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

August 28, 2015

Air Date: August 28, 2015



New Orleans Still Vulnerable To Storms

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Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans ten years ago, even though that storm was weaker than other hurricanes the city had survived before. Years of wetlands loss amplified the storm surge and the levees collapsed under the weight of engineering errors and poor maintenance. Hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden warned of the dangers in 2001, and tells host Steve Curwood that despite repairs, the city is still at risk. (10:20)

Racism and NOLA's Recovery

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New Orleans is celebrating a healthy recovery in places ten years after Katrina, but many black residents tell a different story. Prof. Beverly Wright of Dillard University and the Deep South Center on Environmental Justice says that the recovery has created opportunities for outside developers to pump money into the city and push black New Orleanians out. (09:05)

Turning up the Heat on Frigid Offices / Lou Blouin

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To combat summer’s hot and sultry weather, many US office buildings crank up the air-conditioning. But this sparks conflicts, as men feel comfortable but women shiver and don fleeces. Lou Blouin of the Allegheny Front reports on how these arctic offices became ubiquitous, and Jennifer Amann of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy tells host Steve Curwood how much could be saved if they turned the thermostat up a few degrees. (09:30)

Beyond the Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra tells host Steve Curwood how California takes the top honors on the American Lung Association’s list of “Most Polluted Cities”, but cautions that there’s more than one way to define “polluted.” Also, he explains how American lawns are our biggest “crop”, but far from our greenest, and notes the anniversary of the book “Dumping in Dixie”, authored by the “father of the environmental movement.” (04:35)

Endangered Porpoise Caught in the Web of Illegal Fishing / Emmett Fitzgerald

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The vaquita (Spanish for little cow) is the world’s smallest whale and also the most endangered. Duke University marine biologist Andy Read tells Living on Earth’s Emmett Fitzgerald how the poaching of a protected fish for the Asian medicine trade could drive the Mexican porpoise closer to extinction. (09:25)

Unseen Ocean Migrations / Michael Stein

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As summer winds down, migratory birds in the Northern Hemisphere begin their trip south. Many species head down the flyways that cross the US, but as BirdNote’s Michael Stein reports, many travel unseen offshore. (02:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood

GUESTS: Ivor van Heerden, Beverly Wright, Jennifer Amman, Andy Read

REPORTERS: Lou Blouin, Peter Dykstra, Emmett Fitzgerald, Michael Stein

CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The failure of levees brought catastrophic flooding to New Orleans, and many black residents are still struggling ten years later.

WRIGHT: We're actually fighting for our soul here. That's what we're fighting for and we're fighting to maintain our community, and we're not moving. Because what generally happens is you just move. Well we love where we live, we know that it’s unique, so we're staying and fighting, me and all of my neighbors.

CURWOOD: Also, the battle of the sexes in the summertime office. Women often say the place is freezing and they need a sweater. Men tend to say it’s comfortable.

HEDGES: One of the ironies is that when you look at the sales of personal heaters, the peak months are July and August—which is crazy. It means the company is paying money to over-cool the air. And then you’ve people who are actually trying to warm the environment up.

CURWOOD: That and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from United Technologies – innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.


New Orleans Still Vulnerable To Storms

Aerial view of 17th Street Canal Breach looking east. Katrina damaged 169 miles of the 350-mile-long levee system protecting New Orleans. (Photo: EPA)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Ten years ago Katrina was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, but by the time it skirted past New Orleans to hammer the Mississippi coast, the storm was much weaker. But unfortunately, the defenses protecting New Orleans from sea were also weaker than necessary. Many of the wetlands that had blunted worse storm-surges in the past were gone, and too many pumps and levees broke down, thanks to poor design, flawed construction and lax maintenance. Katrina inundated New Orleans as it passed, and left a city and nation in shock.

Ivor van Heerden sounded the alarm about the potential for catastrophe back in 2001 when he was a hurricane expert at Louisiana State University. He joins us now for a look at what’s changed - and what hasn’t - since. Ivor, welcome back to Living on Earth.

VAN HEERDEN: Well, thank you very much for the invitation.

Hurricane Katrina’s storm track. Katrina first made landfall in coastal Louisiana, her eye skirting New Orleans by about 40 miles before the hurricane made a second landfall in Mississippi, devastating the city of Biloxi. (Photo: courtesy of Ivor van Heerden)

CURWOOD: So first of all, just remind us of the scale of the devastation in New Orleans and in Southern Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Katrina. How bad was it?

VAN HEERDEN: Well, over half the 350 miles of levees failed, and as result you add in some places walls of water 18 foot high sweeping through the homes. The three different bowls of New Orleans were flooded in most cases right up to the eaves of the home, so we talking about 500,000 people being displaced. I often point out to folks just imagine if you were sitting in your den this evening and tomorrow it was gone, your cars were gone, your home was gone, your job was gone, everything was gone. That was the enormity of this catastrophe.

CURWOOD: Now how did engineering failures contribute to the devastation in the region caused by Katrina?

VAN HEERDEN: Well, if the levees had held we wouldn't be talking about Katrina in Louisiana, we would be talking about Katrina and the devastation on the Mississippi coast because the storm actually made land fall in Mississippi, not Louisiana. With a storm like Katrina, there might have been a little bit of water overtopping of levees but certainly the pumps would've been able to deal with it. But the levees...people in New Orleans had been led to believe would protect them from such a storm just literally collapsed and the earliest term we could come up with was“catastrophic structural failure”. Because the levees where ill-designed, the wrong science was used and so on, we ended up with many levee systems four to six feet too low. Katrina might've been the trigger, but this was a man-made catastrophe.

CURWOOD: Now, how did wetlands loss in southern Louisiana impact the flooding in New Orleans and surrounding areas?

The storm surge left dunes, comprised of sand from the barrier islands, up to six feet thick in a neighborhood near the Mirabeau Breach on the London Avenue Canal. (Photo: courtesy of Ivor van Heerden)

VAN HEERDEN: We've lost in Louisiana a millions acres of our coastal wetlands. In many places there used to be cypress swamps, in others a rather healthy marsh. Just the presence of the vegetation removes energy from the wind and then you get less surge and then of course the surge, as it moves through and over the vegetation loses a lot of its elevation due to the friction. If we had healthy wetlands, we wouldn't need as high a levee system and so on. Because of the activities of the Army Corps of Engineers in putting up the levees and closing tributaries, we've stopped the overbank flooding and the distribution of fresh water sediments and nutrients into the wetlands. We've been starving our wetlands and then to add insult to injury we came along and cut them up for the oil and gas industry. The sad reality in some ways is that the land, the coastal land in Louisiana, subsides about three feet every hundred years. Now, if you add to that the predictions for sea level rise you’re talking about an effective rise in water of six feet over 100 years. So it's a losing situation unless you go in and try and restore the wetlands.

CURWOOD: So in your view what's the most realistic scenario to protect New Orleans and nearby Louisiana from another devastating storm? What advice do you think the Dutch might have for us? They've been protecting low-lying areas for years from the seas.

VAN HEERDEN: Well, the Dutch, they had their Katrina in 1957, and what they recognized was they had to retreat from some of the low-lying areas and then build a line of defense back from the shoreline. In Louisiana that reality hasn't stepped in, so there’s still the hope that everything can be saved. So there's going to have to be some hard decisions in terms of where we abandon and where do we draw the line. But the bottom line is if you listen very carefully to the Corps of Engineers, they're no longer talking about “flood protection”, they talking about “risk reduction”.

LIDAR mosaic is color-coded to show areas above sea level in brown, yellow and green, with areas below sea level as dark blue. About half of New Orleans lies below sea level, some areas by as much as six feet or more. (Photo: courtesy of Ivor van Heerden)

CURWOOD: Tell me about what the Army Corps of Engineers has done. I believe in 2012 they completed the rebuilding the existing levee system. What's the maximum type of storm that that system could withstand?

VAN HEERDEN: Well, yes, they've done the repairs, and the repairs are robust. The existing systems were strengthened with concrete pads in front, concrete pads in the back, so they should be able to withstand a certain amount of over-topping. And they've implemented a closure of the big navigation canal the MRGO, the Mississippi River gulf outlet, which is a project that many of us have called for for many number of years. The concern I have is that the Corps of Engineers is claiming that Katrina is a one in 400 year storm, and in reality the statistic should be that Katrina is a one in 30 year storm, and a storm that actually missed New Orleans. And if you go back to the last hundred years, there have been 4 or 5 storms that hit New Orleans and if we had something like Hurricane Betsy, which was a category four in 1965…in 1965, we still had lots and lots of wetlands. And if we had them today there could well be serious over-topping of the levee system.

A pendulum clock’s hands are frozen at 10:07. Realizing that the water would have stopped analog, digital and grandfather clocks as it filled homes, van Heerden organized the Stopped Clock Program. Data gathered from the program helped determine the approximate times at which homes had been flooded in each area. (Photo: courtesy of Ivor van Heerden)

CURWOOD: Ivor, to what extent does the public perception of the vulnerability of New Orleans today match up to the reality?

VAN HEERDEN: It's very interesting. I was at a function in the Lower Ninth Ward this past Saturday and these questions came up, and it was obvious that to me that most of the people in that room realized the importance of getting out of town the next time the storm comes and we discussed the appropriate behaviors: to make sure you got flood insurance on your home, and then pack all your valuables, grandma’s jewelry, whatever it is, in plastic boxes and when the storm comes get out of town...have a game plan. And it seemed to me that most of the people present had come up with the same decisions. So I think people are a lot more cautious now of what the Army Corps of Engineers is claiming and hopefully the next time this happens we will see even more people evacuating than did. Of course, the biggest thing is always the disabled and elderly. They are the ones who invariably cannot evacuate.

CURWOOD: Back in 2001, you were sounding the alarm about the vulnerability of the New Orleans region to a major storm surge, and then after Katrina you pointed to many of the flaws of what the Army Corps of Engineers and done and you wound up getting fired from your job at Louisiana State University. What's happened since then?

Despite being overtopped for about a mile and a half, this levee that protects the south side of St. Bernard parish suffered minimal damage. A marsh adjacent to it absorbed some of the impact from incoming waves. (Photo: courtesy of Ivor van Heerden)

VAN HEERDEN: I waited awhile. I waited almost a year to see if they would reconsider what they had done and they didn't, so I filed a lawsuit against them in federal court and then early in 2013 they contacted me at the 11th hour and offered a settlement. And so I felt we had won a major moral victory and that hopefully LSU wouldn't do that again. But the bottom line was I ended up being divorced from my science, from my students, access to supercomputers; and being damaged goods, I guess, I haven't really been able to find a job since. So my wife and I ended up taking early retirement. But I give many many talks, a lot, to high school students and what I point out to them is that when I shave in the morning I can look that guy in the eye and be quite happy with what he did.

CURWOOD: Now, Ivor, you lost your job for speaking truth to power, saying what was going on here. Did anyone else lose their jobs for failing to do the adequate job to protect New Orleans?

Since LSU terminated his contract in 2009, Ivor van Heerden has taken an early retirement. Van Heerden says he initially searched for another faculty position, without success. (Photo: courtesy of Ivor van Heerden)

VAN HEERDEN: No, nobody from the Corps of Engineers even got rapped over the knuckles and in fact some of them were given medals. I must point out that the LSU Hurricane Center, which was responsible for so much of the data production and the map production during the response no longer exists. So, not only did they do me a dirty, but they shut down one of the best things that existed at LSU.

CURWOOD: So what you're saying is that the state university system has no center devoted to analyzing what might happen if a hurricane comes again.

VAN HEERDEN: That's correct.

CURWOOD: Ivor van Heerden is a hurricane expert formerly at Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

VAN HEERDEN: Well, thank you very much.

Related links:
- Living on Earth’s series on defending the Louisiana coast
- From the archives: Our previous discussion with van Heerden
- Katrina was a “crisis waiting to happen”
- Katrina’s impact: data on deaths, displaced residents, damages, and recovery funding
- Hurricane Katrina: The Essential Time Line
- “Louisiana Is Falling off the Map”
- “People’s hero, Corps’ villain or both? Investigator’s life upended by Katrina findings”
- “The Man Who Predicted Katrina”: NOVA talks with Ivor van Heerden
- New Orleans Hurricanes From the Start

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CURWOOD: We asked Louisiana State University for comment on the firing of Professor Van Heerden and the closing of the LSU Hurricane Center.

“We have no comment,” replied Ernie Ballard, media relations director for LSU.

There’s more on Katrina, and links to our previous coverage of the disaster at our website, LOE.org.

[MUSIC: Marcia Ball, Louisiana 1927, Robert Mugge’s New Orleans Music In Exile, Video]

CURWOOD: Just ahead. We stay in New Orleans where the uneven recovery from Katrina raises questions of environmental justice. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Racism and NOLA's Recovery

New Orleans residents protesting displacement in 2006 (Photo: Craig Morse, Culture:Subculture, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Now, ten years after Katrina’s devastation, the levees have been repaired, but not the social fabric of New Orleans. While a recent study from the School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University found that 78 percent of white residents felt the city was “mostly recovered” only 40 percent of black residents felt that way.

And here to explain the anger and disappointment of New Orleans’s community of color is Dillard University sociology professor, Beverly Wright, who also heads the Deep South Center on Environmental Justice. We last spoke on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Welcome back to Living on Earth, Professor Wright.

WRIGHT: Thank you, Steve, and it’s wonderful to be here.

CURWOOD: Remind us, please, just how long of you and your family lived in New Orleans?

WRIGHT: Well, my family has been here a very long time. We can trace our heritage back eight generations, slaves on one side and free coloreds on the other so we have been in New Orleans for a very, very long time.

CURWOOD: And what happened to your family during the aftermath of Katrina?

WRIGHT: Well what happened to our family is pretty typical of what happened to most African-American families, in that every family member lost everything except for one. We had one family member whose house did not go under because the house is perched on the Esplanade Ridge or what you call the “sliver on the river”, I understand that's a popular term for it now. So we only had one family member whose house did not go under.

CURWOOD: Last time we spoke I was in your recently rebuilt house in New Orleans East so how are you and your family and the black community doing 10 years on. Who has come back to the city?

WRIGHT: Well, a lot of people have come back. Those who could, the ones who still had jobs, most of my school teacher friends have not been able to come back in that the school board fired 7,500 school teachers which has had a devastating impact on the black middle class because you know that is one of our major occupations and it was one that we could count on for getting jobs, so I have friends now who aren't here, who are very unhappy that they are not here. So it's a long story, Steve, but the bottom line is that we are here, there are fewer of us than before. We are recovering, but we're not recovering at the same rate or quality as our white counterparts, and our biggest fear was that if certain things weren't put in place as related to recovery and equity, that we would see a seismic shift in the population in the city. I don't know if you remember that when I said that at our first conference that we needed to do things around equity and inclusion with the recovery in order for the African-American population to maintain its status and quality of life in the city.

Hurricane Katrina flooding in New Orleans (Photo: NOAA)

CURWOOD: Doesn't sound like that's happened, huh?

WRIGHT: It has not happened. In fact my worst fears are being realized in that the black middle class has taken an unbelievable hit. We're actually losing in income in the black middle class while the city is getting richer and whiter and more separate than what it was even before the storm. So we're watching gentrification occur at warp speed, we're watching inequities in the distribution of funds for the recovery, we're watching poor people who used to live in housing projects now being pushed out to Eastern New Orleans which is the bedrock of the middle-class black community.

CURWOOD: So who is moving in? In a recent op-ed you wrote about the rampant land grab that is displacing predominantly African-American families to the outskirts of the city? Who's moving in? Who are the outside developers here?

WRIGHT: Well, developers are responsible for the redrawing of the lines in terms of what kind of housing they're going to bring back, but it's mostly very... yuppies, young upwardly mobile white people whose intentions I would say overall are very good, but there's also a profit motive that's pulling them here and that is this new social entrepreneurship, in fact the city actually has an advertisement where a young white woman is saying, who would've thought that I could be a CEO at 27 years old where I opened my own company and I provide educational software to mostly the charter school networks that have created a cottage industry for young white people at the same time the children who are the product that this system are being bussed across the city at bus stops at 5:30 in the morning to go to schools not in their own neighborhood. So we see these kinds of things happening and children who really need services aren't getting them. We have charter schools networks making huge amounts of money, being given public property for quasi-private entities. And an unbelievable fight where mostly Teach for America teachers who are not trained as teachers and who I would never have allowed to teach my children are now teaching black children who no longer see themselves in public schools and their self-esteem is headed downward.

CURWOOD: This sounds like a nightmare.

WRIGHT: It's a nightmare for us. It's a paradise for some people, for newcomers to the city who are watching bike trails and, you know, I got to get suspicious when the Lafitte project was put online and they put soccer fields and not one basketball court in the green space, which told me they certainly were not expecting black children to return because our kid play basketball, not soccer. That's a good sign of who they were expecting to put in these spaces. They're literally whitewashing the city and, in fact, we have some zip codes that were 60, 70 percent black that are now 20 percent black and that's Faubourg, Marigny and that is the case for most of the zip codes that are in the city.

A protester from 2006, one year after the storm (Photo: Craig Morse, Culture:Subculture, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: So, Beverly, how does all this relate to environmental justice?

WRIGHT: Well, where you live, work and play is certainly an environmental issue and anytime you have in there some other real environmental directly related to the quality of the air and water and soil going on out here as well. We now even have public schools that are all being built on former waste sites with FEMA money. The largest municipal dump in the city up near the Magnolia projects and we've been fighting that and with the takeover of the schools we've lost our ability to control what happens in the RSD, that's the Recovery School District owned by the state has been moving forward with building a school for black children on that spot while there's another school Coyne High School which is three blocks in St. Charles which is coveted land, they're closing that school and moving those students to the school that's being built on a former toxic landfill. We're still not caring as much about the health of our children as we do white children, and we’re still making decisions that are dangerous for the health of the black community as compared to others. We have a big fight going on here and we're actually fighting for the soul of the city. If you look in the city where large numbers of white people are moving and they want noise ordinances now to be put in place in the French Quarter and then in the 6th ward where Louis Armstrong learned to play his horn on the front stoop, as we call it.

Beverly Wright at her home in New Orleans East (Photo: Steve Curwood)

WRIGHT: So, neighborhoods where you see young people practicing, blowing their horns on the street, and then walking into the French Quarter. The new people who would've moved into those neighborhoods only want Mardi Gras during Mardi Gras. They don't realize that it's a part of the culture that keeps Mardi Gras alive, so we're actually fighting for our soul here. That's what we're fighting for, and we're fighting to maintain our community and we're not moving, you know, because what generally happens is you just move. Well, we love where we live, we know that it's unique, and we're not moving. We're not moving, so we're staying and fighting, me and all of my neighbors.

CURWOOD: Beverly Wright heads the Deep South Center on Environmental Justice in New Orleans. Thanks so much, Professor Wright, for taking the time with us today.

WRIGHT: Well, thanks for listening. I'm always anxious to speak to people that I’m not certain want to hear what I have to say. [LAUGHS]

Related links:
- Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
- Dr. Beverly Wright’s op-ed on gentrification in New Orleans
- Listen to a previous conversation between Steve and Dr. Wright

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[MUSIC: The Meters, It ain’t no use, Rejuvenation, Sundazed Music 2007]

Turning up the Heat on Frigid Offices

Air-conditioning was invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier. By the 1950s, sales of window air-conditioners were booming, bringing affordable climate control to the home. (Photo: Jason Eppink, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Well, the Northern hemisphere summer winding down. The equinox is just around the corner, and the days are growing shorter. But throughout these hot months, there’s been a continuing gender divide inside office buildings, with the dog days of summer demanding sweaters and scarves – at least for some folks.

MAN: My little cubicle is just about right. I wear long pants - they're wool - and I have a long-sleeved shirt. I wear a bowtie every day.

SECOND MAN: I personally feel fine with the air conditioning on, but I do notice that some people in the office get cold very easily. Uh, more women, definitely more women.

WOMAN: These offices are like sitting at the bottom of an ice cube tray--they're separated by walls but not all the way up. These are the ice cube trays in terms of how darn cold they are.

SECOND WOMAN: I keep a blanket at my desk for when I need it, or a shawl.

THIRD WOMAN: It's cold, very cold.

WESA reporter Margaret Krauss bundles up at the Community Broadcast Center in Pittsburgh, August 6, 2015. (Photo: Lou Blouin)

CURWOOD: That’s an unscientific sampling of opinion in Boston – but the same drama is playing out all over – including inside radio station WESA of Pittsburgh, as Lou Blouin of the Allegheny Front reports.

BLOUIN: Forget the tense staff meetings. Forget the latest workplace romance. By far the hottest drama in an office building in the summertime is the war over the thermostat.

PAGE-JACOBS: I wouldn’t call it a war. I would call it a dispute. And I think would also call it an uneasy peace.

BLOUIN: That’s WESA afternoon host Larkin Page-Jacobs. And in our office here at the radio station, she's one half of an ongoing head-to-head over the temperature in the on-air studio.

PAGE-JACOBS: Josh comes in and turns it all the way to cold for his morning shift…

BLOUIN: She’s talking about Josh Raulerson, WESA’s Morning Edition host.

PAGE-JACOBS: But then when I come to do my shift, it is freezing. I didn’t really know how to address it. You know, sometimes I was a little vindictive, I would push it all the way to hot. And so when he would come in the morning, he would feel like he was boiling.

RAULERSON: I get in here at 4 in the morning, and I come into that studio and it is stifling…

BLOUIN: That’s Josh Raulerson…

RAULERSON: So I always have to put the thermostat on full cold. And it became quickly apparent to us that we, like, couldn’t agree on where it should be set.

BLOUIN: And that, as you probably know if you work in an office, is not all that uncommon. There are even studies to back that up…

HEDGE: Well, if you look at studies of office workers, and the kinds of things that they complain about, thermal issues are number one.

WESA radio hosts Josh Raulerson and Larkin Page-Jacobs have an ongoing feud over the temperature in the on-air studio. She likes it warmer; he likes it cooler—which is not an uncommon disagreement among men and women in shared work spaces. (Photo: Lou Blouin)

BLOUIN: Cornell’s Alan Hedge has been studying this issue for more than 40 years. In fact, he published the first research on a topic that’s getting a lot of attention today: the differences in thermal comfort between men and women in the workplace.

HEDGE: And what that research showed, of course, was that women were experiencing more issues at the temperatures that were then being set in the environment, which are the temperatures that still tend to be used today.

BLOUIN: In fact, a study just published in the journal "Nature Climate Change" found that the standards of comfort that have endured since the Depression era are likely based on the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old, 155 pound man. And the problem with that, Hedge says, is that women, for a variety of biological and cultural reasons, tend to be colder than men in offices. But Hedge has also found evidence that the average office temp. of 70 degrees in the summer, isn’t really doing anybody much good when it comes to productivity. He says it’s always been assumed that if people are a little bit cool, they’ll do more work.

A hoodie is de rigeur in this woman’s office, despite the outdoor temperature of 85-degrees. (Photo: Naomi Arenberg)

HEDGE: In reality we find the opposite in office workplaces. We find that when people are in an environment that they find to be too cold, typically a temperature like 68 to 70, they do up to a third less work on their computers than if they’re in an environment that is more comfortable.

BLOUIN: That would be something around 76 degrees, which Hedge says, is the temperature where workers are the most productive. Which means, bottom line, we are over air-conditioning our workplaces in the U.S. In fact, geography plays a huge role in what your perception of comfort is. He’s found that people from tropical countries prefer the thermostat in the 80s. And in Japan, they’ve had success cranking the thermostat up to 82, while relaxing the clothing policy at work. Meanwhile, in the U.S. we continue to throw away a ton of money and energy by loading up on weapons to win our own office AC wars.

HEDGE: One of the ironies is that when you look at the sales of personal heaters, the peak months are July and August—which is crazy. It means the company is paying money to over-cool the air. And then you’ve people who are actually trying to warm the environment up.

BLOUIN: Where we’re heading Hedge says is into an era of more and more customization. Right now Cornell is helping to develop a technology that sort of does the inverse of what we do now. It would leave temperatures a little higher in the office overall, and then provide high-tech cooling at the desk-level for people who get too warm. He says it could be on the market by 2019. But we don't need to wait that long to turn up our thermostats, let people wear shorts to work, give workers desk fans, and in doing so, make everyone around the office a little bit more comfortable. For the Allegheny Front, I’m Lou Blouin.

A woman keeps a shawl along with a jacket at her desk, anticipating the effects of air-conditioning. (Photo: Naomi Arenberg)

CURWOOD: Well, since these Arctic offices seem so ubiquitous, and the complaints are such an old story, why is it still going on? That’s a question for Jennifer Amann, the Buildings Program Director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. I asked her if this all isn’t kinda nuts.

AMANN: It is crazy, and I have heard it all before. This is a long-standing issue with many causes and something we suffer from it ourselves. Even at ACEEE, we have folks walking around in fleeces in mid-summer to stay warm in our office, and I know from our personal experience even in our own office space it can be a real issue for morale. It's very hard to keep employees happy when they're uncomfortable physically in their environment.

CURWOOD: So people are uncomfortable, unhappy, too cold, and it must cost a fortune to keep it too cold.

AMANN: That's right. Cooling is one of the largest energy users in commercial buildings, particularly offices, and so this is a real opportunity to change that, and I think we're seeing a number of changes in the types of technologies that are available, the increasing number of controls and sensors, new types of systems that are better able to operate at different loads, and even new systems that can allow users to have some input and even individual control over heating and cooling of their own spaces.

CURWOOD: Imagine that. Somebody sitting at a desk able to control the own temperature where he or she is sitting? I mean, I don't think I have ever been in a large office where that's even possible.

For every degree the thermostat is increased during the summer, offices gain energy savings of two to three percent. This means that a difference of 72 to 77°F can save as much as 15%. (Photo: AJ Batac, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

AMANN: Right. Well, as buildings are increasingly retrofit with new construction it becomes more possible to do these things but it might take awhile to get the technology changed out and get the new systems installed, but in the meantime there are lots of other things that can be done. Just installing more thermostats and working harder to make sure that the conditions throughout the space actually reflect the temperature settings on the thermostat, making sure sensors are in the right place, you know what the level where people are sitting. And then there are a number of interesting apps coming online that allow users and occupants within the space to record their comfort at various times of the day. There are activities that can be done to come in and more regularly check out the systems within buildings and now we're able to do that much more in an automated fashion. These things can all restore the system, find out where the deficiencies are, correct them without requiring an upgrade to the whole heating and cooling system.

CURWOOD: Jennifer, what are some of the behavioral changes that can help save energy in the summertime?

AMANN: So, one of the biggest changes would be to have everyone dress for the season, and that would allow building operators to set the temperature at a more appropriate level. Over time I think this has become more of an issue because a lot of the ideas about how cool it should be an office space came when the air-conditioning was new, you know it was very much a sign of prestige and luxury to have a cool space and you had men wearing suits all summer and you had even women wearing stockings and you know much more layers of insulation. But now we find folks are wearing much more casual clothing.

CURWOOD: The typical office today seems to be set for 70 degrees, maybe 72. What if we set it to 77 given the concerns we have about energy use in relationship to climate change and overall efficiency?

Jennifer Amann is the Buildings Program Director at ACEEE. (Photo: courtesy of ACEEE)

AMANN: The general rule of thumb is that you could save 2 to 3 for each degree that you raise the temperature. So going from 70 to 75, or 72 to 77, you would looking at 10 to 15 percent energy savings just from that one simple measure, and just because we have women complaining because they are freezing and men saying “I'm OK, I'm comfortable at the lower temperature”, doesn't mean that the men wouldn't also be more comfortable at a higher set point. So really being able to move forward to that type of an interior temperature could reduce environmental impact, cut energy bills substantially, and help us all be a little bit more comfortable and more productive and happier in our workspaces.

CURWOOD: Jennifer Amann is the Buildings Program Director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington. Thank you so much, Jennifer.

AMANN: Thanks, Steve. My pleasure.

Related links:
- Allegheny Front’s “Why Frigid Offices are Bad for Everybody”
- When it comes to studies of office complaints, thermal issues poll highest.
- A study found why offices are set to colder temperatures and why women aren’t metabolically equipped to handle it.
- Differences in thermal office comfort exist between countries. Some can take the heat.
- “Chilly at Work? Office Formula Was Devised for Men”
- About retrocommissioning to improve energy efficiency
- Temperature standards developed by ASHRAE
- About the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
- About Jennifer Amann

Back to top

[MUSIC: Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Featuring, Blue Note 2010]

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Our e-mail address is comments at loe dot org. that’s comments at loe dot org. And visit our web page at LOE dot org. That's LOE dot org.
Coming up...the threats the world’s smallest cetacean faces from illegal fishing for an endangered fish. That's just ahead on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from United Technologies, a provider to the aerospace and building systems industries worldwide. UTC Building & Industrial Systems provides building technologies and supplies container refrigeration systems that transport and preserve food and medicine, with brands such as Otis, Carrier, Chubb, Edwards and Kidde. This is PRI, Public Radio International.

Beyond the Headlines

There are many ways to rank a location based on pollution. While the American Lung Association evaluates air quality for ozone and particulate matter, the EPA identifies and prioritizes superfund sites for cleanup. (Photo: markzvo, public domain)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Time to head off to the world beyond the headlines now. Peter Dykstra’s our guide. He’s one of the team at Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org and DailyClimate.org, and he joins us on the line from Conyers, Georgia. Hi there, Peter.

DYKSTRA: Hi, Steve.  Recently the American Lung Association put out its annual list of America’s Most Polluted Cities, and California swept the top seven spots in the competition: Measuring for ozone and particle air pollution, the Golden State rules:  Fresno took the Gold Medal, followed by Bakersfield, Visalia, Modesto, L.A., El Centro, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

CURWOOD: Well, that’s a dubious honor.  What happened to the big smokestack cities in the East?

DYKSTRA: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland took the eight-through ten spots, but Philadelphia got high marks for clean air.  Now, clean, healthy air is important, and the Lung Association is a fine organization, but the two main types of air pollution alone do not a polluted city make, so I’ve got a little issue with calling this a list of “most polluted” cities. In America, pollution has a big, diverse tent:  There’s mine runoff, sewage releases, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, waste dumps, coal ash, oldies-but-goodies like lead and asbestos and uranium tailings – I could go on, but you get the point – let’s not let air pollution take all the oxygen out of the room.  But let me give you one example of why smoggy California’s not all that.

CURWOOD: OK, go on…
DYKSTRA: California has ninety-seven sites on EPA’s Superfund toxic waste cleanup priority list.  But California’s a big state – the third biggest of the fifty states, so that works out to one Superfund site for every seventeen hundred square miles.  But now, Pennsylvania is a much smaller place, and it has 95 Superfund sites – about one every 500 square miles – quite a few of them in that clean-air capital, Philadelphia.  And my ancestral home of New Jersey?  A Superfund site every 76 square miles.  So what’s “most polluted”? It’s not just what we breathe.

CURWOOD: Hmm, so what’s the cleanest state by Superfund standards?

DYKSTRA: Alaska...six Superfund sites spread over a vast two-thirds of a million square miles. Steve, that place is so clean you could eat a meal off the melting permafrost.

CURWOOD: Well, we don't want to linger too long on the melting permafrost, so what else have you brought us?

Lawns account for sixty-three thousand square miles in the US. (Photo: Petr Kratochvil, public domain)

DYKSTRA: If I asked you to guess the one thing that Americans grow that takes up the most acreage, you might say it's corn. But you'd be wrong, and nor is it wheat, or soybeans, or anything else consumed by humans. It’s lawns.  And our sixty-three thousand square miles of lawns is three times the acreage we plant in corn. This according to a new NASA and NOAA study.

CURWOOD: Whoa, that’s a lot of turf, no pun intended. And the resources and money that go into lawn care?

DYKSTRA: Well there’s a noted researcher at Duke, Bill Chameides who pulled together some numbers on this a while back:  30 to 60 percent of residential water use is outside – lawns, gardens, pools, There's $30 billion a year in the lawn care economy, 30,000 tons of synthetic pesticides and three million tons of fertilizers a year used on lawns, 800 million gallons of gasoline used, seventeen million gallons spilled, by lawnmowers and weed whackers.  One final number, going back to the “states” theme:  If those 63,000 square miles of lawn were their own state, they’d be the 21st biggest in America, just smaller than Washington State, just bigger than Florida.

CURWOOD: So sometimes green is … not so green.  Let’s move on to the history calendar now.

DYKSTRA: With all the observations of Katrina’s tenth anniversary, and a renewed focus on how environmental burdens fall on poor and minority communities.  Its time to remember that August 31st is the 25th anniversary of the seminal book on environmental justice, “Dumping in Dixie.”  The author, Bob Bullard, has been called the Father of the Environmental Justice Movement.  His book made a compelling case for addressing the deep injustices in who carries the biggest environmental risks, often in poor factory towns, near waste dumps, or inner city neighborhoods. A quarter of a century later, many environmental activists still say that government, big environmental groups, and the news media are slow to act on, or even understand, the problems. My favorite quote is one from the Reverend Jesse Jackson years ago, who pointed out that you’ll never find a nuclear waste dump in Beverly Hills.

CURWOOD: I don't imagine you'll find a solid waste transfer station there, or a sewage treatment plant for that matter, huh?


CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra, the publisher of Environmental Health News, that's EHN.org, and the DailyClimate.org. Thanks so much for taking the time Peter, we’ll talk to you soon.

DYKSTRA: OK, Steve. Thanks a lot. We'll talk to you soon.

Related links:
- American Lung Association’s list of Most Polluted Cites
- EPA’s superfund cleanup priority list
- “The American Lawn Is Now The Largest Single 'Crop' In The U.S.”
- “Statistically Speaking: Lawns by the Numbers”
- More about Dumping in Dixie

Back to top

CURWOOD: And there’s more on these stories at our website, LOE.org.

[MUSIC: “Theme from the Beverly Hillbillies,” Prosound Karaoke, Prosound Karaoke Volume 6, Orchard Enterprises, 2014]]

Endangered Porpoise Caught in the Web of Illegal Fishing

Totoaba swim bladder for sale in a Chinese market (Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency)

CURWOOD: The Gulf of California is one of the world’s most productive and diverse fishing regions. Thousands of families in Mexico and the US depend on the more than 900 fish, invertebrate and whale species that call these waters home. While the Gulf of California supports over 70 percent of Mexico’s fishing industry it also plays host to many endangered marine species. But Mexico has a history of lax fishing regulation enforcement, and now overfishing of one endangered fish is driving the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita, toward extinction.

Andy Read is a professor of marine biology at Duke University and a member of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita and the IUCN cetacean specialist group, and he explained the situation to Living on Earth’s Emmett FitzGerald.

FITZGERALD: So first off, tell us a little bit about this porpoise. What is that the vaquita?

READ: Well, it's one of the six species of porpoises. It's the smallest porpoise and thus us the smallest whale. It reaches only a length of about four or five feet. It's found exclusively in the Upper Gulf of California completely in Mexican waters and it's also the most endangered whale population of certainly less than a hundred individuals left now and we're very concerned about its status.

FITZGERALD: Yes, so tell me about that. What are those primary threats to the vaquita?

READ: The vaquita lives in an area that is intensively fished by Mexican fishermen three villages in the Upper Gulf of California, so for a long time it's being caught accidentally in nets set for shrimp or other fish. And this has driven the population from the size of something around 500 about 20 years ago to every small population, less than a hundred today. Exacerbating that decline recently has been entanglement in nets that have been set illegally for another endangered species. This is an endangered species of fish called the totoaba, a large croaker or sea bass and the bladders from that fish are taken, then dried, then smuggled from Mexico sometimes through the United States to China where they are used in traditional medicine.

FITZGERALD: So basically the commercial take of one endangered fish species is not only harming that species, but driving another porpoise to extension as well?

READ: Exactly, and it's important to remember that it's illegal fishery because the totoaba itself is endangered that's been protected by the government of Mexico for a couple decades now so it's illegal to catch totoaba, it's illegal to trade totoaba on the international market, so we're really looking at an illegal fishery in an illegal smuggling venture that is driving one species to extinction.

A lone vaquita. (Photo: Tom Jefferson via Instituto Nacional de Ecologia y Cambia Climatico)

FITZGERALD: So tell me a little bit about the totoaba. What's the incentive to harvest these fish illegally?

READ: Right, they're very large fish, they're a little bigger than the vaquitas actually, about two meters long, six feet long and they're a Croaker, and so they produce sound by circulating against the swim bladders. So their swim bladders are pretty big, and fisherman can receive up to about $8,500 per kilo - dried totoaba swim bladder, so there's an enormous incentive for fishermen to set nets illegally for these totoaba. And for reasons that we don't completely understand, vaquitas seem in particular to be vulnerable to entanglement, the nets that are set for these large croakers. So a fisherman who might catch four or five totoaba in his net might also catch one of the last vaquitas as well, and we're worried that that accidental mortality that bycatch of vaquitas is what's going to drive them to extinction.

FITZGERALD: Yeah, and it's hard in thinking from the perspective of a fisherman in Mexico, it's hard to blame the individual fisherman for making a decision like that when there is so much money to be made. From your perspective how do you handle the fact that this is a logical economic choice for fishermen in Mexico?

READ: It's a very difficult question. I think we need to help the Mexican authorities ensure that fishing can be done on a sustainable basis in the Upper Gulf, and fishing totoaba the way they've been prosecuted now is just not going to be sustainable over the long-term. The fish stock itself can't sustain the level of mortality that it's experiencing, so we need to help those communities develop sustainable fisheries so that they can continue to live and make a living from the Upper gulf, and that's fishing in different ways, fishing species that can sustain the fishing pressure that will provide for those communities.

FITZGERALD: What protections and regulations are in place in Mexico to help stop the illegal take of the totoaba and thus the vaquita bycatch as well?

READ: Well, I have to say the government of Mexico has really stepped up to try and protect the vaquita. Earlier this decade they established a vaquita refuge in which gillnet fishing was banned so that the vaquita would've been safe in there had there not been not been illegal fishing for the totoaba. And earlier this year President Peña Nieto announced a two-year program in which all gillnet fishing would be banned from the Upper Gulf of California. And that's an expensive program. There's more than $30 million compensation going to fishing families and fishing industries in the Upper Gulf so that some of the illegal side of things. Illegal fishing really just requires enforcement and so when the president of Mexico went to San Felipe in April to announce the program he also brought with them several new patrol boats that the Mexican Navy is using to try and combat this little fishing. But it's a large area with a lot of fishermen and it's difficult to eliminate a fishery like that especially one that is so lucrative. So we are very concerned that enforcement efforts won't be sufficient and that vaquitas will continue to die in nets set for totoaba.

Man holding totoaba with vaquita on net (Photo: NOAA)

FITZGERALD: What can the United States do or what is the United States doing to try to save the vaquita?

READ: Well, the United States is doing several things. First of all, scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service are working with their colleagues in Mexico to assess the status of the vaquita. There will be a survey conducted later this year jointly from researchers in Mexico and the US government. The US is also working to try and intercept illegal shipments of totoaba bladders from Mexico to China. There have been several cases recently in which totoaba bladders have been seized, so folks at the border are doing what they can to try and stem the flow, but again, it's very difficult to eliminate that, and as long as there's a path from Mexico to China somehow, there will be an incentive to set their nets illegally in the Upper Gulf.

FITZGERALD: What can be done in terms of the fishing gear itself to try to reduce bycatch of these endangered species like the vaquita?

READ: Yeah, that's a good question. So the government of Mexico together with several NGOs, environmental NGOs, have been working to develop more environmentally sustainable ways of fishing in the Upper Gulf. So most of the shrimp and the fish that are harvested there are caught with what we refer to as gillnets. These are long panels of nets that are just left in the water to entangle fish and shrimp. And so we've been trying to promote alternative ways to catch fish and shrimp that would not capture the vaquita, and those primarily are small trawls that are dragged behind the Pangas, the fishing boats that the fishermen use, and the vaquitas are able to avoid those nets so there's much less chance of a vaquita becoming killed in one of those nets than one of these entangling gill nets.

Scientists estimate that there are less than 100 vaquita left in the world. (Photo: Tom Jefferson via Instituto Nacional de Ecologia y Cambia Climatico)

FITZGERALD: And you think it's likely that that kind of technology can be rolled out across the fishing fleet?

READ: I think it's a big ask in the kind of two years that we have in the program that Mexico's announced so far, but it's not impossible. But again, even if we're successful doing that, if the illegal fishing for totoaba continues I think that will be enough to drive the species to extension regardless of what we do with all the legal fisheries in the area.

FITZGERALD: At this point how do you rate their chances for recovery to the vaquita?

READ: Good question. I refuse to give up. There was a sighting of a vaquita in the gulf earlier this year. I'm really interested to see what the survey encounters later this year. I try to be optimistic that enforcement efforts will be sufficient to stop the illegal fishing, but we really are at the last second to the last minute for the species. It's very dire.

FITZGERALD: Why do you think it's important to work to save a species like this? There are so many different dolphins and porpoises. What makes the vaquita unique or, in general, why is important to save particular species?

READ: Well, I think there are a couple reasons for the vaquita. First of all, it's Mexico's porpoise. It's not found anywhere else. It's an endemic to the Upper Gulf of California. So if we lose it, Mexico will never have another porpoise, and the people of Mexico will have lost part of their biodiversity in really what is a completely preventable manner. And then secondly, I think, you know, each time we lose a species - this'll be the second species of a dolphin we’ll have lost in 25 years - we lost the Baiji River dolphin in China really recently. It's just another piece of the biodiversity of the Earth that we're losing, and I think we need to fight against each loss species by species, population by population.

Related links:
- Check out Andy Read’s lab
- More about the vaquita on Andy Revkin’s dotearth blog
- “How China’s fish bladder investment craze is wiping out species on the other side of the planet”
- The Environmental Investigation Agency is one of the non-profits working to protect the vaquita

Back to top

CURWOOD: Marine biologist Andy Read of Duke University spoke with Living on Earth’s Emmett FitzGerald.

Unseen Ocean Migrations

An enormous flock of Sooty Shearwaters travel south for New Zealand. (Photo: J. Maughn FCC)



CURWOOD: As we slide increasingly away from the summer vacation travel season – many birds are contemplating trips of their own – some even go halfway around the world. And though many of us like to watch geese and the like heading south down the great flyways that cross the country – there’s a massive migration that we miss, as Michael Stein explains in today’s BirdNote®.

[Sounds of waves, gulls]

South Polar Skua heads for its winter breeding grounds on Antarctic coasts near the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans (Photo: Tony Morris FCC)

STEIN: Late August is a fine time to walk the ocean beach. Weather is growing mild; gulls jabber overhead; waves gently lap the sand. But look out to sea: if your eyes could take you beyond the horizon, you would see an astonishing scene.
A vast migration is taking place. Offshore, over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, millions of seabirds are on the move. Most are heading south, migrating past the US coastlines in August and September.

Fierce, predatory jaegers that nested on the Arctic tundra are flying south to winter on tropical oceans. Arctic Terns and skuas are departing on an epic journey, flying all the way to Antarctic waters.

[Arctic Tern]

STEIN: Shearwaters in the tens of millions leave northern oceans to nest in the Southern Hemisphere, many near New Zealand. Even puffins bid farewell to their shoreline nesting cliffs now, scattering widely across the open ocean for the winter.

[Sounds of waves, gulls]

STEIN: Meanwhile, back on the beach with the warm August sand between our toes, we relax. We squint out into the distant blue. Above the glimmering sea, is that a single shearwater we see, tipping above the horizon? A straggler, maybe? And a clue to that immense migration taking place just beyond our sight.

I am Michael Stein.

An Arctic Tern migrates from Arctic and sub-Arctic regions down to its breeding grounds on the Antarctic coast. Depending on the birds’ destinations, roundtrips average between 44,100 and 56,000 miles. (Photo: Joseph Slocum FCC)


Written by Bob Sundstrom
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Ring-Billed Gull 169780 recorded by Jay MacGowan; Arctic Tern 138232 recorded by Gerrit Vyn.
Surf sounds: Surf Small Detailed SFX #21; Surf Moderate SFX #23; and Surf Distant SFX #27 from Nature Essentials recorded by Gordon Hempton of QuietPlanet.com
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org August 2015 Narrator: Michael Stein


Related links:
- More about overseas bird migrations on BirdNote
- The amazing 1,600-mile, open-water migration of half-ounce songbirds

Back to top

CURWOOD: You’ll find photos if you migrate over to our website, LOE.org.

[MUSIC: “Dengue Fever” Master Kong Nai, Sleepwalking through the Mekong, M80, 2009]

CURWOOD: Next time on Living on Earth, exotic tropical diseases are reappearing down south in the US.

ARNOLD: Things like Dengue and Chikungunya and Chagas disease...we really have no idea they’re even here let alone what kind of disease burden that they’re causing.

CURWOOD: Decades of ignoring a public health risk have come back to bite us. That’s next time on Living on Earth.



CURWOOD: We leave you this week splashing in the waves in the Caribbean Sea…


CURWOOD: This is a noisy pod of dolphins, diving and calling to each other off the coast of Punta Allen in Mexico’s Yucatan.


CURWOOD: Felix Blume recorded these dolphins in July 2012, using a hydrophone from a boat, and posted them on SoundCloud.

[MUSIC: “Happy Day” Jake Shimabukuro, Time for Three, University Music Classics, 2014]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation and brought to you from the campus of the University of Massachusetts Boston, in association with its School for the Environment, developing the next generation of environmental leaders. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Lauren Hinkel, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, Jenni Doering, John Duff, and Jennifer Marquis. And we bid a fond farewell to our excellent intern, Shannon Kelleher, and wish her all the best. Tom Tiger engineered our show, with help from Jake Rego, Noel Flatt and Jeff Wade. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org, and like us, please, on our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingOnEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER1: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communication and collaboration in solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems. The Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet, and Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change.

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