Hottest June Ever/ Emmett FitzGerald
(stream / mp3)
June 2014 was been the hottest on record, helping cause extreme drought and wildfires in the west. Living on Earth’s Emmett Fitzgerald reports on the drought, and the prospects for relief from the weather pattern known as el Nino. (02:34)
California's Water Crisis
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To cope with California’s drought, farmers are carefully selecting which crops they plant and overpumping from deep underground aquifers. But as the President of the Pacific Institute, Peter Gleick, tells host Steve Curwood, a viable long-term solution to the growing water crisis requires rethinking priorities and conserving much more water. (09:40)
Pennsylvania's Complicated Groundwater Contamination/ Reid Frazier
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In places in Pennsylvania, well water is unfit to drink, polluted with iron and manganese, but the source of the contamination is complex. Reid Frazier of the Allegheny Front reports that fracking, coal mining, and natural methane formations in the ground combine to muddle the picture. (07:40)
Unprecedented New England Pipeline Proposal
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A pipeline company proposes to extend a natural gas through New England to help solve the region’s energy price spikes. The Conservation Law Foundation’s Shanna Cleveland discusses with host Steve Curwood whether the pipeline is needed, and its unorthodox financing plan. (07:50)
Beyond the Headlines/ Peter Dykstra
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In this week's trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra tells host Steve Curwood about North Indian bandits extorting scarce water from villagers, a Canadian haven for honey bees and the anniversary of Los Angeles’ smog. (03:45)
The Collapse of Western Civilization
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Science historians Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik Conway of CalTech's new science fiction book, The Collapse of Western Civilization lays out how devastating our lack of action on climate change could be. Oreskes join host Steve Curwood to discuss how democracy, the free market and science are all failing humanity and the planet. (16:10)
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Peter Gleick, Shanna Cleveland, Naomi Oreskes
REPORTERS: Emmett FitzGerald, Reid Frazier, Peter Dykstra
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Record heat and drought put the California dream in jeopardy.
GLEICK: The assumption has always been we can live wherever we want and bring the water to where the people are. I think that can't continue. I think we're going to have to have some serious conversations about the kinds of development we want: whether it makes sense to grow certain kinds of crops in an incredibly arid environment.
CURWOOD: Also, a science historian suggests that the culture of science is partly responsible for keeping us from taking timely and decisive action on global warming.
ORESKES: There's two metaphors that lots of people are familiar with: one is crying wolf and the other is fiddling while Rome burns. Scientists have been very, very afraid of crying wolf, and the consequence of that is that we've all been fiddling while Rome burns; or maybe I should say, we've been fiddling while Greenland melts.
CURWOOD: Metaphors 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)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from United Technologies – innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Typhoons, tornados, massive wildfires, searing drought—these days weather extremes seem more frequent and intense, and scientists who study global warming have predicted their upswing. And as Living on Earth’s Emmett Fitzgerald reports, this year is yet another for the record books.
FITZGERALD: June 2014 was the hottest June since records began in 1880. That’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where Jake Crouch is a climate scientist.
CROUCH: May of 2014, the previous month, was also record warm, so we’ve now had two consecutive record warm months back to back. So it’s not necessarily surprising that we’ve continued to be in this very warm pattern across the globe.
FITZGERALD: The high temperatures have been felt on every continent, but not everywhere. In North America, the east coast has actually had a relatively cool start to 2014, but the west is sweltering.
CROUCH: The west coast has been record warm. California has had their warmest year to date so far that has led to increasing problems of drought, wildfire problems, water resource issues.
FITZGERALD: Crouch says it’s no coincidence that Washington State and Northwest Canada are experiencing some of the largest wildfires in history.
CROUCH: You know, those warm temperatures that have been experienced in that part of the country and in that part of the globe, has led to conditions which are favorable for these large wildfires.
FITZGERALD: He says that southern California is hoping for the weather pattern known as El Niño, which tends to bring storms and increased rainfall.
CROUCH: The Climate Prediction Center has the chances of El Niño occurring at 80 percent.
FITZGERALD: But Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado says that the intensity of this year’s El Niño remains uncertain.
TRENBERTH: At one point this looked very much like the 1997/1998 El Niño event, which is the biggest on record. Now it has certainly backed off from that. The forecast is certainly still that we will have an El Niño event, but maybe it will be a little more modest.
FITZGERALD: Any rain would bring relief to the parched western landscape, but Trenberth says El Niño could bring problems as well.
TRENBERTH: The risk if we do have those conditions is that we might have too much of a good thing. You know, we go from drought to flooding and coastal erosion, and high sea levels along the coast and houses toppling into the oceans, and things like that.
FITZGERALD: Either way, the rains are still a ways off.
TRENBERTH: October through December is normally when the El Niño really takes off, and that’s when it has its biggest effects: around December through February of, and this will be 2015.
FITZGERALD: Trenberth thinks the odds are that El Niño will prevent the California drought from dragging on into 2015. In addition to storms, El Niño can come with warmer temperatures across the globe, meaning that 2014 is likely to break a few more records before it’s done.
TRENBERTH: It’s quite possible that 2014 will end up being the warmest year on record.
FITZGERALD: At least, until 2015. For Living on Earth I’m Emmett FitzGerald.
- NOAA’s overview of national climate anomalies
- NASA’s Earth Observatory looks at this year’s El Nino conditions around the globe.
- An aerial view of the drought affecting the “Golden-Brown State of California” via NASA’s Earth Observatory
- The USDA’s Forest Service active map depicts current wildfires.
CURWOOD: So come December, there may be relief for California’s record-breaking drought, but for now, it’s about as bad as anyone can remember. Peter Gleick is President of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, and a fresh water expert. Welcome to Living on Earth.
GLEICK: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: So, let's talk about agriculture. California puts a lot of food on our tables here in America. What's been the impact so far of the drought on the agricultural sector and where are things heading?
GLEICK: So, 80 percent of the water that Californians consume goes to the agricultural sector, and the Central Valley is a fantastic place to grow food. We grow a lot of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. The overall current estimate is that impact to the agricultural community will be perhaps a few billion dollars this year and maybe a few tens of thousands of jobs, which is in some sense is a big impact, but it's a $40 billion ag. economy out of a $2 trillion statewide economy.
CURWOOD: Now how are the farmers coping exactly with the shortages?
GLEICK: What we do when we don't have surface water in California is we over-pump groundwater, and so a lot of the farmers in the Central Valley this year are looking to groundwater to make up surface water shortfalls. One of the reasons the impacts may not be too bad this year economically is precisely because we're over-drafting groundwater. We're looking at that groundwater pool as a way to make up some of the surface water shortages, and we can do that in the short run, but that's not sustainable in the long run. Groundwater levels are dropping and when groundwater levels drop we see decreases in flows in some of our streams that are also dependent on groundwater flows in the dry part of the year. And the reality, of course, is that not every farmer can pump groundwater—only those who can really afford to drill deeper and deeper, more and more expensive wells have that as an option. And some farmers will benefit and some farmers will lose.
CURWOOD: I understand that there've actually been drops in the level of the soil in the Central Valley.
GLEICK: Well, interestingly, this has been a problem for decades. You know, 50 or 60 years ago, when groundwater was over-pumped, we saw very, very significant subsidence on the order of tens or even more feet of subsidence. There's some remarkable old photographs from the Central Valley years and years ago showing how far land levels have dropped. We solved that problem in the 70s and 80s and 90s with deliveries of surface water, and groundwater overdraft decreased. But it's increasing again: we are seeing subsidence on the order of tens of feet and potentially more as the drought continues.
CURWOOD: Now in your view, Peter Gleick, what crops does it make sense to grow in California given the tight water situation, the perennial tight water situation, and which ones maybe shouldn't be grown there?
GLEICK: Crop decisions are a complicated thing. It's not just how much water is available, but in bad droughts, what we see is farmers shifting from crops that they can fallow for year—they may let field crops go for a year—but they don't want to let their trees dry up and die. And so during a drought we see farmers protecting trees, investments in orchards and fruits and nut crops, even if they can't give them their full amount of water, they don't want those trees to die. Those are a decade-long investment. And so what we see is less planting of cotton and wheat, less planting of rice, less planting of alfalfa, and protection of some of these higher value fruits and nut crops.
CURWOOD: California is naturally actually a pretty dry place. There are massive water projects to bring water there from other places. How did we come to have so much human settlement and agriculture in the Golden State given the sort of intrinsic lack of water for California?
GLEICK: California is a complicated place. You know, we have a lot of water in the north and a lot of water in the mountains. The population has settled in the coasts and in the south where there's less water; because of that we've built a massive infrastructure. We've built systems to store water in the wet season so we can use it in the dry seasons and aqueducts so we can move water from the north in the mountains to the south and the Central Valley and the coasts where we want it. And our development patterns have been such that, the assumption's always been that we can live wherever we want and we'll bring the water to where the people are. I think that can't continue. I think we’re going to have to have some serious conversations about the kinds of development we want and permit in the future. We're going to have to have serious conversations about whether it makes sense to grow certain kinds of crops in an incredibly arid environment. I think we'll continue to have a strong agricultural economy. We'll continue to have big populations in dry areas, but we have to seriously reconsider the systems that we put in place and manage to satisfy those demands.
CURWOOD: We talked a lot about agriculture. What about the built-environment: residential and commercial water use? How can we cut down on that?
GLEICK: About 20 percent of the water that Californians use goes to our homes and our industry and our commercial establishments. We've made a lot of progress, as we have in the agricultural sector in improving efficiency in those water uses, but there's still lots of inefficient water uses in our urban centers. And we still use a tremendous amount of water for outdoor landscaping. We pretend as though we have an old English climate and can have English-style lawns, but we're in an arid environment, and we need to get rid of, frankly, inefficient lawns and inefficient gardens. I got rid of all the lawn in my house, and I still have a beautiful garden, and my water use is half the state per capita average of the average person in California, and even I could save more water.
CURWOOD: And I gather you're growing more than crabgrass?
GLEICK: Oh, no. We're not growing any crabgrass.
GLEICK: Crabgrass is a terrible user of water, and it's ugly. We have a beautiful garden: we have flowers; we have native plants; we have blueberries and strawberries, and yet our water use is half the state average.
CURWOOD: What if the phone rang—it's Governor Jerry Brown. He says, "Peter Gleick, you are now the water Czar for the state of California." What are the three or four things you'd do if you had that kind of power?
GLEICK: The solutions to our water problems are not the solutions that we looked at in the 20th century. We're running into peak water limits. There is no more untapped, unallocated water in the state, and the reality is, we've given away far more water than nature naturally provides. So our options are fairly limited, but we do have options, and the key things that we need to be doing now are looking at the potential for more efficient use in our cities and more efficient use on our farms.
There's a lot more that we can do on conservation and efficiency. But there are also a couple of new supply options that we really ought to be considering seriously. We ought to be exploring and expanding the use of treated wastewater. We use potable water to flush our toilets and to water our lawns, not just for drinking, and yet there is very high-quality wastewater available. We collect a lot of wastewater; we treat it with very high standard and typically we throw it away. Let's put that supply of water to use. And similarly we ought to be expanding our efforts to capture and use storm water.
There's a lot of potential for wastewater reuse, storm water capture and reuse as new supply options and improvements in conservation and efficiency. And those four options alone could produce a tremendous amount of new water for the state of California, and that's where we ought to be going now.
CURWOOD: Now, what do you think the American West is going to look like in 50 years given what we’re seeing now with drought increase?
GLEICK: Well, especially with climate change, I think we're going to see higher and higher temperatures. We're going to see more extreme events in the western U.S. The climate models suggest unfortunately that the Southwest is going to get drier, not wetter, which is the opposite of what we would like if we had any choice in the matter. I think there will be fundamental changes in agriculture. I think we're not to be able to afford to spend as much water in the west on agriculture as we currently do. And potentially I think we're going to see the Midwest and the Northeast begin to advertise, hey, come back home. There's not as much water in the Southwest, and it's hotter and hotter in the Southwest, and our climate is increasingly attractive. And that's going to be a turnaround from the old days when the Southwest advertised and drew people from the Midwest and from the North because of their more attractive climate.
CURWOOD: Goodbye. Go west, young man, huh?
GLEICK: I think so. I think we're going to see more and more of that.
CURWOOD: Well, what, a fifth of the world's fresh surface water is in the Great Lakes.
GLEICK: We're already seeing conversations from some communities in the Midwest that perhaps they can advertise that their water availability and their water quality and their reliability as a way to draw industry and residents back to the region.
GLEICK: So far our discussion has really just focused on people and our needs from water. What about the rest of the natural world?
CURWOOD: We know we've taken far too much water out of the environment. Fisheries are collapsing; ecosystems are collapsing. There've been more and more efforts on the legal front and on the educational front and on the policy front to try and restore ecosystem health and restore some commitments of water for the environment. But during a drought, we measure impact on farmers; we measure impacts on industry. We're not really good at measuring impacts on fisheries and ecosystems, and yet some of the worst impacts historically have been, for example, on the salmon fisheries and the salmon runs in the state of California during drought. We had better not give up on the environment during droughts in order to restore a little more alfalfa production or cotton production the Central Valley, or to save our lawns in our cities. I think that would be a big mistake.
CURWOOD: Peter Gleick is President of the Pacific Institute. Thanks so much for taking the time with me today.
GLEICK: Well, thanks for having me on. It's always a pleasure.
- The Pacific Institute published a paper with four solutions to drought.
- The Pacific Institute runs the website, California Drought.
- The New York Times’ interactive map of the drought facing the U.S.
- Peter Gleick is the author of the book A 21st Century U.S. Water Policy.
[MUSIC: Various Artists/Azymuth “Melos Dos Dois Bicudas” from Gilles Peterson’s Brazilika (Far Out Records 2009)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: drilling down to find what’s tainting well water in Pennsylvania’s gas and coal country. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Nicky Hopkins “Edward” from The Tin Man Was A Dreamer (Sony Music 1972)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from formations like the Marcellus Shale under much of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania has brought a rise in complaints of contaminated well water, and common sense would say there’s a link. Sometimes it is clear that fracking for gas has polluted nearby wells, but as scientists trace the chemical fingerprints in contaminated wells in Pennsylvania, evidence points to more complex causes for some bad water, including the legacy of coal mining. Reid Frazier from the public radio program, the Allegheny Front, reports.
FRAZIER: Every Monday, John Fair drives his pick-up truck a few miles to the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church. It’s on a quiet country road about an hour north of Pittsburgh in Butler County. He heaves a few cardboard boxes into the back of his truck.
[LOADING TRUCK WITH BOXES. FAIR MUMBLING]
FRAZIER: The boxes are loaded with gallon jugs of spring water. This is his drinking water for the week. You’ve heard of a food drive? This is a water drive. It was organized a couple of years ago after neighbors in Fair’s community, called the Woodlands, say their water quality deteriorated. They blamed nearby drilling rigs for the water problems. Fair says he drilled a water well three years ago at his home. The water was perfect, he said. Then it started smelling bad like rotten eggs, and it looked like mud.
FAIR: You can’t drink it. You just keep doing what you do with it: do your wash, take your shower and do your dishes. That’s all you can do. You can’t use it for drinking or anything, you know?
FRAZIER: Three years later, he gets all his drinking water from the water drive.
FRAZIER: At his home, Fair turns on the water in his kitchen sink.
FAIR: You want to taste it?
FRAZIER: I’ll taste it. Ooh! Tastes like there was a rusty chain in the cup for…ooh! Tastes like rust.
FAIR: Is that the way water’s supposed to be?
FRAZIER: [LAUGHS] Probably not.
FRAZIER: The company drilling the nearby gas wells, Rex Energy, initially provided Fair and his neighbors with drinking water, but that ended in 2012, when the state said gas activities were not the cause of the water problems. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection found water had high levels of iron and manganese before drilling began, and the EPA agreed. Some in the Woodlands say they’ve had problems with their well water in the past: that it smelled bad, or that after rainstorms it became dirty. But they say it got worse when drilling commenced, and some of them, including Fair, are suing Rex because of it.
FRAZIER: What went wrong with the water? John Stolz is a microbiologist at Duquesne University who’s trying to answer that question. He’s looked at the same data the DEP has.
STOLZ: And we see that, you know, a lot of the well data that we have, or the wells are impacted by mine drainage.
FRAZIER: Mine drainage, not brine from gas drilling or chemicals used in fracking. The area does have abandoned coal mines nearby, so maybe mine water has been in the wells all along? From the interviews and tests he’s done, Stolz thinks the water got worse around the time drilling began.
STOLZ: A good number of people no longer have potable water. It seems to coincide with when the drilling commenced and went full bore, so to speak.
FRAZIER: With funding from the Heinz Endowments and the Colcom Foundation, Stolz is trying to piece together an answer. He says it’s a complicated picture underground.
STOLZ: If we were pristine—no one ever drilled a well in Pennsylvania, no one had ever mined a mine in Pennsylvania and they started drilling—this would be a lot easier, but, you know, we have close to a million wells that have been drilled prior to all this activity. So, that’s a lot of holes in the ground.
FRAZIER: And Stolz thinks that maybe one hole in the ground might have influenced another. But Rex Energy disputes this interpretation. The company didn’t return phone calls for this story, but in the past has stood by the DEP’s findings—that its activities had nothing to do with water problems in the community.
Water contamination concerns have followed the boom in the state’s Marcellus Shale gas fields since it began. Gas activities damaged groundwater in more than 160 cases across the state, according to DEP records obtained by the Times-Tribune of Scranton. And last month, a drilling rig north of Pittsburgh punched through an abandoned coal mine, forcing mine drainage into a nearby stream and impacting groundwater in nearby homes.
But these incidents represent a minority of cases in the state with more than 8,000 Marcellus Shale gas wells, and industry points out that the state has steadily improved its construction standards for drilling. Still, few hard numbers exist on how safe shale gas drilling has been for groundwater. Sue Brantley is a geochemist at Penn State who’s trying to change that. She’s been putting together groundwater tests from across the Marcellus region, like one that appeared on her screen from Northeastern Pennsylvania.
BRANTLEY: Here’s barium; this is one of the signatures for Marcellus.
FRAZIER: Her project, called the Shale Network, is funded by the National Science Foundation, and has over one million of these data points so far. But she wants more.
BRANTLEY: Well, the data that we’re really interested in right now is data that was collected before drilling by gas companies.
FRAZIER: Before they drill a well, gas companies typically test nearby groundwater. This can help shield them from contamination claims. These results are locked away though, because legally, they’re the private property of the homeowner, like a patient’s medical records.
FRAZIER: There’s another hurdle for scientists like Brantley: the legal system. In cases of alleged groundwater contamination, landowners will often sue a drilling company.
BRANTLEY: Very often the companies will settle with people if they’ll sign a non-disclosure agreement. And then the data doesn’t come out and that’s just, really, a big loss.
FRAZIER: Brantley might have found a workaround. Gas companies send their results to the DEP. Her lab is working with the DEP to take identifying information like names and addresses out of these tests and put them into their database; a lot of these results have to be hand-entered into the computer. Slowly, a picture is starting to emerge.
BRANTLEY: We, in our database, have not found a lot of incidents of contamination due to the shale gas industry. There are some incidents, for sure, but we haven’t found a lot of them.
FRAZIER: Another problem for scientists is just nature itself. Fred Baldassare is a former DEP geologist. He’s been studying underground methane migration. In a study he did with help from gas companies, he found that gas that looked like it was from the Marcellus Shale was actually hanging out in rocks closer to the surface. He thinks this has tricked other researchers into thinking gas found in shallow parts of the ground was the result of drilling or fracking in the Marcellus.
BALDASSARE: Some researchers were suggesting that when you see that deep gas, it must be from Marcellus up in the groundwater system, and we’re saying, that’s not an accurate statement.
FRAZIER: The confusing nature of studying the underground doesn’t obscure Baldassare’s overall assessment: that there should be a way to do fracking without contaminating groundwater, and that the industry’s practices now are better and safer than they were five years ago. But exactly how safe is it now? To find that out, scientists say more study is needed.
CURWOOD: Reid Frazier reports for the public radio program, the Allegheny Front.
- Reid Frazier’s “Fracking and Groundwater Contamination? It’s Complicated” piece on The Allegheny Front’s page
- Learn more about Rex Energy’s operations regarding Pennsylvania gas wells on the Marcellus Shale
- Data shows that close to a million wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania
- Gas activities damaged groundwater in more than 160 cases across the state, according to DEP records obtained by the Times-Tribune of Scranton.
- More than 8,000 Marcellus Shale gas wells mine Pennsylvania’s natural gas resources
- Pennsylvania has steadily improved its drilling rules, including a revamping of well construction standards in 2011.
- Sue Brantley is a geochemist at Penn State testing groundwater across the Marcellus region.
- Fred Baldassare is a former DEP geologist, studying underground methane migration.
- Water for Woodlands water drive in Pennsylvania
CURWOOD: There’s much debate about how much more fossil fuel infrastructure is necessary, given concerns about global warming. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast is perhaps the most controversial. But there are other conflicts, and on July 21st, South Portland, Maine passed an ordinance to effectively ban an existing pipeline from carrying Canadian tar sands crude. And there are fierce objections to the proposed expansion of a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts that would cost consumers as much as $3 billion dollars. A key opponent is Shanna Cleveland; she’s a Senior Attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts who joins us in the studio. Welcome.
CLEVELAND: Thank you so much for having me.
CURWOOD: How much does the region need this pipeline to cope with its energy needs?
CLEVELAND: I’m so glad you asked that. That's the key question here is, whether or not a pipeline of this size and nature is needed. And from our perspective that's exactly the question that the New England governors should've asked and gotten a better answer to before deciding that they were going to invest customer money into a pipeline like this. From our analysis, the incremental expansions of existing natural gas pipelines, as well as the current supplies of liquified natural gas that we have on the system, would be plenty to make up the shortfalls that we've been seeing in the winter months and reduce those price spikes that folks have been concerned about.
CURWOOD: Now I understand the New England governors hired a consulting firm, Black and Veatch to study all this. What did they find and how do you think it informs this discussion?
CLEVELAND: Well, I think the most important conclusion that Black and Veatch reached was that under a low-demand scenario, that is, under a scenario where we reduce our consumption of natural gas, there is no need for new infrastructure. So you would think that after hearing that conclusion, the New England governors would've wondered: Well, how much would it cost to get to that low-demand scenario? But in fact they did not ask Black and Veatch to follow up on that at all, and instead continued to pursue the question of how much it would cost and how big a pipeline could be built.
CURWOOD: Explain to me what is it the New England governors agreed to do regarding this pipeline?
CLEVELAND: Well, about a year and a half ago, the New England governors came together and said they wanted to develop a regional energy infrastructure initiative, and one piece of that initiative was supporting the building of more natural gas pipelines. And what they're proposing is something that's never been proposed in the history of United States, and that is for electric customers to subsidize the costs of a natural gas pipeline. So the electric customers would be paying for the construction of this pipeline even though it's really the power generators who need the natural gas that would be transported along this pipeline.
CURWOOD: If instead of spending $2 or $3 billion dollars for a pipeline, New England invested that in renewable energy, what would be the biggest bang for the buck?
CLEVELAND: Well, the biggest bang for the buck is always energy efficiency. So one of the things that we could do is invest that money into natural gas energy efficiency programs but there's a lot of other things we could do without spending any money at all, and that includes market reforms. Right now the markets for natural gas and electricity don't operate on the same timeframe and aren't expected to be coordinated in the way that they need to be. And we believe that with a combination of changes to the market, better use of existing supply, and more energy efficiency, we can meet the challenge that we face.
CURWOOD: Explain to me what the disconnect is in the market between electricity and natural gas.
CLEVELAND: Well, so natural gas is contracted for in two different ways. One way is to purchase what's called a firm transportation contract. Now the folks who heat with natural gas and the companies that supply them, the local distribution companies such as NSTAR and National Grid, pay a bit of a premium to make sure that gas is always going to be delivered to you when you need it, but the power generators primarily purchase it through what are known as interruptible contracts. And that means, whenever there is high-capacity on the system, they're subject to interruption; so they end up being subject to the spot-market prices in the winter time when we're heating with natural gas at the same time that we're using it for electricity. One of the simplest ways to change the markets so that the electricity market would respond properly to the gas markets would be to require the power generators to buy firm transportation contracts, but that's not something that’s on the table right now.
CURWOOD: In the view of the Conservation Law Foundation, your organization, how long should we keep using natural gas?
CLEVELAND: Well, we're certainly using more natural gas now as we retire the coal and oil plants that were beyond their useful lives, and from our perspective that's actually an improvement because the criteria pollutants that are put out by coal and oil plants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—one of the ones that form smog -- are very detrimental to public health. So in the short-term, natural gas is providing some public health benefits, but in the long term, natural gas simply doesn't cut down on our ghg [greenhouse gas emissions] enough.
CURWOOD: What did the Black and Veatch study say about emissions of things such as methane and carbon dioxide?
CLEVELAND: Well, the Black and Veatch study didn't actually analyze the greenhouse gas emissions’ impacts of this proposed pipeline. We know based on recent studies that, not only do the pipelines leak and create a fair amount of methane that gets released into the atmosphere, but that there is significant concern about leaks and flaring at the wellhead, and there are significant climate change impacts from extracting and transporting the gas.
CURWOOD: It's been suggested that one of the unspoken motivations for putting in this pipeline is to enable the prospect of exports of natural gas. What do you hear along these lines?
CLEVELAND: Well, I have heard a lot about that, and it's interesting because the supposed need that was posited in the Black and Veatch study was around 600,000 million cubic feet a day, and the proposed pipeline dwarfs that: It is about 2.2 billion cubic feet a day that they're considering building the pipeline for. So there is quite a potential for a lot of this natural gas to end up on the export market.
CURWOOD: How do residents in the region feel about a new natural gas pipeline?
CLEVELAND: Well I can tell you that the folks who live in the areas that this pipeline is proposed to go through are very concerned, and we've seen an unprecedented level of engagement by individuals and residents not only on the issue of the pipeline and its proposed route itself, but also on energy policy and the need to really bring this conversation about what our energy future looks like into the public debate and into the public eye.
CURWOOD: Shanna Cleveland is a Senior Attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. Thanks much for taking the time to come by.
CLEVELAND: Thanks, it's been a pleasure.
CURWOOD: We contacted the pipeline company, Kinder Morgan. They declined to speak with us, referring us only to their website. There’s a link at LOE.org.
- More about the specifics of Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct (NED) project on their FAQ page
- ISO New England has seen price volatility and grid reliability issues as a direct result of pipeline constraints in 2013/2014.
- The ISO has been tracking the potential retirement of resources as part of their Strategic Planning Initiative.
- NESCOE is a not-for-profit organization representing the six New England States on regional electricity matters and has proposed the energy tariff to finance the pipeline project.
- Read more about the proposed natural gas pipeline on Kinder Morgan’s site
CURWOOD: Time now to check in with Peter Dykstra, the publisher of Daily Climate.org and Environmental Health News, that's EHN.org, to see what caught his attention this week beyond the headlines. He’s on the line as usual from Conyers, Georgia. Hi Peter, what’s going on?
DYKSTRA: Well, hi, Steve. Let’s start with the weirdest drought-related crime story to come along in quite awhile. Anybody who’s ever seen a gangster movie or a Sopranos episode knows what “protection money” is.
CURWOOD: I believe the legal term is extortion: Pay me every week, and bad things won’t happen to you.
DYKSTRA: Right, but there’s a new twist on the protection racket in drought-stricken Northern India, where armed bandits are demanding water deliveries from local villages, according to the Associated Press. The bandits’ leaders have told local villagers to haul buckets of water to the bandits’ territory or risk being “shot dead,” and the street-cred. for these particular bandits is so strong that already 28 small villages are complying, according to the AP.
CURWOOD: Your water or your life. What a sad story. What about something more upbeat, Peter?
DYKSTRA: Well, Steve, this next story is what makes science and environmental journalism fun. By now, everybody knows that honeybees and other pollinators are in trouble—there are a variety of suspects—and that if pollinators go down, so does a big chunk of our food supply. But one place has turned out to be a honeybee haven with almost none of the problems the rest of the world is freaking out over.
CURWOOD: And that place would be?
DYKSTRA: That place would be Newfoundland, the rugged Canadian island that sticks out into the North Atlantic. It’s home to some of the healthiest honeybee colonies on Earth, and the possible reasons why are many: One of them—the Varroa mites and other parasites that affect bees are nonexistent in Newfoundland. Also, there’s no large-scale mega-farming, so there’s no large-scale use of the pesticides blamed elsewhere for bee deaths. You know, Newfoundland’s called “The Rock” for a reason, and you’re more likely to find moss than grassy, pesticide-treated lawns there. And finally, the places where things like cranberries and blueberries are farmed commercially in Newfoundland, there are strict controls and inspections for any imported bees that are used to pollinate them.
CURWOOD: Yeah, and if we can study the place that’s free of pollinator problems, it will then help us learn about how to fix the pollinator problems elsewhere.
DYKSTRA: Exactly, so the beekeepers of Newfoundland may be doing a big service to beekeepers and farmers everywhere.
CURWOOD: And what’s the buzz from the annals of history this week?
DYKSTRA: Well, this week is our best opportunity to wish a happy birthday to smog, at least the variety of smog that’s closely associated with Los Angeles; because 71 years ago this week, L.A. had its first major smog attack: an eye-stinging cloud descended on the city in 1943.
CURWOOD: But that wasn’t the first air pollution crisis in a city. I think London had problems going back to the 1800’s.
DYKSTRA: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, but this one was just not the first smog attack on L.A. It was the first one anywhere that was primarily caused by car exhausts and not by coal stoves or coal-burning factories. It took L.A. several years to figure this out.
So first, they tried shutting down factories, and all they saw was that the smog got worse. And being 1943, in the middle of World War II, some folks even thought that the smog was actually a poison gas attack from Japan. By the 50’s, a CalTech scientist had figured out the ground-level ozone problem we now know as smog; by the 1960’s, Johnny Carson was telling smog jokes on the Tonight show. By the 1980’s, air pollution laws were just starting to have some impact. And there’s still a problem in L.A. today with smog, but Southern California has been pretty aggressive in tackling it all.
CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is the publisher of Environmental Health News, that's EHN.org, and the DailyClimate.org. Thanks so much, Peter; talk to you again soon.
DYKSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve.
- Read the Associated Press story about water extortion in dry Northern India
- Learn about the “Buzz growing over Newfoundland’s healthy bee population”
- The history of “smog”
- Recounting Los Angeles’ first smog attack back in 1943
[MUSIC: Zeco Baleiro “Ilhas” from Geraldas e Avencas (Trilha Sonora) (Sarava Discos 2014)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: A science historian turned novelist holds up a mirror to our dithering about global warming. That's ahead here on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.
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[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Lee Morgan “The Delightful Deggie” from Delightfulee (Blue Note Records 1966)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A slim paperback novel called “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” landed in our office the other day. Its cover art caught our attention: under a lowering sky, a red desert stretches to the horizon and a bottle with a message sticks out of the sand. Its authors are two science historians: Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik Conway of CalTech. Their 2010 non-fiction volume “Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” was a best seller.
This latest book switches to science fiction. It’s 2393. An historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China reflects on how science, democracy and the free market all failed to keep global warming from upending society and nearly driving humans extinct. Naomi Oreskes joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.
ORESKES: Thank you.
CURWOOD: So why does a historian write fiction?
ORESKES: Well, Erik and I were struggling with some way to convey something important that we felt we had come to understand: people really weren't getting why climate change really mattered, and lots of people had the impression that climate change was something that was just about polar bears. So we wanted to write something that would convey why this is not just an issue about polar bears; this is an issue about us, about our way of life, and also about our institutions—about our economic and political and democratic institutions.
CURWOOD: Talk to me a little bit about how you decided what effects of climate disruption that you included in here in your description, and how likely those are.
ORESKES: This is a work of fiction because it's imaginary because it takes place the future, but everything that happens in the book up until 2013 has actually already happened. So we didn't have to make up any of the parts the story that take place up until the present, and everything that happens beyond 2013 is based on projecting outward the scientific evidence that already exists. So we already have scientific evidence that hurricanes are possibly becoming more intense. We already have very strong scientific evidence for sea level rise and the destabilization of the West Antarctic ice sheet. We already have scientific evidence for the role of climate change: things like droughts and crop failure. So we simply took all of the scientific information, both of things that have happened already or things that are very plausibly on the horizon, and then we wove a story around imagining that those things actually happen.
CURWOOD: So what you're saying is: If you see the boulder rolling down the hill, you don't have to wait to know that it's going to wind up someplace towards the bottom.
ORESKES: Exactly. That's exactly right. And we also wanted to say that although we don't want to disparage the work that we ourselves have done, it didn't take a lot of imagination to imagine what would happen when that boulder hit the bottom, especially if there were a town sitting at the bottom of the hill.
CURWOOD: One of the key parts of your novel is the notion that democracy fails and fails miserably. Why did you pick that theme?
ORESKES: Well this really fell out from our book "Merchants of Doubt". So in "Merchants of Doubt" we told the story about a group of men who fought the scientific evidence of climate change because they were afraid of its implications, that is to say, it would lead to the undermining of democratic systems and become a kind of invitation for authoritarian governments to take control of the marketplace, of the relocation of people, and other things like that, and so we felt that the profound irony of the story was that by denying the reality, they actually increased the likelihood that disruptive climate change would lead to the very outcomes that they most dreaded.
CURWOOD: So the one civilization that comes out comparatively well in your novel is China. Of course China, in some respects, is the oldest civilization on the planet, they've been continuously operating for the last 5,000 or so years, but why did you pick China?
ORESKES: Well, there were two reasons. The first is the one you suggested: that China is the oldest continuously existing civilization on Earth. So just from a simple logical, practical point of view, it seemed most plausible that China would continue, even if other civilizations did not. But we also wanted to bring out this ironic point that if things really start to go bad, it's going to be the authoritarian countries that are more in a position to take control of the economy and relocate people, deal with food shortages and food riots. So we wanted to bring out that point: that if you really care about democracy, you want to be doing everything your power to stop climate change because disruptive climate change will not be friendly to liberal democracies.
CURWOOD: What of what China is doing today supports your thesis here?
ORESKES: Well, China's very complicated, and lots of people like to bash China because there's this in a huge pollution problem in China and just amazing, amazing emissions increases the last ten years that very few people anticipated. So it's very easy to look at China and to blame them, and to say, why should we take action on change when their emissions growths are so rapid? But at the same time China has actually made massive investments in solar energy, in fourth-generation nuclear power. There's a lot of talk in China about a carbon tax, so China's this complicated country where both good and bad things are happening at the same time. So in the optimistic scenario, the good side of what's happening in China, the carbon tax, the mass investment in solar power—those would be the places that prevail. We don't really take a position on whether that's what happens. We simply speculate that the authoritarian aspects of Chinese culture become resurgent again and those aspects then come to the fore as China remobilizes and moves hundreds of millions of people to higher, safer ground.
CURWOOD: Part of your book is really tough on the scientific method, the drive for scientists just to be absolutely sure that something is right. Why do you talk about that?
ORESKES: Well, one of the issues that's come up a lot in the last few years surrounding the whole issue of climate change is the question of scientific communication, and a lot of scientists have thought that this was simply a problem of people not really understanding the science. And Erik Conway and I have argued that that's not really true, that a lot of the resistance to climate change has to do with the political and economic issues that are at stake. But there is one element of it that we think is about scientists and scientific communication and that's the fact that scientists hold themselves to an extremely high bar before they're willing to say that they know something is true, so, an example that many people have heard about has to do with hurricanes.
We have tremendous amounts of evidence that extreme weather events are getting more extreme, and we know that when the ocean warms up you have more energy to drive hurricanes. So there's lots of good reasons to link climate change to hurricanes, and to say that as the world warms, we expect hurricanes to become either more frequent or more intense. And yet, the scientific community has been reluctant to make that link because it hasn't hit this high level of confidence, which is the so-called 95 percent confidence limit. So by setting the standard so extremely high, scientists sort of protect themselves against a certain kind of error, the error of thinking something's true that isn't, but they put all of us at risk to a different kind of error, which is the error of doing nothing—the error of thinking we're not sure about something that's actually taking place.
CURWOOD: So what you're saying is that science doesn't much like the precautionary principle, doesn't much like the majority of evidence, wants the overwhelming amount of evidence.
ORESKES: Yeah. I guess. I mean, I don't really like to talk about the precautionary principle in terms of climate change because we're way past the point of precaution. I mean, precaution would've been doing something about this 20 years ago. I guess the way I like to think about it is there's two metaphors that lots of people are familiar with: one is crying wolf and the other is fiddling while Rome burns. Scientists have been very, very afraid of crying wolf, and the consequence of that is that we've all been fiddling while Rome burns, or maybe I should say, we've been fiddling while Greenland melts.
CURWOOD: Naomi, what about the trend in science to have scientists be highly specialized?
ORESKES: Yes, the specialization of science is a really important part of this problem; it's something we talk about in the book. So climate change is a very complicated issue in which the physical, the biological, the economic and political aspects of our world all come together, but climate change as an issue has mostly been understood by scientists as a question of the physical environment, the atmosphere and to some extent the ocean and the ice sheets. And scientists are very, very specialized; so even within the physical sciences you have people who specialize just in ice, and even within ice you have people who specialize just in ice cores, or just in ice modeling or, you know, just in the bubbles inside the ice. And this highly specialized aspect of science is partly why science is powerful, but at this same time it makes it hard for scientists connect the dots. On Twitter, a bunch of us have started using the hash tag “#connectthedots” because we're trying to make the point that it's true: no one hurricane, no one storm, no one flood proves that we have climate change, but the collection of all of these things, all of the different dots is making a very, very clear picture. And one of the strangest things that Erik Conway and I feel as historians is that in a weird way, we found ourselves in this position of connecting the dots, and we found ourselves talking about things and saying things that we felt confident we're true, things we felt were supported by scientific evidence, and yet which not that many scientists were actually talking about.
CURWOOD: Economics is called the dismal science by some; and in your book economists, well, they don't come out terribly well.
ORESKES: [LAUGHS] Well, of course nobody really comes out terribly well in the book; so we're equal opportunity historians in that respect. But the principal point we try to bring attention to in the book is not so much economics as a discipline, but economics as an ideology, the ideology that we call ‘free market fundamentalism’. And this has been an important theme for Erik and I since we first started working on this issue, which is nearly 10 years ago, that many of the people who are in denial about the reality of climate change have a kind of faith that the market will somehow do its magic, and that this problem will somehow be miraculously solved by the invisible hand of the marketplace moving all the pieces into place, and coming up with some kind of solution.
We've known about the reality of climate change for a long time now, and we've been watching the effects of climate change for at least 10, 15 years now. To think that the market on its own will somehow miraculously solve this problem is in my opinion just wishful thinking, and so we're trying to bring attention to the fact that while there are many good things about market-based economies, we face a really significant problem that's not going to be solved by the free market on its own. It hasn't been solved by today and there's no evidence to suggest that it will be solved. And so thinking about that wishful thinking, that kind of magical thinking is really, really crucial to understanding how to break the logjam and figure out what we really need to do about this issue.
CURWOOD: To what extent are you saying that catastrophic climate disruption is a market failure?
ORESKES: That's exactly what we're saying, and it's not just us. I mean, many economists have said this too. So in fairness to economists, it's not as if no one in economics community recognizes this. Nick Stern, who's the former chief economist of the World Bank, has said that global warming, climate change, is the greatest market failure ever seen, and I think that's exactly right.
CURWOOD: Now, let's face it: humans very often do things that aren’t good for us on an individual level: smoke cigarettes and drink too much, knowing full and well that it’s likely to kill us ultimately. So with that in mind, what you think are some potential solutions to the way that we are hurting ourselves by, you know, keeping our heads tucked in the sand about what's happening with the climate?
ORESKES: Well what you said is true, but it's also true that humans have great capacity to change, in particular when they work together and have good leadership. So since you mention tobacco, and that's something that Erik Conway and I wrote about in our previous book, we know that in the case of tobacco more than 75 percent of Americans smoked cigarettes back the 1950’s; today that number's down to only about 25 percent. Millions of lives have been saved in America and elsewhere around the world through tobacco control.
So how did that happen? Well, it was a combination of two important things: one was people understanding the scientific evidence that tobacco smoking can kill you, and the other was leadership, leadership from people like the U.S. Surgeon General who spoke to the American people about what the risks were. So this is why telling the truth about science, being articulate about the science, fighting against disinformation about the science is so important. We, the American people, need to have good information in order to make good decisions, and we've been denied good information on climate change because there has been so much disinformation, misinformation, false equivalence, and we’ve also been lacking leadership for all kinds of reasons that I think the American people kind of get.
CURWOOD: Well, let's talk about leadership. A key point of your book is that leaders really failed to act on a timely basis. What can we do now to change the scenario that you’ve made?
ORESKES: Well, this is of course a tricky issue. I feel like I've been waiting for a lot of years for a "Nixon goes to China" moment, but it hasn't happened yet. So when leadership fails, when a top-down approach doesn't work, then you have to think about bottom-up, and I think that's why increasingly were seeing signs of activism, especially among young people. So at my university at Harvard, at MIT, at Stanford, all across the United States, students all around the country are asking university leaders to think about their investments in the fossil fuel industry and to say that maybe the time has come where that's no longer an acceptable thing to do. So they are already starting to demand at their elders either fix it or get out of the away. [LAUGHS]
CURWOOD: You're a historian. Where have we had that kind of fundamental change in human history?
ORESKES: Well, many times. I mean, if you look at the history of the United States, the Civil War and the abolition of slavery is an extremely important example because slavery was a profound and tremendous evil and we abolished it, but it took a Civil War. And I don't think anybody wants to say that the Civil War was a good thing. The abolition of slavery was a good thing, but the Civil War was a huge human, political, and social tragedy. So the way I think about it as a historian is: can we please try to find a way to fix this problem, short of having some kind of terrible outcome like the Civil War?
CURWOOD: The view of some is that you don't get radical changes in leadership and behavior without revolution.
ORESKES: Well, see I don't agree with that though. I mean, again, if we go back to tobacco, we have seen very, very significant social change over tobacco and that didn't involve a revolution, that involved people working hard systematically on a lot of different levels. So we have models for social change that involve disruption; we have models for social change that involve progress without horrible disruptions.
So I think we have a choice here, and I think in a way that's why Erik I have written this book. We want to say to our readers, there is a choice here. And the choice is in our hands, but time is running out. We can’t sit on our hands indefinitely and expect this to come out OK.
CURWOOD: Naomi Oreskes is co-author of the new novel called “The Collapse of Western Civilization” along with Erik Conway. She teaches at Harvard University. Thanks much for taking time with us today, Professor.
ORESKES: Thank you. It's been really great speaking with you.
- More about Oreskes’ and Conway's The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future
- Oreskes’ and Conway's previous non-fiction book, Merchants of Doubt, depicts how scientists can distort scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda.
[MUSIC: various Artists “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” from Pickin’ On R.E.M. The Bluegrass Tribute (CMH Records 2007)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, James Curwood, Lauren Hinkel, Jake Lucas, Abi Nighthill, Jennifer Marquis and Olivia Powers all help to make our show. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org and please like us on our Facebook page: It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingOnEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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