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

August 18, 2023

Air Date: August 18, 2023



Youth Plaintiffs Win Montana Climate Case

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In a first of its kind ruling in the U.S., sixteen young plaintiffs have won their suit against the state of Montana over its refusal to protect them from climate change. Vermont Law and Graduate School Emeritus Professor Pat Parenteau joins Host Jenni Doering to explain the unprecedented ruling and where the case could head next. (13:45)

Warming Climate and Children’s Health

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Children and adolescents are facing increasing health risks from extreme heat, and a study that looked at heat and pediatric emergency department visits found that black and brown children are especially impacted. Lead author Dr. Aaron Bernstein is a Pediatrician and Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC and joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the implications of the research. (07:20)

Taking the A Train to a National Park

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Gateway National Recreation Area offers green spaces, beaches and recreation just a quick transit ride from the urban jungle of New York City. Don Riepe is the guardian of the Jamaica Bay portion of Gateway and joins Host Steve Curwood to talk about the value of affordable and accessible venues to be with nature. (07:15)

Koala: A Natural History and Uncertain Future

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The koala is an iconic character in Australian wildlife but remains an enigma to many. Danielle Clode, an award-winning Australian author, set out to discover the fascinating story behind the koala’s cuddly image for her book, Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future. She joined Hosts Steve Curwood and Jenni Doering for a Living on Earth Book Club event. (18:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

230818 Transcript

HOSTS: Steve Curwood, Jenni Doering

GUESTS: Aaron Bernstein, Danielle Clode, Pat Parenteau, Don Riepe


CURWOOD: From PRX – this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.

A Montana judge rules in favor of youth plaintiffs in a historic climate lawsuit.

PARENTEAU: It was a huge ruling, frankly. This was the first time a court in the United States has ruled that there is a constitutional right to a safe climate. It is a lower court opinion, it will be appealed, so we'll have to see how it turns out in the Montana Supreme Court, but it's an incredibly strong opinion.

CURWOOD: Also, to help their babies eat eucalyptus, koala moms make a special microbial “soup.”

CLODE: Which is a pretty messy, disgusting-looking thing, it has to be said, it’s quite horrifying, really. But the baby koalas just love it, they can’t get enough of it. And that gives them the microbes they need to digest the eucalypts.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth – stick around!

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Youth Plaintiffs Win Montana Climate Case

Youth plaintiffs Badge Busse, Mica Kantor, and Eva L. are cheered on by supporters as they arrive for their second day of trial in June 2023. On August 14, Judge Kathy Seeley sided with the sixteen young plaintiffs in a historic decision for the climate crisis. (Photo: Robin Loznak/Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust)

DOERING: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jenni Doering.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

In a first-of-its-kind ruling in the U.S., sixteen young plaintiffs have won their suit against the state of Montana over its refusal to protect them from climate change. This climate case is one of several that have been filed by youth plaintiffs in states including Hawai’i, where extreme heat, drought, and hurricane-fed winds recently fueled the nation’s deadliest wildfires in a century. Kaniela Ing directs the Green New Deal Network and spoke to Democracy Now!

KANIELA ING: I was born and raised on Maui, I’m Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian, come from seven generations, and our island is on fire. Our most historic town was set ablaze by wildfires. So, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Joe Manchin, oil companies, and anyone in power who denies climate change, to me are the arsonists here. And we're living the climate emergency.

DOERING: Young plaintiffs in Hawai’i seek to hold the state Department of Transportation accountable for projects that lock in the use of fossil fuels, with a trial set for June 2024. There are also youth climate lawsuits against the states of Virginia and Utah, and the Juliana case against the federal government is still in play in Oregon. In her 108-page ruling on the Montana case, Judge Kathy Seeley cited the strong scientific record on climate change presented at trial and linked it to the harms the young plaintiffs are already experiencing. Joining us now to explain the unprecedented ruling and its impact is Pat Parenteau, emeritus professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School. Welcome back to Living on Earth, Pat!

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

DOERING: So, what was your reaction to this ruling, Pat?

PARENTEAU: Well, it was a huge ruling, frankly. This was the first time a court in the United States has ruled that there is a constitutional right to a safe climate, in effect. It's based on the Montana State Constitution. And the Montana Supreme Court has recognized that a right to a healthy environment is a fundamental right of Montanans in a case in 1999, so it's been on the books for a long time. But this is the first time any court, in the U.S. anyway, has gone that far, to base a decision on a constitutional right to a safe climate. So, a huge breakthrough. It is a lower court opinion, it will be appealed, so we'll have to wait and see how it turns out in the Montana Supreme Court, but it's a, it's an incredibly strong opinion.

The historic ruling came after a trial held in Lewis and Clark County Court in Helena, MT from June 12 through June 20, 2023. The trial was presided over by Judge Kathy Seeley, who ruled in favor of the youth. (Photo: Jimmy Emerson, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DOERING: So, this is the first ruling of its kind of nationwide. What arguments did Judge Kathy Seeley use to support her ruling in favor of the youth plaintiffs?

PARENTEAU: You know, the thing that struck me the most about her opinion is the careful way in which she made a long list of factual findings, over 200. So, she has built the strongest what we'd call evidentiary record that any court has done. So, from the individual harms that the 16 youth plaintiffs in this case are suffering, she went through each and every one of them, and showed how each one of them is being individually impacted right now by climate change. She went through how the state of Montana is suffering from climate change and the familiar stories that we know, wildfires and drought, melting, snowpack, melting glaciers, all of that, very careful. Then she went through the policies that the state is pursuing that's making all of that worse. Then she went through the expert testimony on what Montana could be doing to reduce emissions to shift to cleaner energy sources. So, from that standpoint, this is a remarkable blueprint that the court has developed based on evidence, not based on argument, based on evidence, right? Of what's happening and what could be done to reduce these emissions, and also increase steps to adapt to climate change. So to me, in addition to the remarkable legal ruling, this case should be looked at as a blueprint for what each and every state in the United States should be doing and could be doing. So it's a very valuable contribution to solutions to the climate crisis.

DOERING: Indeed, and Pat, it's kind of refreshing, because so much of the time we're talking with you about the procedural aspects of cases like this one, and not, you know, hearing a judge and seeing a judge in her ruling actually digging into that science that you mentioned.

When writing her opinion on the case, Judge Kathy Seeley created a strong evidentiary record of the impacts of climate change, citing known impacts like melting glaciers and worsening wildfires. Pictured: Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. (Photo: Sinziana Gafitanu, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

PARENTEAU: Yes. When it comes to the actual ruling and remedy, it is fairly modest. The State of Montana has passed a law, this is really quite remarkable, that actually prohibits state agencies from considering climate change impacts when they’re licensing and approving fossil fuel development for coal mines, for oil and gas development. I mean, it really is quite striking that a state would even adopt such a law, but Montana did. She said that law violates the Constitution of Montana, and she invalidated it, and she enjoined the state from relying on that law in refusing to consider climate change impacts. She did not go as far as the plaintiffs requested, which is to declare the entire Montana energy policy unconstitutional, but she certainly said the way that you are currently making decisions that are blinding you to what's actually happening in Montana is unconstitutional. So, she's laid out, you know, what the state should be doing and she's told the state, at least consider all of these things and make better decisions.

DOERING: So, the 16 youth plaintiffs in this case alleged that the state government's pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change. What evidence did they bring forward to support that claim?

Testimony at trial from both the state of Montana and experts for the plaintiffs confirmed that the state of Montana regularly issues permits for fossil fuel infrastructure projects without consideration for climate change impacts. (Photo: Dave MacKenzie, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

PARENTEAU: They brought forth a lot of evidence, they had testimony from experts, Anne Hedges, who is an alum, a graduate of the Vermont Law School, my law school, and was a student of mine. And she's with the Montana Environmental Information Center. She testified that she participates on a routine basis in all of the regulatory actions that the state is taking to approve fossil fuel development, and of course, from her organization’s standpoint, opposing a lot of that, or at least trying to slow it down. So she was able to tell the court, you know, I've participated for 20-some years or more and I've never seen the state deny a permit for this development or consider the consequences of what they were doing. And what was interesting is, when the state's turn came to put on witnesses, their witnesses validated what was being said. Their witnesses basically said, no, we don't consider climate, we can't consider climate, and no, we've never denied a permit for any of this fossil development, right? So, the judge had before her really undisputed facts that the state was systematically refusing to take climate change into account in these major, long-term infrastructure-type decisions. And right along with that, the plaintiffs produced expert testimony from doctors who said that these individual plaintiffs are suffering from both physical and psychological or mental impacts from what's happening, and also the uncertainty about what's going to happen. And undisputed testimony from Montana scientists testifying as to what's happening to the environment in Montana as a result of climate change, in great detail. And then a testimony from Mark Jacobson, who's a well-known environmental engineer on the faculty at Stanford University, a leader on energy technologies, saying, you have at your disposal many opportunities to develop solar and wind and hydropower, and other ways of getting off of fossil fuel, creating jobs, adding to the economy, and all the rest of that. So, all of this kind of evidence, you know, is now part of a public record. And because it wasn't contested by the state on appeal, the Montana Supreme Court is going to have to accept all of those factual findings as truth.

DOERING: Wow. So then, if this does go up to the Montana Supreme Court, what leeway does the state have in terms of what they can actually argue and how they could win there?

Professor Mark Jacobson testified at trial that the state of Montana has many opportunities to develop renewable energy infrastructure like solar panels and wind turbines and transition away from fossil fuels. (Photo: Joshua Winchell, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

PARENTEAU: You know, the state keeps arguing that even if you accept all this as true, Montana's emissions just don't amount to anything. So, their argument to the Montana Supreme Court is that, you should just rule that the courts have no role to play in addressing the climate issue or climate problem. And, of course, they're going to have a hard time arguing that the state is actually doing anything about the climate problem since, you know, the record in the case shows they're not, in fact, they're making it worse. They're also going to argue that the Montana Supreme Court should review this earlier decision in the 1999 case called MEIC, Montana Environmental Information Center, against DEQ, against the state of Montana. And I think they're going to try to argue that that decision was wrongly decided, that there's no right of an individual to enforce the constitutional right to a healthy environment directly. They may try to make that argument.

DOERING: So, what difference does the ruling in Montana make, do you think? And what does it mean for the climate crisis?

PARENTEAU: You know, that's a really hard one, a good question, a hard one, because in one sense, you know, we should be celebrating this breakthrough. And it certainly is better than having a court declare there is no constitutional right to a safe climate. But I do believe that the renewable energy movement is going to ultimately succeed to displace fossil fuel. The question is, will it do so in time to make a difference? So, when you start looking at the problem from that perspective, individual lawsuits aren't going to accomplish that. They can help keep pressure on both private sector and public sector to move forward. But honestly, we need a much more comprehensive set of policies to make that actually happen in the timeframe, the limited timeframe, we have.

DOERING: Right. Well, then, on a symbolic level, how do you think this case impacts things and impacts the fight against climate change?

This case decision highlights various impacts of climate change on human society, like increased risk of asthma, wildfire, and drought. (Photo: NIAID, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

PARENTEAU: Boy, I hope it does, you know, and just beyond symbol, I would encourage people that are curious about this case to actually read Judge Seeley's very careful, very meticulous decision and opinion. And as you go through her very detailed factual findings, see if you aren't convinced by what she's saying in this decision, that these impacts are incredibly real, immediate, and they're affecting our kids in ways that will be permanent for the rest of their lives. You know, we talk in this arcane language of standing, environmental standing. What does that mean? Well, you read what it means to each and every one of these individual young people. You read about kids with asthma, who are experiencing more asthma attacks. You read about kids that have been part of a ranching family for generations, watching the effects of drought and fire impact their homes and their land, and so forth. The Native American kids talking about the way life on the reservations in Montana are changing, and those communities are already challenged in terms of health and economy, and climate is making all of that worse. So yes, it does put a human face, a young human face, on the case, and the detail of exactly how climate impacts them on a daily basis, every day. If you're not moved by that, then I guess you just simply can't be moved. But it certainly is the kind of lived experience that people should care about. And I think people would care about it if they took the time to listen and read and understand it.

DOERING: Pat Parenteau is an emeritus professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School. Thank you so much, Pat.

PARENTEAU: Thanks for having me, Jenni.

Related links:
- Read Judge Seeley’s decision
- Click here to listen to our previous story about the case
- USA Today | “Should Governments Be Blamed for Climate Change? How One Lawsuit Could Change US Policies”
- The Washington Post | “The Montana Youths Behind a Historic Climate Lawsuit, and the Places They Love”

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DOERING: Coming up – the warming climate is dangerous for children. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Warming Climate and Children’s Health

Extreme heat can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat strokes and increase intestinal bacterial infections amongst children. (Photo: Michael Rabodin, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Over the past three decades, excessive heat has been the number-one weather killer in the U.S. Fortunately, children rarely die during heat waves, but a 2022 study found that emergency department visits for children at 47 U.S. hospitals went up almost 12 percent during the warmest months from 2016 to 2018. Lead author Dr. Aaron Bernstein is a pediatrician and director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC. Welcome back to Living on Earth!

BERNSTEIN: Great to be with you again, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, what sorts of health issues were observed in your study? In other words, what's the primary reason for the emergency department visits?

BERNSTEIN: Some of the things we saw were entirely unsurprising. Heat-related illnesses, what we call heat exhaustion, heatstroke, go up with heat. And the hotter it gets, the more likely those visits are. But a lot of the other things might not be immediately obvious. And one good example of that are certain kinds of bacterial infections. So, we saw greater visits for bacterial intestinal infections.

CURWOOD: You're talking about, you know, glorified upset tummy or diarrhea? What are we talking about?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, so these are bacteria that often are on food, spoiled food, that cause diarrhea and vomiting. And you can imagine that in warmer months, people are more likely to have a picnic, let food spoil, you know, you don't fully cook the hamburger on the grill. And we also know that warmer temperatures promote bacterial growth. Now, one of the things that is important to note here is that we see stark differences in rates of visits based upon whether a child had private insurance or public insurance and whether they were a white child or a racial or ethnic minority child. And those differences reflect what we know, which is that many children who are either on public insurance or of a minority status are more likely to use an emergency department in general, because they lack access to the primary care offices and other resources that might prevent them from being seen. So, we saw that with the bacterial intestinal infections, we saw it, in fact, in many other of the conditions that we saw increased rates for, including things like, you know, ear infections and skin infections. Interestingly, we also find that, you know, injuries and poisonings are more likely with higher temperatures as well. So, we find a suite of effects. And often, we see greater rates of visits for minority children.

CURWOOD: Which illnesses were you most surprised to see show up in your study of the heat effects on children?

BERNSTEIN: The one that surprised me the most was that we saw increased rates of visits for blood and immune system disorders. That's a pretty broad group of conditions, some of them are things like anemia, so not having enough red blood cells. That includes things like immunodeficiencies. Heat isn't causing immunodeficiencies, but children with immunodeficiencies are probably more at risk for those same infections we were talking about before. But this is a finding that I think really warrants some further investigation, because I have a pretty good mind as to how we would see more ear infections or more bacterial intestine infections, more skin infections, more accidents, you know, greater visits for children with diabetes, but I'm not sure I really understand this piece. And if it turns out that there is some way in which heat is affecting risk for those children, that would be something that I think is potentially new and concerning. So, I think that was perhaps among the more surprising findings for me.

CURWOOD: Now, what about mental and behavioral health?

BERNSTEIN: So, if you look at the whole population of children in our study, we didn't see a significant effect of heat on those conditions, although it was very close. But when we divided the group of kids into white children and children of minority status, there is an effect, and a substantial one. And the children who are, you know, Latino, Black American, Asian American, et cetera, are much more likely to show up in emergency departments for those problems. Do I think that's because white children aren't getting those effects from the heat? No, I think it's because white children have better access to care. And this is what I mean when I talk about the effects of heat amplifying the inequities we see.

CURWOOD: So, Ari, what should parents and other caretakers of young people think about when it comes to heat?

As the climate crisis intensifies heat, Dr. Bernstein recommends that parents and caregivers be aware of health risks during warmer months. (Photo: Edward M Johnson, U.S. Army, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BERNSTEIN: Well, I think the first is, is that when it gets warm outside, you should definitely, if you can, have your child playing outside. This is not a study to say, let's be worried about the heat generically. This is a study that tells us that, you know, heat does matter to children, it especially matters to children with certain chronic medical problems. And that, you know, with that knowledge, we can do stuff to make sure that our children can play outside when it's hot out, safely. And a good question of a parent is, well, what is too hot? And the answer is, well, it depends on where you live, because 80 degrees in Boston is not 80 degrees in San Antonio. What really matters is the percentile of temperature. How hot is today as compared to the usual? And fortunately, there are more resources that are coming online to give parents and providers that information. We're starting to see heat forecasts that tell you, you know, this day is going to be in the 85th percentile of temperature, which is a signal to those people who are at risk, you should be mindful of those heat concerns, maybe offset your activities, maybe make sure you're well-hydrated, or whatever the reasonable action is.

CURWOOD: So, what can your study teach us about ways to provide better health care access to children and teens?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, well, the first thing is it underscores a whole body of work that says we absolutely need to provide better health care to the least fortunate children in our country. I mean, children on public insurance uniformly have higher rates of ED visitation. That reflects the broader trend that those children do not have access to primary care. The reasons they often do not are because of insurance and that in many places, many providers do not take public insurance, and/or that those children are maybe more likely to move and move from one place to another, and having established primary care is harder. But, you know, if we had access to health care for any child, the barriers to access are much less, and that makes it so that whatever conditions the child may have that may put them at risk for heat-related illness are addressed. It means that if a parent is concerned, they can call that office, get some guidance before the kid lands up in an emergency department. And I think that's one of the key messages that we see in this study about what it means more broadly for the health care system.

CURWOOD: Aaron Bernstein directs the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC. Dr. Bernstein, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

BERNSTEIN: Nice to be with you as always, Steve.

Related links:
- Learn more about the study led by Dr. Bernstein titled Summer Heat and Children Emergency Department Visits
- USA Today “'Code Red' Heat: The climate emergency is sending more kids of color to the emergency room”
- New York Times “New Research Shows How Health Risks to Children Mount as Temperatures Rise”
- Learn more about Dr. Ari Bernstein

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Taking the A Train to a National Park

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Gateway National Recreation Area. (Photo: Peter Roan, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: Summer is the peak time to hit the road to the U.S. National Parks for fun, sun, and the blessings of nature. But in many places, including New York City, you don’t need to have a car and buy gas to be in nature, as transit fare is enough. Gateway National Recreation Area spans across three boroughs of New York City and stretches out to Monmouth County, New Jersey. Since 1972, this land, managed by the National Park Service, has offered green spaces, beaches, and recreational opportunities to residents of the nearby urban jungle. So, there’s the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn and Queens, Great Kills Park on Staten Island with swimming, boating, and hiking, and Sandy Hook with seven beaches on the New Jersey side. Don Riepe has been the Jamaica Bay Guardian since 2004 and he says one choice to get to the Bay on transit is to take…

RIEPE: The A train, or you can even take the Q53 bus to Rockaway and get off right at the entrance area. Another way to get here from Manhattan is to take the ferry from Wall Street to Rockaway at 108th Street, and that's right on the edge of the bay. And from there, you can take a short bus ride to the Refuge Visitor Center.

CURWOOD: Don, you can tell me, what's your favorite part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, where if you really want to impress people as to how wonderful it is to have this National Park Service area right within reach of Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan and Staten Island and the Jersey Shore, what's your favorite spot to show people what we're talking about?

RIEPE: Well, of course, it's the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. I lead tours there every month. In fact, this Saturday we're having a Horseshoe Crab Festival at 11 o'clock, and we do invite families, especially with children, to come. It's a great event.

CURWOOD: I understand that along the beaches there this time of year, you're likely to run into horseshoe crabs.

RIEPE: Correct. Especially during the new moon or the full moon, thousands of horseshoe crabs come ashore, as they've been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, to lay their eggs. The big females come ashore, and they burrow down just outside of the high tide area. And they lay big clutches of little greenish-blue eggs, and attending them are males. When she lays the eggs, she gives off a pheromone, like a perfume, that stimulates the males to deposit sperm and fertilize them. We can pick up the crabs, we can show, turn them over and show the kids that they're harmless, show the difference between the male and the female, and then we talk about their ecological and medical value. They have great medical value as well, because their bluish, copper-based blood has a clotting factor in it that will clot when exposed to minute traces of pathogens, more sensitive than any instrument we have. And if you're getting a vaccination or a blood transfusion, you want it to be pure. They test it with that element from the horseshoe crab. So, who knew, right?

Several public transportation options will bring you to Gateway National Recreation Area, including the A Train. (Photo: MTAEnthusiast10, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

CURWOOD: Who knew? I mean, those creatures date back literally millions of years.

RIEPE: Yes, some people say as much as 400 million years back in the fossil records. They predate the dinosaurs, actually.

CURWOOD: So, what am I going to see when I get there? What, if it's a National Recreation Area, how am I going to have recreation?

RIEPE: Well, there are two ponds on either side of Cross Bay Boulevard. One is about 45 acres and the other is over 100 acres. And there's trails around them. And you'll see lots of waterbirds: egrets, herons, ibis, shorebirds, terns, all the birds of Jamaica Bay.

CURWOOD: An important neighbor of Gateway National Recreation Area is a major airport.

RIEPE: Correct.

CURWOOD: The Kennedy Airport.

RIEPE: Exactly.

CURWOOD: So, some might say that there are a lot of metal birds, as well as those with feathers.

RIEPE: Correct.

CURWOOD: So, how do you get the two to coexist?

RIEPE: It's not easy. So, at the airport, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has biologists that patrol the runway, and they will scare off any birds that are on the runway. If a pilot is taking off, and he sees something on the runway, he calls it in and they do a, you know, patrol and they scare anything away. But they also have a shooting program. So they have permits from both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State DEC to shoot any offending gulls or geese or whatever that come across airspace that they feel is a threat to aircraft.

Lucky visitors can spot horseshoe crabs on the beaches of Gateway. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: What kind of creatures are in the water?

RIEPE: So, we have over 100 species of finfish that have been identified in the bay. A lot of them are fish that people know, that we eat, like striped bass and blackfish and bluefish and flounders and so on.

CURWOOD: So, wait, can I take a rod and reel and go out and try to catch something?

RIEPE: Sure, fishing is allowed. A shoutout to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for upgrading the treatment plants. So, that also made the water cleaner here.

CURWOOD: In other words, if you fall in, you don't have to quickly run and take a shower.

RIEPE: Not quickly, but eventually. And you know, you can just go offshore, you can take a boat out of Sheepshead Bay and see whales right off our coast here now, something you couldn't do 30 years ago. And I see seals in Jamaica Bay now in the winter, and dolphins as well. So not only the waters are cleaner, but there's a lot more fish in the water that attract these large mammals.

CURWOOD: Now, what about, you know, a beach where you could put out a towel and go for a splash?

RIEPE: Yes, that would be Riis Park. So, Riis Park is also just over the Marine Park Bridge on the Rockaway side. And it's near the communities of Neponsit and Breezy Point. And those big, beautiful beaches are open year-round for people for recreation. And if you're in Brooklyn and Queens, you can go to different areas around Jamaica Bay like Plumb Beach, or Canarsie Pier if you want to fish, or Jamaica Bay Refuge if you want some passive recreation and birding and just enjoying the great views that we have here.

CURWOOD: Don, before you go, tell me how important it is to have a National Recreation Area right within a subway or bus ride or boat ride of a major city like New York.

RIEPE: Well, you think of 8 million people broiling today in the city with all this heat, looking for some outlet, and certainly going to the water is one of the best ways. So, getting out to one of the local beaches or parks around there. You know, New York City Parks has a pretty good park system as well, as does Gateway. There are many different aspects to Gateway. If you're on Staten Island, there's Miller Field, which is a kind of big recreational field, and Great Kills Harbor. If you're in Sandy Hook, there's Sandy Hook National Seashore. So, these are all old military bases. So, they have historic value as well.

CURWOOD: And affordable, not necessarily places along, say, Central Park or Prospect Park, where the rents are a little higher these days.

RIEPE: Correct. And the mission of the Park Service, why they created Gateway, was to bring the parks to the people. For people that couldn't afford to go to Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, at least they have a local place they can go and have the park experience as well.

CURWOOD: Don Riepe, the Jamaica Bay Guardian, speaking to us about the Gateway National Recreation Area there in the New York-New Jersey area. Thanks so much, Don, for taking the time.

RIEPE: Thank you, it was fun.

Related link:
Learn more about Gateway National Recreation Area

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CURWOOD: Just ahead, how the beloved koala lives off toxic eucalyptus leaves. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Friends of Smeagull the Seagull and Smeagull’s Guide to Wildlife. It’s all about the wildlife right next door to you! That’s Smeagull, S - M - E - A - G - U - L - L, SmeagullGuide.org.

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Koala: A Natural History and Uncertain Future

Danielle Clode’s book, Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future, dives into the world of this iconic creature. (Photo: W.W. Norton & Company)

DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

With fuzzy ears and an oblong nose, the koala is an iconic character in Australian wildlife. But, beloved as the koala may be, it remains an enigma to many.

DOERING: Danielle Clode is an award-winning Australian author. And she set out to discover the fascinating story behind the koala’s cuddly image for her book, Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future. She joined us for a Living on Earth Book Club event. Danielle, welcome to Living on Earth!

CLODE: Thank you for having me. It's really wonderful to be here.

DOERING: So, I have to ask, koalas of course have such a cuddly image. They're the most adorable creatures, but it's not really true that they're cuddly. Is that right?

CLODE: Yeah, look, it's a tricky one, isn't it? Because koalas can be cuddly, you know, it depends on the personality of the animal. But they are a wild animal. And they can be quite belligerent at times, and definitely prefer to be left on their own. So as far as wild animals go, they're fairly amiable in nature. But nonetheless, they've got some big claws and sharp teeth, so you do have to be careful with them.

CURWOOD: But Danielle, what is it about this adorable face? Why do we respond so strongly to them?

CLODE: I think that there's a lot of things about koalas that really appeal very directly to us. It says more about us than it does about koalas, you know? They have the forward-facing features, like a human face, with the eyes and nose. So, we as primates are particularly primed, we have special nerve cells that pick up on facial features. And so we're very, very primed to see faces, and koalas really trigger that in us, I think. They have a way of moving and a way of hanging on to things that reminds us of small children. So, you know, they are toddler-sized, they appear to cling to you like a toddler does. They make crying noises that trigger a very maternal response. And very often, they will actually lift their arms up when they're seeking assistance. So, they really tap into those sort of parental responses we have. And they're fluffy and cute, as well. That doesn't hurt either.

Born the size of a jellybean, a baby koala—or “joey”— must climb into its mother’s marsupial pouch to develop further. (Photo: Taz, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: You just have to wonder what happens in evolution. So, let's turn to their diet, which is another thing that's just as intriguing in some respects, as the desire they create within us to anthropomorphize them. Eucalyptus is toxic at the end of the day, and yet, they pretty much live on it. I mean, how do they extract most of what they need from this essentially toxic plant?

CLODE: Well, that's true, but you know, we should know all about eating toxic things. You know, we love chilis and coffee and all those things that are full of toxins. So the koalas aren't alone in that.

DOERING: Touché.

CLODE: I guess the koalas have managed to exploit a resource that is very abundant in Australia. Eucalypts are our dominant tree type. And they are difficult for animals to exploit, especially mammals, because their leaves are very tough and fibrous, and they've also got a lot of toxins in them, you're right. So, koalas have evolved a really complex system not only of digesting the fibrous food, which is something they would have in common with other herbivores, like sheep and cattle also have these incredibly complicated stomachs. But koalas have the added issue of the toxins. And they have a supercharged liver. So they actually have, you know, a double dose of the genes that animals use to remove toxins. And it's so effective that koalas are actually also extremely resistant to medications. So if they have chlamydia, which is a disease koalas commonly suffer from, a dose of medication to treat chlamydia in a human might take three days. Now the same dose in the much smaller koala takes thirty days to have an effect. So that gives you a good example of how good they are at taking those toxins out of their food.

Author Danielle Clode (pictured) says that koalas’ features naturally tap into our parental instincts. (Photo: Danielle Clode)


CURWOOD: Now, what about the feeding of the young? I mean, how can the mother koala turn off the normal digestive system for the koalas to get the microbes that they're going to need ultimately to digest those leaves?

CLODE: The first thing is that koalas are marsupials, so they are very different from other eutherian or placental mammals like us. When they're born, they are tiny little pink jelly bean things. They're little more than a mouth and a pair of front legs that crawl up into the pouch. And then they have like a second external pregnancy almost. So the babies grow inside the pouch, and are attached to the nipples. The way in which the koalas transfer their babies from a milk diet onto a leaf diet is quite interesting and tricky, because at some point, the mother koala actually ejects a special soup for the baby, which is the contents of a part of the digestive system called the cecum, which in humans, that's the appendix, but in koalas it's a much larger organ. Our appendix is only about the size of our thumb, and theirs is a meter and a half long. So, she ejects that microbial soup and the baby koala eats that soup.

DOERING: Delicious!

While koalas feed on about 70 species of eucalyptus trees, any one individual koala typically prefers between three and ten species. (Photo: Danielle Clode)

CLODE: Which is a pretty messy, disgusting-looking thing, it has to be said. There's no other way for it to be described. It's quite horrifying really. But the baby koalas just love it, they can't get enough of it. And that gives them the microbes they need to digest the eucalypts. Not only to digest eucalypts generally, but quite probably to digest the specific eucalypts that are in the forest they're in, because there's about 70 species of eucalypt that are known to be eaten by koalas, and any one individual koala will only eat between three and 10 different species. So, they're quite specialized on particular trees. But not only that, they're also specific about which individual trees they'll eat. And it seems to change by season and by day, and that's what makes them so difficult to keep in zoos. They are one of the most expensive animals to keep in zoos, especially overseas, because you can't feed them pellets or a bit of bale of hay like you can other herbivores. They have to have fresh gum leaves, they have to have a lot of fresh gum leaves, and they have to have a really wide choice of gum leaves. Otherwise, you can end up with a koala that's eating, but it will just waste away and die because it's not getting the nutrients it needs.

DOERING: So, Danielle, there's kind of a stereotype that koalas are really cute, but maybe not the brightest animals. How would you respond to that?

CURWOOD: Wait a second! No allusions to the dumb blonde stuff that goes around in our society. You can be cute and smart, can't you?

Koalas’ specialized diet makes them one of the most expensive animals to keep in zoos. (Photo: Danielle Clode)

CLODE: Absolutely. I think there's certainly a very strong narrative going around that koalas are not very bright, and in fact, there's a bit of a myth that marsupials are not very bright. And I think that this sort of, there's a lot of, you know, northern hemisphere Old World bias going on there. As European explorers extended out over the world, they typically were a bit derogatory about species. So marsupials were seen as primitive, maladapted, and stupid. And I think that's simply not true. They're extremely well-adapted. And marsupials, if we look at their brain sizes, we find that they're pretty average. The ones that are off the scale are actually the primates. So, we're a bit weird, everything else is fairly standard. But I think the other thing that makes people think that they're a bit stupid is that they sleep a lot. So you know, and that leads to this myth that koalas also sleep a lot because they eat toxic eucalypt leaves, and that has some sort of bad effect on their brain or their health or even makes them stoned. They're all myths, the koalas are definitely not stoned. They just like relaxing. And it's the same as your dog or your cat. If you give it plenty of food, your dog or your cat will spend a lot of time asleep, because it can. It's got a comfy bed, a nice house, lots of food, doesn't need to worry about predators. And that's exactly what the koalas are doing. They're up a tree, they're fairly safe, all day they've got food all around them. They can just sit back, relax and digest, and have a snooze. I mean, it's a perfect life, I think.

DOERING: Sounds like it.

CURWOOD: But it's quite complicated, their environment, they have to find the right kind of eucalyptus tree. The way you write about them, they're far from dumb.

CLODE: Yeah, there's a lot of things going on that we maybe don't give them as much credit for: how they find the trees they want to feed on, is it random? Do they have some sort of cognitive map? We don't really know, but they're very good at finding their dispersed food supply. So, to support one koala, you need a forest the size of an average sports field. And in arid areas, it's even bigger. It could be one koala per an area the size of Central Park.

In many Australian aboriginal stories, koalas often rescue or advise humans. An aboriginal rock carving of a koala is pictured above. (Photo: Ralph Hawkins)

CURWOOD: Oh, my. That’s like two square miles.

CLODE: Yeah.

CURWOOD: Speaking of awareness, there's this great scene in your book about a canoe and a koala. Can you tell us that story?

CLODE: Yeah, it was a really interesting, you know, some students were up on the River Murray and they noticed a koala stuck in a tree. So, they swung the canoe around so that it was touching the tree and the koala watched what they were doing, climbed down into the canoe, and then just sat very comfortably until they swung the canoe around so that it was touching the bank, and then it hopped out and went on its way. And it was just a really interesting little piece of behavior that it was quite clear the koala was watching what the humans were doing, so it had some element of foresight about predicting what these other animals would do in relation to it. But I guess we just don't often think about koalas in those terms.

DOERING: Right. So, Danielle, how did koalas figure into the culture of the hundreds of different Indigenous peoples of Australia, traditionally and today?

European explorers exploited koalas for their fur, hunting them to near extinction in the early twentieth century. (Photo: Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr, public domain)

CLODE: Yeah, koalas are a really important species in the dreaming stories of Indigenous Australians, so the stories of the ancestral beings that created, you know, the country. And it's really interesting, actually, a lot of those stories reflect past climate change events. So, at a time when the sea levels rose dramatically, and koalas often feature as an animal that came and rescued humans and helped them get to safety on the land when the sea levels rose. So, these stories are really interesting because they actually reflect very ancient geological events. And they tell us that these stories have been preserved for a very long time, for, you know, seven or eight thousand years, which is a remarkable length of time to preserve a story. But they have a lot of other meanings as well. And it's difficult for a non-Indigenous person to discuss them, because the levels of meaning are different depending on the level of knowledge you have in that community. So, most of the stories are teaching us about balance in nature, and how to restore balance by listening to the country and listening to the animals. And there's a really lovely story where, when people are walking through the forest and they're wondering, you know, deciding which path to take, they see a koala. They'll stop and they'll get the advice of the koala. But I really like that idea of slowing down and taking a bit of "koala time,” and taking your time to make decisions and think about where you are and what your place is in the environment.

CURWOOD: Wow. So, listen to the koalas, or watch the koalas. And then came a time when Europeans came to Australia. What did the European colonizers think of these fuzzy creatures when they encountered them?

CLODE: Well, surprisingly, they didn't notice them to start with. It took them a while before koalas really came to European attention. And I think it really wasn't until they came to commercial attention that interest really geared up, and that was in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the fur trade really was firing up and koala hunting was a huge thing. So, we had a huge number of pelts of Australian animals, including koalas, being shipped to the U.S. and U.K. fur markets. And that really started galvanizing concern in the local community about koalas going extinct.

Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st President, banned the importation of koala and wombat fur in 1930, after Australian conservation advocates implored him to take action to save the species. (Photo: Opus Penguin, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

DOERING: Yeah, you write in your book about that koala fur was maybe even being used, along with some other marsupial fur, in children’s toys, you know, making a stuffed koala, like a teddy bear. And this was around the time when teddy bears were becoming popular as well. And they were using koala fur in some cases.

CLODE: Yeah, the idea of having a toy koala made out of actual koala fur is pretty horrifying. But I think that it’s interesting, the children's toys then became part of a conservation movement, which was really prompted by, you know, this is a really good example. It's a classic Australian book: Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. And this is really a book that really teaches kids about koalas and really sends a really good conservation message. You know, it's about koalas being displaced out of their habitat, it's about the interactions with humans, the threats they face, and how they survive. I mean, it's also a really fun story about a naughty little koala. But those children's writers who wrote about koalas were one of the really big galvanizing public campaigns to protect koalas. Really, it was actually really interesting that although there was a lot of public campaigns to stop koala hunting, it continued right up until 1930. And the thing that stopped it was that the conservationists made an appeal to Herbert Hoover, the American President, because he had lived in Australia and had a particular fondness for Australia. And they appealed to him to do something about the koala hunting and he banned the importation of fur from Australia. And that dried up the trade and stopped the hunting. So, American conservation efforts have really played a very important role in koala conservation.

CURWOOD: So, let's talk about the habitat situation for koalas. If anyone was paying attention to the news a summer ago, the horrific fires and pictures of koalas sort of treed by flame, and horrible body counts. What's the risk of extinction from habitat loss for these animals?

The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, known as Black Summer due to its historic intensity, killed or injured thousands of koalas. (Photo: robdownunder, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CLODE: Obviously, Australia, like a lot of places, has lost a lot of forest cover. So, you know, we have cut down a lot of our forests. So, that definitely plays a big role in the problems koalas face. So, koala populations are declining quite precipitously and quite worryingly along the east coast, and that's why they've been declared endangered in those areas. In other areas, though, they are actually increasing. So, in Victoria, in the south, where they almost went extinct through hunting, they have come back through a translocation program. That's a very strong population. And the same thing has happened in South Australia, and those populations are booming. But I guess that what that tells us in both cases, just is some of the problems we have with fragmentation of habitat. So, you know, on the east coast koalas are trapped in forested areas, they don't have areas to move out to, they can't disperse, they can't maintain their populations. They have disease problems, you know, through close proximity. As we know, when we're stuck in a small area disease transmission is a problem. And in the south, where we have a lot of koalas, they're still in fragmented habitat. So, even though they're doing really well, they have nowhere to go, and we have overpopulation problems. So we actually have koalas killing the forest. So, you have sort of opposite problems, but they're caused probably by similar things. And that's the fragmentation of habitat and the loss of habitat. So, we need to find ways of making sure that when we are doing developments, we make sure they're wildlife-friendly. We put corridors in, we protect, you know, that we make sure the roads don't fragment the habitat, that the animals can move across them. And in terms of climate change, bushfires are increasing, which causes an additional problem because the forests are highly flammable in Australia, and if we've only got small areas of forest left, and those patches burn, there's no other food for the koalas to access. And that's when extinction really happens in local areas.

DOERING: Well, Danielle, what can be done to protect koalas now? What do you see on the horizon for them at this point?

A bushfire rages near the author’s home, where koalas are abundant. (Photo: Danielle Clode)

CLODE: I think one of the main things I got out of doing this research and looking at them across the whole country and back into their prehistory and their evolutionary history as well, is just how resilient and robust koalas are. They have come back from multiple near-extinction events, not just the hunting, but also the Ice Age extinction event that wiped out a lot of the megafauna around the world. So they're a really, really resilient species. And if koalas are struggling the way they are on the east coast, I suggest that means we're doing something really dramatically wrong. I think it suggests that we do need to completely shift our focus in how we run our economies and manage our development and how we live with the world. And we do need to find a more compatible, more sustainable way of living with a stronger environmental foundation, which is better for us and also better for koalas and all the other species.

CURWOOD: I just want to say thank you for taking the time with us today. It's a marvelous, fascinating book.

DOERING: Thank you so much, Danielle. It's been a real pleasure to speak with you.

CLODE: Thank you for having me. It's been marvelous.

DOERING: Danielle Clode’s book is called Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future.

Related links:
- Watch the full interview with author Danielle Clode of "Koala"
- Find the book "Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future” here (Affiliate link donates a portion of the proceeds to LOE and independent bookstores)
- Danielle Clode’s website
- Australian Wildlife Conservancy
- Koala Life

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