then also actually choosing companies or, or researchers to award that money even later in the year or after the fiscal year has ended. So we can't say exactly what intention is behind those delays. But what we do see is that the administration is simultaneously proposing to cancel these programs. And then we see the delays happening as in the data for the actual operation of the funds.
BASCOMB: Now, one of the explanations that I've read from the Department of Energy for this delay is that they just don't have the staff to administer it fully. What do you make of that, that explanation?
KRISHNASWAMI: While the budget for these programs has increased over the last three years, staffing levels have actually gone down. If the agency had maintained the same ratio of staff to funding as it had in 2017 when the administration changed, then EERE you would have 400 more employees, which is almost double what it currently has on staff now. So staffing is certainly an issue. It takes a lot of work to spend the money that Congress is giving the agency but what EERE needs to be doing is actually hiring more people to solve that problem, whereas what we're seeing is that they're hiring fewer as people leave.
BASCOMB: And I understand that the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has held a hearing on this in which you testified, how are the Democrats responding to this change in how the money is allocated?
KRISHNASWAMI: We're really happy that they had this hearing, because what's happening is that for the last three years, a bipartisan Congress has supported these programs, in part because they're so successful. For every dollar invested in EERE, the public gains $33 in benefits, so you can see why there's bipartisan support in Congress for these programs. But even though Congress has increased the budget every year, for the last three years, the administration has still seemed to delay funds or not fully spend all of the money that Congress has given it. So in addition to the spending bill, which Congress uses to support the programs, we also need Congress to oversee the, the agency and make sure that it's actually doing what Congress has asked of it.
BASCOMB: And back in 2017, I understand that the government office of accountability found that the same department withheld about $91 million meant to be spent on advanced research into renewable energy projects. It sort of seems like a pattern.
KRISHNASWAMI: That incident, when ARPA-E withheld that money from actually being issued, that was the first of a series of incidents of delays in DOE spending. And that actually, when that happened, we at NRDC decided that we needed to start tracking when the government, when the Department of Energy was putting out funding to make sure that incidents like that didn't happen again. And we found in 2018, and in 2019, that there were again delays in spending from DOE.
BASCOMB: And ARPA-E of course, is the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, kind of a mouthful, you can see why they have an acronym. How important is that?
KRISHNASWAMI: ARPA-E is a very impactful program. The role it serves is to fund potentially game-changing clean energy technologies that aren't supported either by other parts of the Department of Energy, or by the private sector. It has been really under siege by the administration, who has tried to cancel it out every year since taking office.
BASCOMB: Well, what are some of the potential consequences if this money never makes it into the hands of grant recipients at this point?
KRISHNASWAMI: Every time that the department energy delays operating these programs, it means a delay in the economic benefits of investment in clean energy, but it also means a delay in addressing the climate crisis that we're facing, which is very urgent and requires us to be putting all of the resources we have into solving it.
BASCOMB: Well, are there any promising signs for transitioning to renewable energy or energy efficiency improving across the federal government and the nation more broadly?
KRISHNASWAMI: There are certainly, certainly signs for hope. One of them is that the costs of wind and solar energy are now lower than conventional fossil fuel fired resources in most places across the country; we have very low cost LED light bulbs that are highly efficient and saving Americans energy and money; electric vehicles have come down in cost enormously thanks in part to these Department of Energy programs. So there are signs of really important progress in clean energy technologies. But we have so much more to do. We need to continue to invest in in the next generation of technologies, but we also need the transformative policies at the federal level, state level and the local level to really accelerate the transition to clean energy.
BASCOMB: Arjun Krishnaswami is the Policy Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thank you so much for taking this time with me.
KRISHNASWAMI: Thank you so much for having me.
[MUSIC: Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, “Don't Let it Bring You Down” on Echo In the Valley, Rounder Records]
BASCOMB: It's time for a trip beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter is an editor with Environmental Health News. That's ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. Hey there, Peter, what do you have for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Hi, Bobby. The largest maker of a controversial pesticide has decided to quit producing it: chlorpyrifos. It used to be a very, very commonly applied pesticide to apples, citrus, strawberries, corn, wheat, and a whole raft of other food crops. It's coming to bans already in Hawaii, there's one in the works in California, other states are going to follow, but the federal EPA has decided to not restrict the agricultural use of chlorpyrifos.
BASCOMB: Wait, so the industry is out-regulating the regulators?
DYKSTRA: They are, this company is known as Corteva. You may not have heard of Corteva, but you certainly have heard of Dow and DuPont. When they merged, Corteva is their new name. They produce in addition to so many other chemicals, chlorpyrifos. They're getting out of the business and doing what the EPA won't do. It was a dying business, so this chemical that was linked to brain damage and kids is going to disappear at least from its largest maker.
BASCOMB: So did they decide to stop manufacturing it because of health concerns?
DYKSTRA: No, as Don Corleone would say, it's strictly business. The health concerns, of course, are in the background. They are a reason for the state bans that cuts into their market share even further than the amount that chlorpyrifos use has declined already, but they just don't see a future in it, and they don't see that it's worth the trouble. And in terms of industry out regulating the regulators, it's similar to what recently happened when four automakers decided they wanted to continue Obama's fuel efficiency standards, even after the Trump administration issued an executive order rolling back more efficient fuel in cars and trucks.
BASCOMB: Mmhmm. All right, well, what else do you have for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Here's a little good news for electric vehicle fans. UPS has ordered 10,000 electric delivery trucks. They're going to use them in North America and Europe. The entire fleet for UPS is about 100,000. These trucks will be phased in starting later this year. UPS already has some alternative fuel vehicles, but the 10,000 trucks will be a huge boost for the EV industry.
BASCOMB: Yeah, I should say so. I mean, it sounds like a great solution maybe for local city deliveries, but do you know where they intend to get their electricity? I mean, if it's still coming from coal fired power plants, it's, it's not really going to do much good.
DYKSTRA: It's going to come from the grid. And of course, the assumption is that the grid will become cleaner as wind and solar grow and as coal continues to disappear, at least in this country.
BASCOMB: Well, what do you have for us from the history vaults this week?
DYKSTRA: Here's a 15th anniversary. February 16, 2005, the Kyoto Protocol took effect. That was the agreement engineered in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gases. It only addressed developed nations, it left out some major greenhouse polluters like India and China. And for that reason, the US never ratified it. It went into effect in 2005. It went out of effect in 2012. And the US was never a player, which really undermined the effectiveness of Kyoto.
BASCOMB: That's starting to sound a little familiar. Here we are also sitting on the sidelines of the Paris Agreement, and undermining the effectiveness of that.
DYKSTRA: The Paris Agreement was supposed to be the successor to Kyoto. The Trump administration pulled out, that exit takes effect later this year. And it's one more instance where the US has become an albatross to worldwide efforts to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.
BASCOMB: Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News. That's ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. Thanks, Peter. We'll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: Okay, Bobby, talk to you soon.
BASCOMB: And there's more on these stories on our website, loe.org.
[MUSIC: Rio Mira, “Agua” on Marimba del Pacifico, traditional El Pacifico, Aya Records]
BASCOMB: Coming up – The United Nations opens the door on allowing refugees the right to seek asylum based on climate disruption. That’s just ahead on 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: Billy Childs Ensemble featuring the Ying Quartet, “Raindrop Patterns” on Autumn: In Moving Pictures, by Billy Childs, Artist Share Records]
BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.
New Hampshire recently held the nation’s first 2020 primary election. For months before the election granite state residents, like me, get special attention from the candidates – a meet and greet at the local book store, daily fliers in the mail, door to door canvassers, and, as was the case for me last weekend, an unexpected visit from a presidential candidate at the local coffee shop.
Republican Bill Weld stopped in at Me & Ollie’s bakery and coffee shop in Exeter, New Hampshire on Sunday afternoon. The little brick café sits across the street from town hall, where Abraham Lincoln spoke back in 1860. Nearly every table was full as Governor Weld made the rounds and shook hands with patrons to introduce himself.
Mr. Weld was the Republican Governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to ’97, and he’s challenging Donald Trump for his party’s nomination for president. The governor calls for a tax on carbon and expresses support for nuclear energy and natural gas as a way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and he’s pledged to re-join the Paris Climate Accord if elected. As Governor of Massachusetts Mr. Weld helped protect some 100,000 acres of open space and signed into law the Rivers Protection Act, which required a development buffer around the Bay State’s rivers and streams. In fact, he announced the bill while standing beside the Charles River and then, to make a point, jumped in fully clothed. The Charles was still recovering from decades of industrial pollution at that point and considered a no-go for swimming. Mr. Weld’s unofficial mascot for his campaign is a fisher cat, a small carnivorous mammal in the weasel family, native to the forests of New England. It has a reputation as a tenacious animal and one of the few to successfully prey on porcupines. Governor Weld has said he’s bringing that same ferocious spirit to his campaign to win the Republican Party’s nomination and unseat President Trump. After he wrapped up with would-be voters at the café, I caught up with Governor Weld and asked him about his motivation for running.
WELD: I think the need for somebody to stand up to Donald Trump is absolutely imperative. This guy says climate change is a hoax? I mean, give me a break.
BASCOMB: What would be your agenda to address the climate change problem?
WELD: So, I think we have to put a price on carbon and have the coal companies, and the oil companies, and the mining companies pay that fee. And that would be about $500 billion a year. And you’d keep sliding the fee up until it got so high that they would say ouch, we don't want to put any more carbon into the atmosphere. And that's what you need to have happen in order for the polar ice cap, not to melt. No protestations about how I'm going to spend $16.3 trillions, no claims about how I love wind and solar. That doesn't do it. You got to put a price on carbon.
BASCOMB: Your Republican colleagues in Congress, though, are going to probably put the brakes on that. How would you address the political divide when it comes to this issue?
WELD: Well, you know, it'd be nice to have an act of Congress setting that up. On the other hand, the President does have national emergency powers. And this is not just a national emergency. It would, you know, totally rearrange our coastlines and bring catastrophic weather in all parts of the country, including particularly the flatter parts in the middle of the country, so no one would be safe. So, the President would have the authority to declare a national emergency there. And unlike the alligators in the walls of the border with Mexico that Mr. Trump wants this one would be a national emergency, even a planetary emergency. So, I'm sure that would be upheld as a valid exercise of that power. And I would do it myself, if Congress wouldn't act and frankly, I'd be cautiously pessimistic about Congress acting, they'd be saying, oh, we'll have to shoot Bessie the Cow. We won't be able to fly in airplanes anymore. All the sort of scare stories that you hear when somebody really doesn't want to do anything.
BASCOMB: And House Democrats recently introduced the Clean Future Act, which is a pretty broad overview of trying to address the climate change problem. What is your opinion on that?
WELD: I'm not sure that I've had an opportunity to study that one. But you know, one of them, the clean New Deal, says we're going to make so much money from all the new economy and the green energy that we're going to offer everyone in the country a guaranteed basic income, irrespective of whether they're willing to work. And that's a direct quote, that's not going to fly in the United States, I'm so sorry.
BASCOMB: Well, the Green New Deal, what is your opinion of it broadly, though?
WELD: Well, all the energy stuff is fine. It's this stuff about how we're going to give everybody an income and they don't have to work. That's not fine. And I think even you know, people who were receiving assistance, if they, you know, can work a little bit at a local school or hospital, doesn't shock my conscience.
BASCOMB: Proponents of it would say that environmental justice communities and poor communities that are located near industry are bearing the brunt of climate change and bearing the brunt of pollution disproportionately to the general population. And so the onus is on us to sort of give them a leg up to be equal, how do you respond?
WELD: Yeah, I completely buy into the idea of environmental justice. And matter of fact, I have a lot to say to the minority community, and you know, they get the short end every time. I've done a fair amount. I was a federal prosecutor. And, you know, I did a fair amount anti-redlining, which is how banks and insurance companies make it tough for people to get a mortgage. So it creates just 100% racial segregation, which is a very bad thing.
BASCOMB: The Trump Administration has rolled back dozens of environmental laws at this point, some put in place by the Obama administration, others that go back to the Clean Water Act from the 1970s.
WELD: Richard Nixon, 1972, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act.
BASCOMB: Exactly. Are there any of those that rise to the top of your concern?
WELD: They all do. I mean, it's outrageous. The President claims credit for deregulation. He said he's making it easier for business? Baloney! Most of the regs that he's repealed are protections for clean air and clean water. It's tough enough to get those in in the first place without Scott Pruitt coming in and repealing all the desirable regulations. When I was US Attorney, I cleaned up Boston Harbor. When I was Governor, I enacted the Rivers Protection Act. And I've been a lifelong proponent of government necessity to intervene on clean air and clean water. Because the economies of scale are such that you can't rely on individuals or a single business to do it. It costs too much money. So it has to be the government. I argue with all my libertarian friends about this because it's one place where I say we need government action. And you can't be laissez-faire when it comes to protecting the environment.
BASCOMB: Scientists tell us that millions of species are going extinct partly because of climate change, pollution and a number of factors. And environmental groups want to create a national emergency, essentially, around the issue of biodiversity loss. How do you respond to that notion?
WELD: Well, I totally agree with that. I mean, I am a birder with a life list and bird species have taken it on the chin. But beyond that, you know, I grew up in the woods on 600 acres with huge biodiversity so I'm kind of spoiled. And recently I've moved back to a 7,000 acre wildlife refuge in Massachusetts. So all my neighbors are coyotes and deer. And unfortunately, ticks. But ticks, as Mitt Romney might say, ticks are people too.
BASCOMB: [LAUGHS] Now, if you're a lifelong birder with a bird list, are you gonna have time to be president? Because birders are pretty serious people when it comes to ticking those boxes off.
WELD: Yeah, they are. I was taken out up in Coös County on a bird trip early on in my campaign. And it took most of the morning, and we decided after that that was my last bird trip. And that life list is not going to get any longer in office I assure you, unless I make the summer White House in the Galapagos.
BASCOMB: Oh, now you're talking. All right, Governor Weld, thank you so much for taking this time with me.
WELD: Thanks a lot. It was great.
BASCOMB: Governor Weld earned nearly 10 percent of the Republican votes in New Hampshire and though President Trump easily secured the state’s delegates, Mr. Weld has pledged to continue his campaign and offer Republicans and independent voters a greener alternative to the incumbent.
[MUSIC: Gary Burton, “O Grande Amour” by Antônio Carlos Jobim]
BASCOMB: We head off to northern California now, for another installment in the occasional Living on Earth/Orion Magazine series “The Place Where You Live.” Orion invites readers to put their homes on the map and submit essays to the magazine’s website, and we’re giving them a voice.
[MUSIC: The Place Where You Live: Theme Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros “Home” from Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros (Community Records 2009)]
BASCOMB: Today’s essay is from Allie Rigby, she’s an outdoor educator in Petaluma California, an area known for thick fog that blankets the rolling hills.
[MUSIC: “BLEAR MOON”]
RIGBY: The fog here is definitely its own character. It comes creeping over, almost like clockwork, around five p.m., six p.m., just like it’s fingers stretching over the hill, and it just sinks.
So much so that on one night, there was a blood moon, couple of years ago. My coworkers and I, we decided we have to go up to see this. And we had to hike above the fog line, so about halfway up towards Walker Peak we sat and watched the blood moon rise over the fog.
We could see this bowl, of just this swirling mass. Just, it looks like a sleeping giant, just sitting there for the night. And it’s always a little sad, because every morning, it kind of withdraws and goes away. But almost like clockwork, you’re like, just wait. Wait till six p.m. It’ll come back.
[MUSIC: “BLEAR MOON”]
There is a rock above a cloister of spicy bay trees where I go to think. Oils from the peppered bay leaves sting my nostrils as I make my weekly pilgrimage. The "headache tree" is a cousin to the avocado.
I love watching their branches in the wind, and the way they clatter and snap. There is always a rush to get here; I ache for my windswept rock.
This rock sits above the bay groves and rolling hills. Weeks, even months pass, when I realize I have not visited. I imagine the rock feeling sad, like a discarded envelope, pasted with the green stamps of lichen that curl at the edges.
[WIND, GRASSES RUSTLING SOUND]
Dried poison oak leaves scuttle across my toes when the wind strengthens here. Withered summer grasses quiver.
I forgot a jacket, again, but it’s only a short walk from the cabins and classrooms where I live and work. The fog lingers above the ridge today. By nightfall, the heavy mass of grey will sink into this dry valley, providing drink for the redwoods.
My rock sits on historic Miwok and ranch land. Each school year, I explore these bay woodlands and grasslands with over 600 students from the Bay Area. Our trails zigzag for miles, but none lead to this rock. I hop over strands of barbed wire to get here.
Right now, the young salmon in our creek prepare to overwinter. I sit and think about the poison oak branch that brushed my leg. A skittish covey of quail cluck at my presence.
The creek below is a loved and controversial part of this storied landscape. It spills into the tidal headwaters of Tomales Bay and in 2008, levels of mercury in the creek raised eyebrows and alarm.
[MUSIC: “BLEAR MOON”]
I often think of this when I sit here. I tell the rock that I’m sorry, that life is full of twists.
I will come back here next week with a better answer, or more likely, no answer at all—just a promise to return.
[MUSIC: “BLEAR MOON”]
BASCOMB: That’s writer Allie Rigby of Petaluma, California. You’ll find pictures on the Living on Earth website, loe.org, as well as details about Orion Magazine and how to submit your essay on the place where you live.
[MUSIC: “BLEAR MOON”]
BASCOMB: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 617-287-4121. That’s 617-287-4121. Our email address is comments at loe dot org, email@example.com. And visit our webpage at l-o-e dot o-r-g. That’s loe dot org.
[MUSIC: The Gary Burton Quartet, “Ballet” on Duster, by Gary Burton, RCA/Legacy]
BASCOMB: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are nearly 26 million refugees in the world today and 3.5 million asylum seekers. Those are people who’ve been forced to leave their country of origin because of war, conflict, or persecution. The UN does not formally recognize climate change refugees but that position is beginning to shift, following a case brought to the UN by an asylum seeker from Kiribati. Ioane Teitiota applied for asylum in New Zealand, claiming that his South Pacific island home was flooding with sea level rise and he could no longer live there. New Zealand denied his request and the UN agreed with that decision because they said Mr. Teitiota was not in imminent danger. But the case did crack open the door for future asylum seekers for whom the threats of climate change are more acute. Here to explain is Andrew Harper, Special Advisor on Climate Change to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
HARPER: What this landmark decision has basically set a precedent for is that in the past where national asylum authorities could dismiss an asylum case, because the asylum seeker cited environmental reasons for being unable to stay in the country. Now, with this precedent setting where an imminent life threatening risk could arise as a consequence of climate change, each national asylum authority will have to undertake an individual determination of this person's claims. This precedent, and a lack of action by states can be expected to trigger international protection obligations. So this is where it is particularly important for UNHCR and other human rights organizations to take particular note of this decision. And while the Human Rights Committee's decisions are not binding, they are expected to be taken in good faith, and in relation to the Refugee Convention, the 1951 Refugee Convention, such precedents will inform the guidance that we provide to states and we, we've already been contacted by a number of states who are looking at what will be the implications of this.
BASCOMB: And recent research suggests that people are three times more likely to be displaced by climate change related disasters than by conflict or war. And of course, the problem of climate change is only going to get worse with time. How do you prepare for something like that?
HARPER: What our objective is, is to invest much more in mitigating the impact of climate change, supporting communities adapt to an increasingly hostile future, to prevent the need for people to become displaced. No person generally wishes to leave their community. Certainly people in the South Pacific, they don't want to see their islands disappear under the waves. People in many parts of Africa do not want to leave their farms. They want to continue the lives which they've had for generations, they want their children to be going to school, they want to be provided with health care. There is an obligation for the international community to provide the support to particularly vulnerable states and populations to mitigate this horrible catastrophe, which many of them have not really had a contribution to. So, rather than states being so concerned about populations coming to their doors, their borders, what we should be doing is trying to mitigate the need for people to leave in the first place.
BASCOMB: Well I mean, that's a big job, though. That's, you know, requiring the world to get together and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gas emissions. And that seems like a big task, to put it mildly. How do you do that?
HARPER: Well, firstly, we do need to have a recognition, we do need to see international burden sharing. The scientific background is there. What we don't necessarily see at the moment is the scale of programs, the focus on impact, and the timeliness of taking steps. We are seeing an increasing momentum within the international community that climate change is real. And it should also be noted that some of the most progressive states in relation to providing protection for populations displaced are actually in Africa. They recognize that people who have had to flee because the effects of climate change, and disasters due to no fault of their own, are in need of protection. So it's really up to the wider international community to be as progressive as some of these smaller states, and let's say, more fragile states who provide a level of protection and generosity and dignity, which we could all learn from. It's very difficult when the world ignores the impact of climate change, when the world continues to pump carbon dioxide into the air and expect that there'll be no consequence. There will be a consequence. We need to be doing much more to prevent displacement, or we have an obligation to protect those people being displaced.
BASCOMB: Andrew Harper is the Special Advisor on Climate Change to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Andrew, thank you for your time today.
HARPER: Thank you very much for the opportunity.
- Library of Congress | “New Zealand: ‘Climate Change’ Refugee Case Overview”
- CBS News | “Millions of Future Climate Refugees May Need Protection, U.N. Committee Warns”
- UNHCR | “Comment by Andrew Harper”
- BBC News | “The Man Who Would Be the First Climate Change Refugee”
[MUSIC: Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, “Let It Go” on Echo In the Valley, Rounder Records]
BASCOMB: Coming up – An unusual dinosaur find has upturned the very notion of who owns fossils. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from you, our listeners, and United Technologies, combining a passion for science with engineering to create solutions designed for sustainability in aerospace, building industries, and food refrigeration. UTC companies such as Otis, Carrier, Pratt and Whitney, and UTC Aerospace systems are helping to move the world forward. You can learn more about United Technologies by tuning into the Race to Nine Billion podcast; listen at racetoninebillion.com.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, “Next” on Little Worlds, by Bela Fleck, Columbia Records]
BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.
New research from the Environmental Working Group has found toxic PFAS chemicals, also known as forever chemicals, in the drinking water of dozens of US cities. These chemicals are linked to a host of human health concerns and scientists worry that PFAS chemicals are likely now in all major water supplies, especially those that pull from surface water. David Andrews is a Senior Scientist with the Environmental Working Group and co-author of this study, and he joins us now for more. David, welcome to Living on Earth!
ANDREWS: Pleasure to be here today.
BASCOMB: So, briefly tell me, what's in this report from the Environmental Working Group?
ANDREWS: So what we did is we actually went out and took water samples from 44 different places. And what we were looking for was PFAS chemicals. And what we found is that it's nearly impossible to avoid this contamination. In major metropolitan cities across the United States, pretty much every single sample we tested had these compounds except one in Mississippi that was actually drawing water from over 700 feet below the surface of the earth.
BASCOMB: Oh, wow. Can you just remind us what exactly are PFAS chemicals? And where are they coming from?
ANDREWS: So, PFAS chemicals are nonstick chemicals. They are traditionally used in Teflon products, Scotchgard products, they're used on upholstery. And then they also found widespread use in firefighting foam, and that's actually been one of the larger sources of environmental contamination because of testing this foam at airports and fire station training locations.
BASCOMB: And you mentioned that there was just one place that didn't have PFAS chemicals in their water in Mississippi and it was coming from deep groundwater. Does that indicate then that the soil is able to filter out these chemicals?
ANDREWS: Potentially to a certain extent, or it's just a matter of time before some of this contaminated water percolates down. But one thing that's consistent across this entire family of chemicals is that they do not break apart in the environment. They're often referred to as "forever chemicals" because of this incredible persistence. That's part of what's so concerning about these industrial chemicals is they just kind of spread out. They can contaminate water supplies, and concerningly, can build up to levels in people and animals to a point that can cause significant health harms.
BASCOMB: Well, what are the potential health impacts of exposure to PFAS chemicals?
ANDREWS: So, at very low concentration, some of the emerging concerns from recent research are impacts on our immune system. So this actually reduces the effectiveness of vaccines, it can make you more susceptible to developing illnesses during your lifetime. They also impact mammary gland development, so the reproduction development during early childhood. They've been shown to increase cholesterol levels across the population. And this is even at concentrations that are already present in the US population. And then they're also associated with a number of different types of cancer.
BASCOMB: If PFAS chemicals are so ubiquitous in the water supply, is it safe to assume that most of us have them in our bodies already?
ANDREWS: So the CDC, Center for Disease Control, has been doing testing for about a decade now. And they find these chemicals in nearly every single person; over 99% of the population has these chemicals in their blood. And as I mentioned earlier, they're at levels that already seem to be having an impact.
BASCOMB: So, what can we do to limit the amount of these PFAS chemicals that are making their way into the environment to begin with?
ANDREWS: The most important step is to really identify where the contamination is, find out where it's coming from, and take steps to end that ongoing release to the environment. But also, I think the fact that these chemicals are so ubiquitous really points to a failure of industrial chemical regulation. And in the fact that these companies, they actually had studies showing harm and kept them secret for long periods of time before anyone found out. And so I think that really points to the need for greater oversight and greater scrutiny to the chemicals that are replacing these contaminants we detected. Over 600 have been produced in industrial quantities in the last decade. And yet we only have detailed health information for a handful of those at most, but the information we do have is incredibly concerning for all of them, including the replacement ones, including ones that are being produced today and still being released into the environment.
BASCOMB: Wow. You're saying that there's more than 600 of these types of chemicals. We only have health information on a handful of them, but the information we do have is pretty damning in terms of the impacts on human health. I mean, that seems rather shocking that we're not, you know, exercising more precaution.
ANDREWS: And the scope of the problem is enormous. And I think that's why this study has gotten so much attention is because we're actually showing that these contaminants are much more widespread than previously known. Many of these cities previously reported that they didn't find these chemicals when they tested, but they were looking at much higher concentrations. And so, when you look with more detailed methodology, you really find out how many water systems have these compounds. And one of the shocking pieces of information is that it's not just one or two of these chemicals. On average, we found six or seven different chemicals in this family in every single water supply.
BASCOMB: And once it’s there, it's there. I mean, is there anything to do to mitigate that exposure, or to remove it in some way?
ANDREWS: So, there are filtration systems that can remove these contaminants from water. So there is a solution on that regard. It just becomes very expensive. And ultimately, we think the polluters, the companies that produced and released these chemicals into the environment, should be held responsible and accountable for paying those costs. We believe that every American has the right to safe and clean drinking water.
BASCOMB: If somebody is listening and may be concerned about the quality of their own drinking water, what should they do at this point?
ANDREWS: At this point, we think people should become aware of the issue. If they're concerned about the levels in their drinking water, they should really be questioning their water utility, the state, and the federal government and really requesting greater oversight and enforceable legal limits for these contaminants in drinking water. That's something that hasn't happened at the federal level. We have not seen any new drinking water regulations from the federal EPA in over two decades. And so the potential for regulation of any of these chemicals is relatively low, but many states are actually stepping up and setting much more health protective standards.
BASCOMB: Now, I understand that the House of Representatives recently passed the PFAS Action Act. What would that do in terms of regulating these chemicals and protecting human health?
ANDREWS: So, the PFAS Action Act would go much further in terms of designating these chemicals as hazardous substances, forcing clean up, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to set a legal standard for at least some of these contaminants. So it takes a number of important steps that are really critical to ensure clean up, especially of military bases across the country.
BASCOMB: And now it has to go to the Senate to get passed there. Do you have any sense of what the odds are that it will get any traction in the Senate?
ANDREWS: Well, I think it's important to realize that safe drinking water is something that really goes across the aisle. You know, I don't want to make a prediction on what may or may not happen in the Senate based on the political environment in DC. But this is an issue that has broad both Democratic and Republican support.
BASCOMB: David Andrews is a Senior Scientist with Environmental Working Group and co-author of the recent study. David, thank you so much for taking this time with me.
ANDREWS: It was great to speak with you today.
- Environmental Working Group report on PFAS prevalence in water supplies
- Interactive map from the Environmental Working Group showing PFAS contamination
- Environmental Protection Agency information on PFAS
- David Andrews' profile
[MUSIC: Andras Schiff, Invention BWV 772-786 on Morning Lift, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Denon/BMI]
BASCOMB: It’s been more than 200 years since the first dinosaur fossils were scientifically described. Since then those prehistoric giants have captivated people of all ages, inspiring statues, theme parks and of course, a film franchise. But a fossil discovery in Montana may upend the way we discover dinosaur bones and who can own them to begin with. Living on Earth’s Jay Feinstein has the story.
FEINSTEIN: So the story starts back in 2006 with a fossil find on a ranch in Montana: Dinosaur bones, potentially 66 million years old, were embedded in rock, horns and bones completely intact.
Peter Larson is director of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a for-profit fossil preparation and excavation company, which helped prepare the find, known as the “Dueling Dinosaurs.”
LARSON: It’s a Nanotyrannus lancensis, which is a smaller relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Triceratops horridus.
FEINSTEIN: He says these dinosaurs were preserved while locked in battle.
FEINSTEIN: Their sharp teeth clashing . . .
FEINSTEIN: . . . their claws striking . . . .
FEINSTEIN: And then something extraordinary happened.
[LOW RUMBLING EARTHQUAKE SOUNDS]
LARSON: We had an earthquake that literally sucked them down into the sand basically about the moment of their death. That’s why they were preserved as complete skeletons and nobody ate them.
[DINOSAUR-LIKE CALL FROM DISTANCE]
FEINSTEIN: Peter says they were found in what’s called a seismite, the jagged edges of the sedimentary rock suggesting an earthquake. And he says this find is special because we don’t usually get to know the cause of death for dinosaurs.
LARSON: When you find a dinosaur, you’re looking at a cold case, literally. And trying to find the cause of death is almost never possible. But on occasion, you can find some evidence that points to the cause of death. In this particular case, the Triceratops skeleton had actually two Nanotyrannus teeth buried within what would be the flesh envelope and they both, both of these animals have some skin preserved as well. So they’re really really super important.
FEINSTEIN: And it turned out there were many more fossils on the same property: a Triceratops foot and skull, and then, a complete T-Rex. Potentially one of only a dozen ever found in such condition. But before long, these fossils became entangled in a legal battle that’s lasted over a decade.
ATTORNEY: Good morning, Counsel.
FEINSTEIN: The question is who owns these specimens, potentially worth millions of dollars on the private fossil collection market. Usually, when a fossil is found on private land in the United States, it belongs to the landowner: Finders’ keepers. In this case, the finders were amateur fossil hunters that had planned to split the multi-million dollar proceeds from these specimens with the landowner.
But the problem is there wasn’t just one landowner. Land in the West is often severed into surface rights and mineral rights. And in the State of Montana, oil and gas companies often own the mineral rights. Historically, it hasn’t mattered. For over 100 years, fossils have been considered part of the surface rights, just like a rock you’d find in your backyard. But in the case of the Dueling Dinosaurs, the mineral rights holder fought back in court, saying they should own the specimens. Because they say fossils are minerals. Again, Peter Larson.
LARSON: It was heard by a three-judge panel, and in a split decision, they decided that the fossils were part of the mineral estate, which surprised everybody. No one has ever made this claim before, ever. There is no place that you can find where fossils have been defined as minerals, anywhere in any statute in any state.
FEINSTEIN: That means Peter and his team won’t be able to complete the sale of the dueling dinosaurs and the homeowners also miss out on their cut.
And fossils are a huge part of the culture for people in Montana. So this decision was a blow to the idea that any homeowner could find and display a fossil they might find in their backyard.
The decision was so unpopular in the State of Montana that Peter’s team successfully filed a petition for a federal re-review of the case. Very few re-reviews are granted and this one was, so the case goes back to the Montana Supreme Court to decide. But some paleontologists balk at the notion of selling fossils to begin with.
HORNER: I’m Jack Horner, I’m a paleontologist, I work at Chapman University in Orange California.
FEINSTEIN: Jack made some of the most famous paleontological discoveries of the 20th century, including that dinosaurs care for their young. And he has one more impressive credential.
[THEME FROM JURASSIC PARK]
HORNER: I was the technical advisor for all 5 Jurassic Park & Jurassic World movies, yes. It’s fiction, did you know that?
FEINSTEIN: Jack says for him, it doesn’t matter whether or not fossils are minerals, because this court case would mostly just affect commercial fossil hunters, not what he calls real scientists. For the most part, paleontologists like Jack work on federal land, not private land. The federal government owns both surface and mineral rights on its property, and they aren’t trying to make money from selling dinosaur bones. Jack says in the interest of good science, fossil hunting should be paid for by grants, not from selling fossils.
HORNER: But they don’t give you grant money to buy a fossil. They give you grant money to feed your graduate students who are digging it up.
FEINSTEIN: Jack says paleontologists and commercial fossil hunters have fundamentally different interests.
HORNER: Commercial collectors are people that go looking for dinosaurs or other fossils to make money, whereas a paleontologist is digging them up for data so they can publish papers about them. We’re museums and we don’t really pay money for fossils, we save them. I mean just take them and save them in the public trust, so they’re for everybody.
FEINSTEIN: And Jack has a lot of questions about the Dueling Dinosaur fossils to begin with.
HORNER: I don’t know where they geographically came from, I don’t know where they geologically came from, I don’t know their taphonomy, and basically that’s all the information a scientist needs. There’s none of that. So from a scientific perspective, it is a useless specimen.
FEINSTEIN: He also questions much of the story behind the fossils, including the earthquake and the cause of death.
HORNER: Well we don’t actually know that, do we? I mean that’s, see they haven’t been studied scientifically. We have no idea. Those are the commercial collectors that are saying that.
FEINSTEIN: Peter Larson disputes this critique of his methods, saying that no one is getting rich from fossil hunting, and they took meticulous scientific notes in digging up the Dueling Dinosaurs.
LARSON: Well, you know, this is, despite what some people may think, this is still a capitalistic society, we depend -- and it works pretty well. There are some problems. But people need to be rewarded for their work. This is a way that really fantastic fossils can be found that increases the interest in paleontology, that makes sure paleontologists have a job.
FEINSTEIN: So we have a unique fossil find worth millions of dollars and an unprecedented court case. But the debate continues. Should we even sell fossils to begin with? Either way, this case is in motion and the results will be announced in coming months.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jay Feinstein.
[MUSIC: Emma & Louis, “Emma and Louis” on The Best of Gypsy Jazz, by David Lewis Luong, reverbnation.com]
BASCOMB: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Paloma Beltran, Thurston Briscoe, Jenni Doering, Jay Feinstein, Merlin Haxhiymeri, Don Lyman, Isaac Merson, Aynsley O’Neill, Jake Rego, Anna Saldinger, Candice Siyun Ji, and Jolanda Omari. Tom Tiger engineered our show.
Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can hear us anytime at L-O-E dot org, iTunes and Google play- and like us, please, on our Facebook page - Living on Earth. We tweet from @livingonearth. And find us on Instagram at livingonearthradio. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I’m Bobby Bascomb, Thanks for listening!
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