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Our World Transcript — 17 February 2007


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World": the impact of voluntary efforts to reduce global warming emissions ... the medicinal benefits of marijuana smoking to relieve nerve pain in AIDS patients ... and plans for an arctic vault to safeguard the world's agricultural future ...

CARY FOWLER: "The real importance is that these collections contain all the option for the future evolution and adaptation of agricultural crops on earth."

Safekeeping for seeds in the face of environmental uncertainties… that and a sampling of high tech toys from New York's annual toy fair.

Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes who is on assignment in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

In his State of the Union message to Congress last month (January 23, 2007), President Bush acknowledged, in the clearest terms he has used to date, the urgent need for action to address global climate change. But the address contained no major shifts in his Administration's climate policy.

The President is firmly opposed to mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide emissions. Instead, he favors technological innovations and voluntary approaches to reducing the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

But can voluntary programs cut emissions enough to make a difference? That's the question addressed in a new book by the U.S. think tank, Resources for the Future.

The book is called: Reality Check: The Nature and Performance of Voluntary Environmental Programs in the U.S., Europe and Japan. From among the thousands of local, state and national programs in these countries, the authors focus on seven with records dating back to the early 1990s.

They range from a German cement industry plan for voluntary reduction of fuel consumption to a powerful Japanese business association plan that cuts across energy sectors to stabilize the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 2010.

The editors also include a U.S. plan aimed at reporting the significant release of certain toxic chemicals. The other six studies in Reality Check focus on voluntary initiatives related to energy and greenhouse gas issues.

Co-editor William Pizer says the report's assessment of these voluntary initiatives - measured in the percentage reduction in greenhouse gases - ranged widely in terms of program effectiveness:

WILLIAM PIZER: "The low point is the German cement industry where the point estimate is zero. The high point is this 33/50 program where the estimate is closer to 30 percent."

That U.S. program gets its name from its goal: the reduction by 33 percent by 1992 and 50 percent by 1995 the release of certain high priority chemicals below 1988 levels. Pizer says its success is based on a number of factors:

WILLIAM PIZER: "For one thing toxics had not been regulated before. People hadn't been paying attention to it. Second, toxics tend to be a fairly emotional issue. People are very worried about the toxics that are being released locally into their environment. Whereas climate change is a global issue and it involves a problem that is further off in the distance for a lot of people."

Pizer says when energy or greenhouse gas emissions programs are analyzed separately, a much different picture appears.

WILLIAM PIZER: "We looked through all of these programs, and we basically find [estimated] five percent effects. So, an obvious conclusion is that these programs don't have a huge effect. They have some effect and in certain instances they have more of an effect, but if you are really serious about changing behavior then voluntary programs are not going to be the right tool."

Pizer says tax relief and other financial incentives can encourage emissions reductions, but not that much.

WILLIAM PIZER: "Programs like the Danish Energy Efficiency Agreement and the U.K. Climate Agreements have the higher reductions and those are the ones that gave you a tax exemption if you participated. So arguably incentives do matter in terms of getting more out of companies. On the other hand they don't matter that much because we still find 3-5 percent effects in these other programs that didn't have these huge financial incentives.

While stabilizing the climate will require much more aggressive tools than voluntary reductions, Pizer says initial steps like emissions tracking give major polluters a framework for what later may become a government mandate.

WILLIAM PIZER: "I think that people get used to what a regulatory approach is likely going to require and are therefore less frightened by it when the regulation comes down the pike. And they know more about what kinds of activities need to be covered and what sort of behavior they want to make sure gets counted in this regulatory framework."

Co-editor Richard Morganstern says voluntary actions taken by U.S. private industry and individual states to curb emissions have begun to make their way into proposed legislation.

RICHARD MORGANSTERN: "For example in several of the bills that are up on [Capitol] Hill now, there are provisions for credit for early [emissions] reductions. Some of these crediting provisions are going to key directly into the voluntary programs."

Samuel Thernstrom does not think these efforts go far enough even as government mandates. In a policy paper for the American Enterprise Institute - a Washington-based research group - he calls for new, clean and affordable energy technologies that can stabilize the climate over the long term.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: "What we need to be doing is not working on what I call 'evolutionary technologies' such as hybrid cars that produce slight improvements in fuel efficiency, we need to be working on the 'revolutionary technologies' such as hydrogen fuel cell cars, which are true zero emission cars. That's where our focus needs to be on these breakthrough technologies.

And Thernstrom believes the development and deployment of these radical strategies will be more effective in the long run against global warming than all the emission-curb programs now pending in the U.S. Congress.

Early next month, construction crews will begin carving out a mountain near the North Pole to make way for a unique underground seed storage facility. The so-called Doomsday Vault will be the ultimate safeguard for the world's agricultural heritage. The Svalbard International Seed Vault is named for the Norwegian islands where the mountain is located, nearly 1,000 kilometers north of mainland Norway.

Cary Fowler heads the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a UN sponsored organization that has promoted the project and will help run the arctic vault. He explains that disaster proof measures are built into the seed bank design.

FOWLER: There will be about a 120-meter long corridor or tunnel leading through solid rock back to the vaults themselves. And, it's really going to look quite a lot like a bank vault. There will be shelves and boxes and in each box about four or five hundred samples of seeds. And among the reasons we are building it in Svalbard is that it is remote and so remoteness gives us some safety, but it is also accessible. One can get to it if one needs to because there are regularly scheduled flights and there is a small Norwegian community there of about 15-hundred people year round. But one of the big reasons is that there is permafrost. And inside the mountain where the vault will be placed is currently minus 6 [degrees Celsius] and this provides great protection for long-term conservation of seeds. We will lower the temperature even further to the absolute optimum temperature, but if the refrigeration units fail, it will take months, maybe years to warm up to the minus 6 level, which is just fine for storage of most seeds for even decades. We will hope for the best, hope that the seed vault is never used, but if it is necessary, there it is, and it will be inside this mountain protected from virtually all the dangers and threats in the world.

SKIRBLE: How will the vault be monitored?

FOWLER: There will be an electronic system of monitoring, a number of security devices. There will be local monitoring by human beings as well and as some people in the media have noted the polar bears are ubiquitous in this part of Svalbard. So, anyone going up there to do something untoward [unfavorable] to the seed vault will have to take that into account.

SKIRBLE: Why is it critical that this seed vault be built now?

FOWLER: We don't know if it is critical right now, but I will say that in the last ten years if we would have had the seed vault, we would have used it several times. The seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were both destroyed in the aftermath of wars there. And, there is sort of a daily loss of existing seed banks because of simply poor conditions. So, we simply can't afford to lose these options for the future. The crop diversity that we have right now is historic in a way. It is the result of twelve thousand years of agricultural history on earth. But it is not a stamp or museum collection. The real importance is that these collections contain all the option for the future evolution and adaptation of agricultural crops on earth. So, If one is concerned, for example, about climate change and how human beings are going to adapt to climate change, if you are concerned about water constraints or energy constraints, then you have to be concerned about conserving this crop diversity because without this crop diversity agriculture will not be able to adapt to climate change, will not be able to produce food to feed growing populations with water and energy supplies. It is really vital to solving every major problem on earth.

SKIRBLE: So, really what you are talking about here is the 'mother of all seed vaults!'

FOWLER: Right! And, it's going to be more secure than any other seed bank by many, many orders of magnitude!

SKIRBLE: Cary Fowler is Executive Director of Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Trust is finalizing an agreement with the Norwegian government to provide for the long-term funding, management and operation of the seed vault.

On our health beat today, Rose Hoban reports on the medicinal effects of marijuana to relieve nerve pain among those infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS :

The cannabis plant has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. In the United States, doctors could prescribe marijuana cigarettes to patients for a variety of conditions until the 1940s, when it was banned. Marijuana's status as an illegal drug has removed it from the official medical arsenal… but its therapeutic power is still attracting attention.

Researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have studied the use of marijuana for relief of nerve pain experienced by many H I V patients. Doctor Donald Abrams, who led the study, says about 30 percent of H I V patients develop painful nerves during the course of their illness. The pain is extremely difficult to treat with standard pain medications.

ABRAMS: "We've known for a long time that cannabinoids, the active ingredients in marijuana, can be involved in modulation of pain and the response to pain. And in fact the body has its own cannabinoid system. We make natural substances called endo-cannabinoids and it's felt that one of the main roles of these endo-cannabinoids is in our processing of painful stimuli."

Abrams studied 50 patients who had nerve pain for an average of 7 years. He gave half actual marijuana cigarettes to smoke three times a day, the other half smoked placebo cigarettes. He found the patients smoking the marijuana had significantly greater pain relief.

ABRAMS: "After smoking the first cigarette on the first day, we asked patients what had happened to their pain. Those smoking the actual marijuana cigarette, their pain reduced 75 percent where those smoking the placebo their pain reduced less than 20 percent."

These results were consistent throughout the study. Abrams says there IS a pill on the market containing the most active ingredient of marijuana, called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. But he says smoking the actual plant works better than taking the pill:

ABRAMS: "THC is only one of the components that's present in the plant. The plant has over 400 chemical compounds, many of which also have medicinal value. [Many of those compounds in the plant also offer a balance to the side effects of the THC alone. So when you take a pill that's just THC, some people have more adverse effects than actually smoking THC as part of marijuana.]

The research appears in a recent issue of the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed stone tools used by chimpanzees to feed themselves thousands of years ago. These are the same kind of tools that chimps use today. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the finding provides new evidence suggesting that humans and apes derived from a common ancestor.

BERMAN: Chimps that live in the Tai rain forest in Ivory Coast use stone hammers weighing up to 20 kilos to break hard nuts and other specialized stone tools to extract the four or five tiny kernels inside the nuts. It is a behavior that has not changed in thousands of years.

Hedwige Bosch, of with Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in Leipzig, Germany, has studied the chimps' nutcracking behavior.

HEDWIGE BOESCH: "People hear this pounding and it's like carpenters if you don't know what it is."

BERMAN: Boesch's husband, Cristophe, and a team led by University of Calgary archaeologist Julio Mercader discovered the 43-hundred year old, irregularly shaped stone hammers. They are virtually identical to ones used by modern-day chimps in the Tai forest.

The experts say the discovery suggests the possibility of a "chimpanzee stone age," the authors write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Study co-author Huw Barton, of the University of Leicester in Britain, finds the possibility of discovery of a stone-age relic intriguing.

BARTON: "This is the first time that someone has really looked and tried to find an archaeology of chimps and now we've got a date of 43-hundred. It's a bit more of an open question now as to how long chimps have been using stone tools, and something that we would normally claim for our own, you know, these are the things that make us human."

BERMAN: Experts say it is not clear whether apes and humans learned nutcracking from a common ancestor or whether they invented it separately. Either way, they say, it provides tantalizing evidence for studies of human evolution.

ELECTRONIC BRIDGE

We sent VOA's Adam Phillips to the American International Toy Fair in New York this week to explore the new world of high-tech toys. Not surprisingly he tells us the sophisticated toys and games on display would be as much at home in a NASA laboratory as in a child's playroom.

PHILLIPS: "Even with 1500 exhibitors competing for attention at this year's American International Toy Fair, it was hard to miss the Megabrands booth where Brian the Brain sat in a jar, holding forth. Brian is an interactive toy that spokesman Steve Donahue says is the world's only animatronic self-contained, neural life-form with an attitude.

… And the way he interacts with the kid is he asks the kid a lot of questions, and gets to learn exactly what the kid's likes and dislikes are, he remembers his friends, the favorite things he does at school, and then, when he is talking to the kid, he can bring those things out in conversations with him…

DONAHUE: "We used a very sophisticated speech recognition program developed by AT&T. It will recognize about twenty different commands verbally. Or the other way to interact with him is on the keypad, almost like instant messaging, where the kid is typing in his requests and responses to Brian."

PHILLIPS: "Brian the Brain is also a personal computer, a telephone. And just plug in your digital music player and he'll give you a light show. What's more, says Donahue…

DONAHUE: "He's got a full Encyclopedia Britannica inside of him, a full dictionary. He's got 10 thousand trivia questions. He's got jokes, puzzles. He's a personal organizer. So a kid can actually put something on his schedule and Brian will tell him 'don't forget next week you've got that big math test!'

PHILLIPS: Many new games and toys are aimed at the tech-savvy teen market. One of this year's hottest products is Spyke, a high-end spy robot developed by Erector, a company well known to earlier generations for its metal construction kits.

Spyke can move, see, listen, play music, compute and take video images with its tiny digital camera, then transmit those images wirelessly over the internet. Erector Vice President Jeff Roberts acknowledges that, because Spyke can be remotely controlled by parents from computers almost anywhere on the planet, the device can be put to uses some kids might not like.

ROBERTS: "If someone's not doing their homework, you can actually use the Spyke, go down the hall, go into the bedroom, make sure they are doing their homework, you can see right through the camera. You can be on the other side of the house. You can be on the other side of the world. It will actually send you an email to your PDA [personal digital assistant] and tells you what time it took the picture."

PHILLIPS: "So it's something for families to fool around with too."

ROBERTS: "Absolutely! [If] you're away for your child's birthday, and you want to see them and say happy birthday, you can just get right on Spikey and say happy birthday!'"

A few booths down, James Elson, the product development director for Spin Master Corporation is having almost too much fun as he flies Air Havoc, the company's ten-gram radio controlled helicopter.

ELSON: "It is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's smallest and lightest helicopter. You have full digital control of up-down and left-right. So you can change that precise hover at whatever altitude you want. By every definition it really is an aircraft.

PHILLIPS: Indeed, except for the fact that it fits easily on the palm of my hand, the Air Hog certainly looks real enough.

ELSON: "There's the little on-off switch, and you see there is a little L.E.D. light to let you know that it is on. So all I have to do is apply the throttle and you'll hear it change throttle as I speed it up." [Sound of engine]

PHILLIPS: "Let's take a flight, shall we?"

ELSON: "You bet. AP: Bye-bye! See you later!" [Engine fades under]

PHILLIPS: "There were many other offerings at this year's American International Toy Fair - from interactive Rubik's cubes - a popular interlocking 3-D puzzle, to lip-synching Barbie dolls - even a miniature red Ferrari sports car that can travel about four kilometers an hour. Perhaps I can interest my own child in some of those toys - once we've finished our old-fashioned game of catch. For Our World, I'm Adam Phillips in New York.

Would you believe that 2.4 billion people worldwide have mobile phones? Maybe you're one of them. If so, stay tuned because in Phoenix, Arizona, there's a guy named Luke Johnson who wants you to call him. Seriously. He's launched what he calls the Luke Johnson Phone Experiment and he's asking total strangers to call him up… and talk about anything. He's received tens of thousands of phone calls from all over the world, according to reporter Rene Gutel who actually met Luke in person.

GUTEL: It all started with a video Luke posted on the popular video-sharing site, Youtube.

JOHNSON (from video): My name is Luke Johnson and this is my phone experiment. The idea behind the experiment is to find out how many people will call me, if I post my cell phone number on the Internet for the whole world to see. My cell phone number is 602…

GUTEL: In his video Luke looks like a typical 20-something. He has shaggy dark blond hair, and an easy-going attitude…. Just the kind of guy you might WANT to talk to… say if you're bored and trolling the internet.

JOHNSON (from video): "I want you to call my cell phone right now. I don't care why you call and I don't care what you say…"

GUTEL: "Since the video was posted in September, Luke's answered more than 60-thousand phone calls. He carries his cell with him all the time ready to talk to complete strangers about anything."

JOHNSON (on cell phone): "(ring… ring)… Luke Johnson's Phone Experiment! Hi, how's it going? You are caller number 11,220, in case you're wondering!"

GUTEL: He's taken calls from all over the globe… from France to Afghanistan, Japan to Australia, India to Korea. He's a walking conversation hotline.

JOHNSON: "For the most part, people just want to find out what caller number they are, and then they want to just say good job, keep it up. There are people who will want to talk for a long time. I've talked to some people for hours before.

"(ring… ring) Luke Johnson Phone Experiment! How's it going? Good. I'm actually doing a radio interview right now…"

GUTEL: Luke says the experiment is fun, but taxing. The first week, he says he didn't turn his cell phone off at all, not even at night, and that he grew exhausted and sleep-deprived. His wife thought he was crazy… but has patiently gone along with the experiment. He eventually had to start setting limits, especially at work. Luke manages a sales team at a for-profit university, and when his boss found out about the phone experiment, he told Luke to stop taking calls on company time.

JOHNSON: "I did have to set some boundaries, definitely."

GUTEL: What's weird about the Luke Johnson Phone Experiment is that even Luke Johnson can't really explain WHY he's doing it, or what he hopes to get out of it.

JOHNSON: "I like trying things that are, are really different and that people haven't done before and some other ones I actually might try soon."

TEXT: Any you can tell us about?

JOHNSON (laughing): Well, there's this one that's a fun idea to me, to try on the most pairs of underwear… so buy the smallest pair, and then the hugest pair and buy hundreds of pairs and just one over the other and get in the Guinness Book of World Records for wearing the most pairs of underwear.

GUTEL: Or it could be that some people just have a need to communicate.

JOHNSON: "I really appreciate your call and please spread the video. Okay, thanks so much. You too. Okay, bye.

MUSIC: Blondie/Call Me

TEXT: Luke can be reached at 602-435-3694. You can bet he's waiting for your call. Be warned though… as his video spreads virally across the internet, and more and more people call him, it's possible you might just get his voice mail.

JOHNSON's VOICE MAIL MESSAGE: "(dialing… ringing) Hello, thank you for calling the Luke Johnson Phone Experiment! I'm currently speaking on the phone with another caller. Please visit my online video at YouTube.com, and post a comment to tell me what state or country you called from. As of Sunday, February 11th, I have received 69,570 calls. Thank you for helping with the experiment. Please leave me a message or call back at another time, and don't forget to pass along the video!"

OPERATOR'S VOICE: This subscriber cannot receive messages at this time. Please try your call again later.

GUTEL: For VOA News Now, I'm Rene Gutel in Phoenix, Arizona.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

And, that's our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on Our World.

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