Exxon Denied its Own Climate Research
(stream / mp3)
Investigations by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times reveal that Exxon’s scientists and top management, informed by the company’s own ambitious climate research, had grasped the import of climate change by the early 1980s. ICN reporter Neela Banerjee tells host Steve Curwood how they discovered the research and how top Exxon management nevertheless cast doubt on the facts of global warming, starting in the late 1990s. (10:50)
Exxon Denies Allegations in Investigative Reports
(stream / mp3)
ExxonMobil objects to the claims brought by InsideClimate News and the LA Times that its internal discussions on climate change and outward presentation of its research and actions didn’t match up. Ken Cohen, vice president of public and government affairs for ExxonMobil, joined host Steve Curwood to explain why the company feels it’s been misrepresented by the reporting. (06:45)
Lawmakers Press For Exxon Investigation
(stream / mp3)
After learning of Exxon’s early knowledge of the global warming threat, Senator Bernie Sanders and two Congressmen from California wrote letters to the US Attorney General, asking the department of Justice to investigate whether Exxon deliberately misled the public and racketeering charges might be appropriate. Congressman Mark DeSaulnier tells host Steve Curwood what inspired him to take this step. (02:00)
McKibben Arrested To Draw Attention to the Exxon Allegations
(stream / mp3)
Writer Bill McKibben was so shocked and angered by the revelations of Exxon’s early knowledge of climate change that he protested at his local Exxon filling station and was arrested. He tells host Steve Curwood why he thinks everyone should know about the allegations of Exxon’s misconduct. (06:35)
Beyond the Headlines/ Peter Dykstra
(stream / mp3)
In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra tells host Steve Curwood that Americans are using the money saved from low gas prices to buy pricier petroleum, and how the fallacy of “green diesel” polluted Europe’s fuel landscape. And twenty-five years ago, the British Royal Geographic Society announced their pick for the “worst environmental disaster”, the Aral Sea, drained to irrigate cotton fields. (04:15)
Canada Shifts Left and Greener
(stream / mp3)
The newly elected Canadian Prime Minister is Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, taking the reins from the Conservative Party’s Stephen Harper. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Reuter’s investigative resources correspondent Mike De Souza about the status of Canada’s environmental policies and how incoming Prime Minister Trudeau might reconcile Canada’s extraction-based economy with more of a conservation ethic. (08:15)
The Creole Pig/ Allison Griner
(stream / mp3)
In Haiti, the creole pig was a staple of the peasant economy, bringing families economic stability, devouring food waste and occasionally becoming an religious sacrifice. But as Allison Griner reports, disease killed many creole pigs and American efforts to control the swine flu took the rest. Efforts to replace the pig failed, but now peasant farmers are slowly rebuilding the creole pig herd. (08:15)
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Neela Banerjee, Ken Cohen, Bill McKibben, Mike De Souza
REPORTERS: Allison Griner, Peter Dykstra
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Investigative reporting reveals scientists at ExxonMobil did groundbreaking research into global warming in the 1970s.
BANERJEE: Exxon knew that if the science was correct, that at some point, governments would take action to reign in emissions of carbon dioxide. And they felt that the best way to shape policy was to do really good science, to be taken seriously, in order to have a seat at the table.
CURWOOD: But two decades later, Exxon executives questioned the reality of climate change. Their spokesman says these stories skew the facts.
COHEN: What is wrong in those stories is the reporting would seem to indicate that that research stopped at some point. It has never stopped; in fact, our scientists have been a consistent part of the scientific inquiry.
CURWOOD: That and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around.
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
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 at the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Investigative reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times alleges that Exxon was at the cutting edge of climate change research in the late 70s and early 80s, and understood that burning fossil fuels would warm the planet in destructive ways. But the reporting also found Exxon later worked to seed doubt on the climate science and funded climate-denying organizations. Neela Banerjee is one of the lead reporters on the six-part InsideClimate News investigation. Neela, welcome to Living on Earth.
BANERJEE: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: So this is quite an investigation, eight months long, I gather. Take us back to where you started.
BANERJEE: We started looking into early climate research by academics and the federal government here in the United States, and in the process of looking at what those people were doing, we found out that scientists from Exxon had peer-reviewed research accepted in journals in the early 1980s. So that piqued our interest because a lot of us know the history of Exxon post-1990 when they worked on clouding understanding of climate change, so from there we just started looking around. We came across a Congressional hearing in 1979 and as a lark I just decided to search if somebody from Exxon was there, and there was. It was a man named Henry Shaw, and we started googling Henry Shaw, who is he? That led to a paper that he did about a tanker that had been outfitted with equipment to measure carbon dioxide in the ocean and the atmosphere, and from there hopscotched from person-to-person, archives and amassed the body of work that supports our series now.
CURWOOD: Just briefly summarize your findings for me please.
BANERJEE: What we found was that as far back as 1977, everybody from rank-and-file scientists at Exxon, all the way up to the executive suites knew about climate change and the emerging science then which was called the greenhouse effect. Exxon monitored the science, and most interesting of all, from what we can tell, Exxon was probably the only major company that launched its own in-house very rigorous climate science research effort.
CURWOOD: And how much of a risk did they say the greenhouse effect, climate change, would be for civilization?
BANERJEE: They understood very clearly that it was a significant risk to civilization even as far back as 1977, they said that rising temperatures could destroy agriculture in many places, could shift precipitation patterns. And the end goal of all of this for Exxon was that they knew that if the science was correct, that at some point governments would take action to reign in emissions of carbon dioxide, and they felt at the time that the best way to shape policy was to do really good science, to be taken seriously in order to have a seat at the table.
CURWOOD: Neela, by the way, what exactly was the tanker research project on carbon that you discovered?
BANERJEE: Very early, I think this was 1977, 78, the science community really wanted to know the role that the oceans played in absorbing the carbon dioxide that was being emitted by the use of fossil fuels. So Exxon thought, we have the resources to somehow help solve this question, and they outfitted one of their brand new supertankers - the Esso Atlantic, it was one of the biggest in the world - with especially made equipment to gather air samples along its route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf and also samples of ocean water to see how the oceans were absorbing CO2, and they felt that if they did this over a period of time you could get a regular continuous reading and it would help scientists understand the role that the oceans played.
CURWOOD: Now, InsideClimate News and Frontline cooperated to produce a short video about your investigation. Let's listen to the clip of former Exxon scientist Edward Garvey talking about the research you're describing.
GARVEY: We were generating what we thought was state-of-the-art information. We were doing science that we didn't think in any way, shape, or form would be questioned. And there was no questioning that the atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing, that atmospheric carbon dioxide was going to change the climate in some fashion. The question was how fast, how much, and what kind of impacts would it have overall to the planet.
CURWOOD: So, all this information was presented to Exxon's top executives. I mean, you're talking about the very top of the company?
BANERJEE: We are talking about the very top of the company. The scientist in 1977 who made this presentation, his name was Jim Black, and he said he made it to the management committee of Exxon Corporation - the chairman, the CEO, and the senior vice presidents, and you can find them on the annual report - and they're not going to make time in their busy schedules for something that is not of great significance to the company. That was one instance, but there were many others that the documents support and you can find them on our website. We've digitized all whole bunch of key documents, probably over 20 now. Exxon's scientists and managers from Exxon research and engineering which was the hub of the research regularly sent detailed updates to senior vice presidents who were members of the management committee about the research. Something like the tanker project which required coordination across many different divisions of Exxon could only occur if you had someone from the senior VP level sign off on it, former Exxon officials told us, and then we had this one lovely memo where an Exxon manager from research and engineering described getting into a quite detailed discussion with a senior vice president about the way the carbon cycle works and the role the oceans play, so clearly this senior VP was well read enough, was engaged enough on this issue to be having a passionate discussion with one of his managers about it.
CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, Exxon's CEO back in 1996, Lee Raymond, was trained as a chemical engineer, is that right?
BANERJEE: That is right.
CURWOOD: So let's play another clip, this time of Lee Raymond speaking in 1996.
RAYMOND: Proponents of the global warming theory say that higher levels of greenhouse gases are causing world temperatures to rise, and that burning fossil fuels is the reason. But scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate.
CURWOOD: Neela, according to your investigation that's almost 20 years after Exxon scientists began warning of the possibility of greenhouse gas emissions causing world temperatures to rise and disrupt the climate. What's going on here? What is the CEO talking about when Exxon knew about this?
BANERJEE: Well, you know, I think that's the question that everybody has to unearth, right? Why did the shift occur? Our documents go to 1986, and a lot of the people we spoke to left with mass layoffs at the company in the mid 80s for financial reasons from what we could tell. By 1989, Exxon was one of the founders of this group called Global Climate Coalition, which sounds very green but, in fact, was a group of fossil fuel companies and major manufacturers that were working to stall action on climate change that the UN was considering. So what happened in '86 to '89 is hard to say. We have some insight into it, there was a management change, there was also a rise of political conservatism that put the wind in the sails of business in this country and business's way of thinking about less regulation and so on. The interesting thing about Lee Raymond is that Mr. Raymond joined the Exxon board in 1984. He became a senior vice president then. In the 1980s, Exxon was looking at this massive gas field in the South China Sea called Natuna and the gas field was delayed over and over again because it was this weird formation where there is natural gas but a ton of CO2, and if they just vented the CO2 into the atmosphere while they were reaping the gas, it would've been the single largest point source of carbon dioxide in the world. Every year, the board including Lee Raymond told the staffers, “you cannot go ahead with this project unless you find a way to deal with CO2”. And then 10 years later, he had a very different approach to the threat that CO2 posed to the atmosphere. That project, by the way, is still mothballed.
CURWOOD: Another news organization, the Los Angeles Times, recently began publishing its own series on the gulf between Exxon's external and internal dialogue on climate disruption. To what extent were these investigations, yours and the LA Times, independent?
BANERJEE: Oh, they were independent. Back in the late winter when we started to do this research, when we started to talk to people who are mainly watchdogs, we heard that graduate students from Columbia's Journalism School were working on it and later on we found out that their partner on it was the LA Times. So we weren't coordinating with them at all, we just knew they were working on a similar track, and I thought they did a very good article that completed the picture. Our research went up to about 1986, but we did not look at the Arctic, and I thought the LA Times and Columbia J. School people did an excellent job of filling in this kind of questionable and contradictory picture where you have Lee Raymond casting doubt on climate change happening publicly, but internally Exxon scientists are looking at climate change and greater melting in the Arctic and how that might open up access to resources, oil and gas resources in the Arctic.
CURWOOD: I'm sure Exxon has been in touch with you a number of times in this process and then seeing what you have published. What do they claim you've gotten wrong?
BANERJEE: Well, what Exxon has said is that InsideClimate has written that they stopped doing climate research and they suppressed the results that they had, and we've not said either thing. I think the verb we used was “curtailed” because we're very aware that Exxon did a lot of ambitious research until about 1986 or so, but they continued doing research after that. What the articles do take up, and we haven't got a satisfactory answer from Exxon about this is why did Exxon shift its position from doing rigorous peer-reviewed science in order to have a constructive voice in policymaking, to founding the GCC and to having its chief executive cast doubt on climate science. He derided the very models, the very kinds of modeling that his scientists were doing 10 years before. That is really the nub of it, that shift that occurred.
CURWOOD: Neela Banerjee is a reporter with InsideClimate news. Neela, thanks so much for taking the time today.
BANERJEE: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: And you’ll find links to all their stories and more at our website LOE.org.
- InsideClimate News investigative report “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”
- LA Times and Columbia School of Journalism investigative report, “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic”
- Exxon documents curated by InsideClimate News
- ExxonMobil response: “Climate Research Stories Inaccurate and Deliberately Misleading”
- ExxonMobil statement: “ExxonMobil’s commitment to climate science”
- “Exxon CEO: Let’s wait for science to improve before solving problem of climate change”
- Democrats Request a DOJ Investigation Into ExxonMobil, Alleging Climate Science Coverup
- ExxonMobil’s partnership with Indonesia on Natuna gas field development
[MUSIC: Joe Bonamassa/Muddy Waters, “Tiger in your Tank”, Live at Newport]
CURWOOD: Just ahead...Exxon sees its role in climate science research differently. We take a listen. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Fiorenzo Carpi/Bruskers Guitar Duo, Theme from Pinocchio, from An Idea of Valentina Maddalena Lugli]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Well, it’s no surprise that ExxonMobil thinks it has been misrepresented by InsideClimateNews and the LA Times. So we called up Ken Cohen, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs. Ken Cohen, welcome back to Living on Earth.
COHEN: Steve, thanks for having me back.
CURWOOD: Ken, first, what's your reaction to the recent InsideClimate News and the LA Times investigations?
COHEN: Well, I don't think it'll surprise you or the listeners to the show that we very much disagree with both of those reports. They stretch far from the truth and, in fact, nothing could be further than the truth then what is being claimed in those two stories.
CURWOOD: What in particular do you feel that they got wrong?
COHEN: Well let's begin with...we're a company of scientists and engineers, and our scientists and engineers were among the first to grapple with the fact that there could be a connection between carbon dioxide emissions from society's use of fossil fuels and climate fluctuations. And so, we did have scientists beginning in the late 1970s and continuing to this day engaged in studying the impact of CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions on climate. What is wrong in those stories is the reporting would seem to indicate that research stopped at some point - it has never stopped. In fact, our scientists have participated in every UN climate assessment beginning in 1988. We've been a part - our scientists that is - have been a part of the assessment process. Our scientists have contributed over 50 papers that were reviewed by the collective body of scientists studying this very complex subject. In addition we've been part of creating some of the most sophisticated modeling programs at research institutions in the country. Our scientists have been a consistent part of the scientific inquiry.
CURWOOD: Well, taking a look at the InsideClimate News articles, I don't see a claim that Exxon stopped climate research altogether. What I do see them claiming is that Exxon continued to conduct research while publicly casting doubt on climate science. So how do you explain this discrepancy between the private and public discussions of climate change?
COHEN: Again, I take issue with that part of the report. Our participation in the discussions on public policy response to how does society respond to this risk of climate change pretty much mirrors the IPCC findings during the relevant period, that is, our positions evolved over the period 1988 to the present time as the science evolved. Now, it is true, Steve, that during that period we were part of a large business group that opposed the US adoption of the Kyoto Protocol back in the late 90s, and the reason was that the Kyoto treaty would have exempted over two-thirds of the world emitters, and we felt that that was inappropriate policy given the nature of the source of greenhouse gas emissions and what would have to be done to have an effective response. Later over that time when the Waxman cap and trade bill was being debated in what was then the Democratically controlled House of Representatives, we took issue, as did many in the business community, because it would've exempted coal. So we did two things simultaneously, we supported scientific inquiry and we also participated in policy discussions.
CURWOOD: How you explain the piece of tape that the InsideClimate News folks along with Frontline unearthed that has Exxon's CEO in 1996, that would be Lee Raymond, saying that let me quote directly, "Proponents of the global warming theory say that higher levels of greenhouse gases are causing world temperatures to rise and that burning fossil fuels is the reason. Scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate." And yet, your inside researchers had this math saying the more fossil fuels we burn, the more we will affect the climate. How do you reconcile your own CEO's statement with your own internal research findings?
COHEN: Well, I'm not really going to comment on a speech given 18, 19 years ago, although when one reads the whole speech it is consistent with the overall scientific consensus at the time. Remember, the scientific view and understanding of this issue has evolved as one would expect it to do, the understanding would evolve over time. Scientists that were quoted in the story working for the Exxon research facility were correctly identifying the potential impact that increased greenhouse gas emissions could have over time if unabated applying the principles of the greenhouse effect. Both are consistent. Now where we focus our work is in the area of both understanding the science and then recognizing that the climate risks are real and that actions are warranted, but we need to recognize that the solutions aren't easy. They're going to take time, huge investments, and thoughtful policies. I don't if you saw, Steve, the recent interview...
CURWOOD: But, but, but Mr. Cohen, your CEO in 1996 is saying that humans don't have a role here, that science doesn't show that humans have a role there, but clearly your science teams...
COHEN: No – well again I'm not going to, Steve, I'm not Mr. Raymond's speech 18 years ago. Again when you read the entire speech it is consistent with the debate that was going on at the time, and it's also consistent with the work that we had going on at the time which is this is a very complicated subject and we need to understand it better.
CURWOOD: Ken Cohen is Vice President of Public and Government Affairs for Exxon Mobil. Ken, thanks for taking the time today with us.
COHEN: Steve, thank you very much.
- ExxonMobil: “Climate Research Stories Inaccurate and Deliberately Misleading”
- ExxonMobil statement: “ExxonMobil’s commitment to climate science”
- InsideClimate News’ investigative report, “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”
- LA Times and Columbia School of Journalism investigative report “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic”
- Our previous discussion with Ken Cohen on carbon regulation and business’s bottom line
CURWOOD: Meantime some members of Congress, including Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are questioning whether the published stories show ExxonMobil broke any laws when the oil giant spoke out against the science it had itself help to pioneer. Senator Sanders called on the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation. He wrote, “These reports, if true, raise serious allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry’s actions...conduct that led to racketeering convictions."
Sanders added, “It appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse.”
Two Democrats on the House side, Congressmen Mark DeSaulnier, and Ted Lieu have also called on the Justice Department to investigate Exxon’s actions.
Congressman DeSaulnier says the revelations in the articles really took him by surprise.
DESAULNIER: I’ve been in politics a long time. I’ve got four refineries in the county that I represent so I’ve dealt with the petroleum companies. I was on the California Air Resources Board for 10 years. So I’m not unfamiliar with them, but I was shocked.
CURWOOD: The years lost to climate denial cannot be recovered. But Congressman DeSaulnier says he hopes that calling Exxon to account will help America and its corporations set a better future.
DESAULNIER: When you follow this process with Exxon, in the transition from being a responsible corporate citizen to being one who only cared about near-term profits, and I would say that has happened to far too many American corporations. Maybe this is an opportunity where we can change our corporate culture where people return in the boardrooms to being more responsible.
CURWOOD: California Congressman Mark DeSaulnier.
- Letter to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch from Reps. DeSaulnier and Lieu
- Senator Bernie Sanders' Letter to US Attorney Genera Loretta Lynch
- Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA)
- Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA)
CURWOOD: Our story would not be complete without including an unusual move by writer Bill McKibben. The climate activist took action to get himself arrested at an ExxonMobil gas station, and he joins us now to explain. Welcome back to the show, Bill.
MCKIBBEN: Steve, it’s always a pleasure to join you.
CURWOOD: So, what motivated you to get arrested and how did you make this decision?
MCKIBBEN: Well, it's actually a good question. I'm not sure anyone's gone out and got arrested before in order to persuade people to read somebody else's newspaper article, but these stories are so important, they rewrite what we understand about the most important crisis humans have ever faced, and I had begun to fear that they might begin to disappear into the inordinate clutter of our media life, and people wouldn't pay them the attention that they manifestly deserve and so I thought this might be one small gesture. It seems in some way to have worked. By the end of the day, according to some friends at Facebook, it was trending at the top on Facebook until it was displaced by a corgi barking at a miniature pumpkin.
CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Maybe next time you should wear a Corgi suit.
MCKIBBEN: [LAUGHS] I think so.
CURWOOD: So, you wrote a blog post at one point in which you said, “In the 28 years I've been following the story of global warming, this is the single most outrageous set of new revelations that journalists have uncovered”. Why did this story strike such a chord with you and why is it so important for people to read these stories?
MCKIBBEN: Well, partly, of course, it struck a chord with me, Steve, because, like you, I've been covering this story from the very start. I wrote my first book about climate change. So I've watched with a great deal of anguish as we failed to take action for 30 years, and as I read these stories, what became clear was two things. One, that the story showed Exxon knew absolutely everything there was to know about climate change beginning in the late 1970s, by the mid-1980s they had computer models that matched exactly what we've seen since, by the early 1990s they were using that information to help them bid on new parcels for oil drilling in the melting Arctic and so on. That's one thing. The other was that meant Exxon could have been maybe the one force on Earth that could've short-circuited this 30 years of faux debate. If in the late 1980s when Jim Hansen at NASA first stood up in the Congress and said, "We're warming the planet and it's going to be a disaster;” if at that moment, Exxon executives had stood up and said, "You know what, our internal science shows the guy is right, we're in a real mess", they would have been the one institution with credibility unique enough to bring everybody on board. Instead, of course, they lied. Their CEO stood up in front of the leadership of the Chinese government and told them that the globe was cooling, told them that the models were nonsense, told them to go full speed ahead with fossil fuel development. They helped work with veterans of the tobacco industry to formulate the same strategy of sowing scientific doubt. They did everything they could to make sure that no one knew and that's a remarkable thing to have done.
CURWOOD: What part of this story were you most shocked by?
MCKIBBEN: Well, I think the part that interested me the most was the depth of Exxon's research into this in the early days, back in the 70s and early 80s, and I think that's because we've kind of forgotten what the world was like then. Big companies took it almost as their duty to do a lot of basic research. It was at Dell Labs that we discovered the Big Bang, more or less, right? because they were doing basic research on propagation of waves and things. It stands to reason that Exxon, biggest company on Earth, would know more about the carbon molecule than anybody else, and there they were, hard at work outfitting supertankers with CO2 monitors so they could figure out how much it was accumulating blatancy. That part shocked me maybe in a good way. The other part that shocked me was just the blatancy of their lying about all of this. And I think that it's important for people not to say, “oh we knew this all along, why would anyone be shocked?” I think its important to let ourselves be shocked. To be knowing and be cynical like that is to play right into their hands. What they did was wrong on a scale that we may not have scale for, it may be as off the charts as the temperatures now are going off the charts.
CURWOOD: So how do you think these allegations are going to impact the work that you and others in the climate movement are doing?
MCKIBBEN: I don't really know. I think this is a very fluid moment. We're getting ready to go to Paris for this climate conference, and, of course, the oil industry will be trying to greenwash itself and exert its usual influence there. I think it's going to be a big wake-up call to people. Among other things, as you know, even before these revelations, the last three years have seen an astonishing growth of this fossil fuel divestment from around the world to the point where endowments of $2.6 trillion are now beginning to divest from fossil fuel, California state government being among the latest. I think this will only increase that, along with the fact that these stocks are tanking and losing people money. The fact that you're in bed with people committing misdeeds on this kind of scale should give all but the very most callous investors some kind of pause. So, we'll see what happens. I think the most important thing is simply for people to read and internalize and understand this. If we're going to go through the pain we're going to go through in the next generation or two, and clearly that pain even if we act now to stop climate change, that pain is going to be severe - look at the last two weeks, we've had thousand-year rainfall events in South Carolina and California. As we speak today, they're still trying to dig the mud out of the highways of California so cars can drive on them again. That kind of stuff happens everywhere in the world now and it's going to keep happening. If we're going to go through that kind of pain, at the very least, we deserve to understand the source of it and where it came from.
CURWOOD: Bill McKibben is a writer, activist, co-founder of the environmental organization 350.org. Bill, thank you so much.
MCKIBBEN: Take care, guys.
[MUSIC: Fiorenzo Carpi/Bruskers Guitar Duo, Theme from Pinocchio, from An Idea of Valentina Maddalena Lugli]
CURWOOD: After all that headline news, let’s go digging beyond the headlines. As usual, we turn to Peter Dykstra with Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org, and the DailyClimate.org. He’s on the line now from Conyers, Georgia. Hi there, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Hi, Steve. Let’s start things off with a little vent.
CURWOOD: OK, but hey, keep it clean and don’t let your head explode all right?
DYKSTRA: It’s a deal. You’ve talked a lot about Exxon here today, but here’s a little more petroleum-related news. There’s a report out from the think-tank wing of one of the world’s financial giants – specifically the JP Morgan Chase Institute. With a pedigree like that, you’ve got to assume they know a thing or two about huge financial mistakes.
CURWOOD: Ahh, still mad at that little collapse back in 2008, are you?
DYKSTRA: Yeah, but that’s not my vent. The JP Morgan Chase Institute studied how consumers are responding to lower gasoline prices, down about a $1.50 from just over 18 months ago. Are we socking away our petro-savings? Are we paying off our credit cards or student loans? Are we sending it to public radio? NO!! Americans are taking the money we’re saving on gasoline, and we’re spending it on gasoline. Buying more of it for longer trips, filling larger tanks on bigger vehicles, and yes – buying premium gas where regular once did the job. We’re getting a little extra disposable income, and we’re disposing it into the tank and out the tailpipe.
CURWOOD: Yeah, but isn’t that human nature?
DYKSTRA: Well, sure it is, and it has many names in psychological circles – “behavioral economics”, “mental accounting,” and more. But it’s a reminder that energy consumption and all the baggage it carries is still a pretty low priority for us.
CURWOOD: Okay, vent over, what’s next?
DYKSTRA: Let’s go from venting to a little bit of piling on. The Volkswagen scandal, about rigging diesel car engines so they fool emissions testing devices, has a lot of people thinking about diesel cars in general. Brad Plumer is a very sharp reporter for Vox.com, and he’s taken a look, not at the VW fiasco, but the overall state of cars that run on diesel. And it’s not good. For a couple of decades now, European governments have been hot for diesel, as it burns more efficiently than gasoline and would therefore produce less carbon dioxide. Thanks to tax breaks and other encouragement, diesel cars are now about one-third of all cars in the EU.
CURWOOD: And I’m guessing there’s a downside here.
DYKSTRA: Oh, you bet. A study published two years ago says that other pollutants from diesel engines like soot and nitrogen oxides, offset any gains to be had by more efficient engines. Moreover, when EU nations wrote rules that paved the way for so-called “green” diesel, they also tilted the playing field against alternative fuel vehicles, slowing their development. And finally, emissions tests for diesel cars in Europe were found to be seriously flawed – even before VW got caught, the game was rigged. Bottom line? Diesel’s promises to help with both climate change and air pollution have largely gone unfulfilled.
CURWOOD: Hmmm. So far you’re two-for-two on less-than-cheerful observations this week. Do you have anything let’s say more uplifting, say, from the annals of environmental history?
DYKSTRA: Um, no. Twenty-five years ago this week, the British Royal Geographic Society picked its winner for “Worst Environmental Disaster” in history. The near-eradication of the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake took the prize. The Aral Sea, straddling the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once 26,000 square miles, about the size of the state of West Virginia. A mega-project conceived by Josef Stalin’s regime and carried out in the 1960’s diverted both of the major rivers that feed the Aral Sea, in order to make an immense region of irrigated cotton farms. By the 1990’s, the Aral Sea had gone from West Virginia-size to Delaware-size, about one-tenth its former size, and despite rescue efforts, there’s little hope it can ever recover.
CURWOOD: Yeah and the before-and-after pictures are dramatic.
DYKSTRA: Dramatic and bizarre, ships rusting in what is now the blowing dust of a desert. And that dust contains pesticides and other contaminants from the industrial farming operations that sucked the lake dry. Let’s hope the example of the Aral Sea is a lesson learned for all time.
CURWOOD: And you can see the Aral Sea, or what’s left of it, on our website, LOE.org, along with information on all these stories. Peter Dykstra is with Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org and the DailyClimate.org. Thanks, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve. We’ll talk to you soon.
- JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute report: “How Falling Gas Prices Fuel the Consumer”
- JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute: “What would you do with your extra savings from the gas pump?”
- Europe's love affair with diesel cars has been a disaster
- The Royal Geographical Society announces the Aral Sea as the “world’s worst disaster”
- The Aral Sea Crisis
[MUSIC: Freddy Mercury/Claire Tomsett/National Saxophone Choir of Great Britain, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Sax Circus, Saxtet Publications]
CURWOOD: Coming up… O Canada. It’s all change in the Parliament up north. 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.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier/Calixa Lavallee, “Oh, Canada”]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The Presidential race is heating up across America, but north of the border, a new face from a fabled political dynasty just romped into power with a landslide win that signals considerable change. Gone is the oil-friendly Stephen Harper, and taking over as Prime Minister is the charismatic, handsome Justin Trudeau – son of popular leader Pierre Trudeau - of the left-leaning Liberal Party. Conservative Party leader Harper comes from Alberta, the hub of tar-sands extraction. Mr. Harper pushed hard for more pipelines, including the Keystone XL to bring Canadian oil to Texas. He also pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty, questioned the science of climate change, and muzzled environmental scientists. Justin Trudeau has a very different set of priorities, but still, much of the nation’s earnings do come from the extractive industries. So we called up Mike De Souza, investigative resources reporter for Reuters, to find out how Canada’s energy and environment policies might change. Welcome to the program, Mike.
DE SOUZA: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: So what has Justin Trudeau, the incoming Prime Minister put on the record in terms of how he'll deal with climate change?
DE SOUZA: So, in the most recent campaign the Liberal platform has been general. There isn't a comprehensive plan, there are no concrete targets that they're aspiring to achieve apart from a global temperature target. They say that whatever policies they introduce are designed to ensure that global warming does not exceed two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. So they talked about carbon pricing across economy, but they have said that it's up to the provinces to come up with their own individual plans of how they would achieve targets based on their unique industries in each province. There have been some promises for new spending on green energy, green infrastructure that are within the liberal platform, but a lot of it is more about the language and the tone about wanting to do better. The details, well, that remains to be seen.
CURWOOD: Today what are Canada's greenhouse gas emissions and which direction are they headed in: up or down?
DE SOUZA: I would say they've plateaued. I think Canada has generally been in the top 10 to 15 emitters in the world in terms of the absolute emissions. In terms of emissions per person I think Canada is second or third in the world. So there's a lot of parts of the Canadian economy that are becoming more efficient. The Ontario government shut down the coal-fired power plants and that had a significant impact on reducing Canada's carbon footprint. The British Columbia government introduced a carbon tax. The Québec government introduced some form of a very modest carbon tax and then announced a partnership with California on a cap and trade program that they're trying to expand to other partners including Ontario. I would say that Canada's GHGs, they could be heading in the right direction probably not fast enough, but if it is, it's because of action by provincial governments right now. Now the Alberta government is the problem, that's the area where emissions are increasing. There's a government there that has increased a carbon pricing that was already in place and it looks like they'll introduce a more comprehensive plan I would say within the next year, so possibly within the next year we're going to see some movement from Alberta that could also have a significant impact on Canada's carbon footprint going forward.
CURWOOD: So what do you expect incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do about the tar sands?
DE SOUZA: So ultimately, whatever he does here it'll have to be led I think from the Alberta government. There is a new left-leaning government, a New Democratic party government in Alberta that has promised to address it more so than any previous governments have, and so within Mr. Trudeau's platform, he is going to have to sit down with the premier of Alberta. If the Alberta government decides not to do anything maybe it's at that point that we might see a test of what Mr. Trudeau and his future government is willing to do. But right now, there's still quite a bit of uncertainty about how and if he can tackle this sector.
CURWOOD: How do you think incoming Prime Minister Trudeau will address the specific question of Keystone, the transboundary pipeline?
DE SOUZA: The Liberal Party has supported the Keystone project. They've always viewed it as a proxy in a battle about climate change, and so they support this project based on the economic benefits of it, and it’s an assumption that there would be some efforts or action to crack down on the greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands. They feel it would or could be cleaner. The Liberal Party has concerns about the environmental regulation process in Canada and changes to environmental laws that were scrapped or rewritten in the past couple of years by the Harper government. So one of the things that they promised to look or review is fixing that environmental review process.
CURWOOD: The Harper administration drew a lot of criticism for muzzling scientists who were talking about climate disruption. What do you think will be the attitude of the new Trudeau administration to having Canadian government scientists talk about findings that they're making?
DE SOUZA: They said that they'll change things. There's been long standing criticism from the Liberal Party of what is perceived to be these muzzling policies and maybe about three weeks before the election day, Justin Trudeau had released an open letter to the public service with a number of points expressing his views that he believed the government should show more respect for public servants, that he believed the previous government wasn't doing that, and he specifically mentioned the muzzling issue and said that if a Liberal government were elected, that it would put a stop to these practices. It would allow scientists to speak freely on their work, but in general I think the type of thing that we've seen in the past eight or nine years in Canada, they have made a firm commitment to put a stop to that.
CURWOOD: So the world is getting together at the climate summit in Paris, end of November, beginning of December. What will be the approach of the Trudeau government be to an international agreement on climate disruption?
DE SOUZA: So what he said so far, Steve, is that there will be a change in tone, that Canada takes this issue seriously, and I think one of the first things is he's going to be there himself. Mr. Harper, during his term in office as Prime Minister, he didn't go to any of the climate change conferences except for the Copenhagen one in 2009. So Mr. Trudeau has said that he will speak and that's the first step in signaling how important he views this issue. He has invited the premiers of each of the provinces and territories in Canada to go with them, but Mr. Trudeau has made a very open and clear and important invitation for them to all come. The problem is though he is being sworn in as Prime Minister - if I remember correctly the date is November 4 - and the Paris Summit is going to be starting a few weeks later. It doesn't give him much time to update Canada's policy and make it more comprehensive, so I believe the previous government did file submission and does have a 2030 target. My understanding is that other countries like the US, countries in Europe have told Canada they believe its submission isn't ambitious enough, so there is pressure from the other countries for Canada to do more. This is the problem that there's likely going to be more of friendly language about wanting to do something without much details. He's agreed to meet with all of the premiers again after the summit to hammer out what each of them is willing to do and what each of them can do and what each of them will do to tackle Canada's carbon footprint.
CURWOOD: Mike De Souza is an Investigative Resources correspondent for Reuters. Thank you so much for taking the time with us today.
DE SOUZA: Thank you very much, Steve.
[MUSIC: Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier/Calixa Lavallee, “Oh, Canada”]
CURWOOD: Canada isn’t our only neighbor with an election; the Caribbean nation of Haiti chose October 25th to begin its round of polling. There are multiple parties contending and even preliminary results won’t be announced until November 3rd. Part of the delay is logistical. Haiti is largely rural and lacks much in the way of infrastructure to serve the many people who live on tiny farms scattered about the countryside. And as reporter Allison Griner found as she travelled the hilly central section of Haiti, agricultural life doesn’t rely on the cash economy.
GRINER: As you ride through the Haiti's Central Plateau, you pass farm after farm, fenced in by neck-high cacti. Goats sidle by. Roosters crow. And occasionally, you'll see a fat, floppy-eared pig among them. But three decades ago, you might not have seen any pigs at all. That's because, in the late 1970s, a contagious, hemorrhagic disease called African Swine Fever had reached Haiti's shores. It had traveled from Europe to the Caribbean region, and its arrival in Haiti meant bad news for the nation's pig farmers.
CHAVANNES: [SPEAKING IN FRENCH, WITH TRANSLATION] In the Haitian peasantry, we consider the creole pig as the peasant's bank.
GRINER: That's Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, a candidate for the 2015 Haitian presidential election held on Oct 25. He rose to fame as a leader in the National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movement and a former recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Chavannes, who was born to a peasant family, says creole pigs were an important source of wealth to those with little else of value. Over 40 percent of Haiti's population lives in the countryside, where there are extremely high rates of poverty.
CHAVANNES: Why did we call the pigs banks? Because the peasant could keep his pig not far from the kitchen. And the pig would eat all sorts of trash. If I know that next year I'm going to send my son to high school, I will increase what I feed the pig so that I can sell it. It was a permanent source of security for the family.
GRINER: But the creole pig meant more than just money to the Haitian people. It had symbolic value, too. Gerald Murray, a retired anthropology professor from the University of Florida, did fieldwork in Haiti before the outbreak. He saw the creole pig play an important role in Haitian religion.
MURRAY: There's a folk religion that the Haitians called “sevi lwa”, serving the spirits. Outsiders call it Voudou. Part of voudou ritual entails what religions around the world have done, which is animal sacrifice. Different spirits have different tastes. The pig was the preferred meat of the more violent of the spirits.
GRINER: But in the late 1970s and early '80s, these pigs, which represented such a significant chunk of Haitian history, were falling victim to swine fever.
CHAVANNES: Every peasant family was touched. Every one. Because every Haitian family had a pig.
GRINER: Something had to be done. So a coalition led by USAID-- the United States Agency for International Development-- came up with a controversial solution. They decided to exterminate the creole pig, to prevent the incurable disease from spreading. But that decision left many Haitians with unresolved questions, Murray says. Some grew suspicious of USAID's motives.
MURRAY: I mean, during the epidemic, there were dead pigs floating in the rivers. A lot of pigs were dying. But the meat was harmless to humans. So why do you kill all the pigs? Why not protect the healthy pigs? Why declare all pigs dangerous? And the answer is they're protecting the pigs in the United States. That's the common answer given.
GRINER: At the time, Chavannes was a rising star in Haiti's peasant movement. He and his colleagues tried to intervene and convince groups like USAID to stop the slaughter.
CHAVANNES: We tried to resist, but no. We had to completely eliminate the creole pig. Certain peasants hid some pigs anyway, but very few.
GRINER: The government tried to compensate farmers for their lost creole pigs, but the process was fraught with corruption and scams, according to Murray.
MURRAY: The only externally funded project I've seen the worked perfectly was the slaughter of the pigs. Very efficiently done. The repopulation? Not as efficiently done. Not as efficiently done.
GRINER: American pigs were brought in to replace the creole pig, but they were ill-suited to the hard conditions that the creole pig thrived in. Murray says farmers struggled to accommodate the new livestock, which had very particular and very expensive needs.
MURRAY: Poorer farmers could get a free pig, but they had to agree to take care of it in a certain way. They had to agree to build a certain type of pen for it, and not give it garbage. They had to give it good food. But the problem was, the food cost about 100 dollars a year. I mean, people made about 150 dollars, so the pig would be eating better than the people.
GRINER: The problems didn't end with the added expense. Chavannes observed that the new pigs were causing trouble for rural families.
CHAVANNES: Those pigs ate the chickens. They attacked children. And when we saw that, we said, this is impossible. Haitian families cannot raise these pigs. And so we started to really protest.
GRINER: Chavannes started to notice peasants turning to other sources of income. He says the extermination of the creole pig forced many peasants to harvest wood to make charcoal. That only exacerbated the problem of deforestation in Haiti. And it's a big problem too. Over 98 percent of Haiti's land has been sheared of its forests. Erosion and droughts have increased as a result.
CHAVANNES: It's catastrophic for the environment. Just like when a peasant wants to send his kids to school-- before he could sell a pig. Now that he has no more pigs, he cuts trees. There is a direct relationship between the impoverishment of peasant families and the cutting of trees to produce charcoal.
GRINER: To reverse the trend, Chavannes and his colleagues in the peasant movement decided to reintroduce the creole pig-- or at least a hybrid that could fill its place.
CHAVANNES: We want the return of the creole pig. So we led a fight, and over the years, the minister of agriculture finally started a program for the repopulation of the pigs. They brought sows from
GRINER: But just as the new pig herd was starting to grow, once again disease intervened. This time, the culprit was teschen, a virus that can kill a pig within days. Six years ago, it started to spread. And decades of work were lost.
CHAVANNES: That's why we converted our pig repopulation program to goat farming. It's easier to raise pigs. It's less dangerous for the environment, et cetera. But this is the new situation.
GRINER: Still, the fight is not yet over for the creole pig. Vaccines for teschen are already being tested in Haiti, and Chavannes hopes partnerships with international NGOs will help fight this latest disease. Part of Chavannes' mission is to rebuild the peasant economy. But to reach that goal, bringing back the creole pig is a necessity, he says.
CHAVANNES: We must. [Laughs] We must, and like I said, pig farming is indispensable for reestablishing the peasant economy. We must act rapidly against teschen to save the race. But I hope that we won't lose them all. That we will have the time to fix this problem.
GRINER: Already, the race to save Haiti's pigs is well underway. This past spring, an official from the ministry of agriculture announced that the 500,000 doses of the teschen vaccine had been produced. The official says they are currently available for farmers to use.
For Living on Earth, I'm Allison Griner.
[MUSIC: Chet Atkins & Leo Kottke, Boyan Hristov, “Twilight Time”]
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. Tom Tiger engineered our show, with help from Jake Rego and Noel Flatt. 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. Living on Earth is also supported by Stonyfield Farm, makers of organic yogurt, smoothies and more; www.stonyfield.com.
ANNOUNCER2: PRI. Public Radio International
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth