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Our World Transcript — February 19-20, 2005


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


HOST: Straight ahead on “Our World”… The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change takes force around the globe with the United States on the sidelines… Ancient remains from Ethiopia suggest the human race is older than we think… and we take the pulse of ocean health.

“Most people that I talk to are actually very surprised to hear that about half of the oxygen produced by plants on this planet actually comes from the oceans, not trees or shrubs or grasses. That is what is fueling our global ocean ecosystems.”

HOST: Phytoplankton and a mission to probe Pluto, a planet 40 times farther from the sun than the earth.

Welcome to “Our World,” VOA’s science and technology magazine. I’m Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes.


HOST: The Kyoto Protocol - the landmark United Nations climate change agreement to reduce greenhouse gases emissions - went into effect this week. The United States and Australia are the only industrialized nation that failed to ratify the treaty. The Bush Administration rejected the pact in 2001, saying that compliance would hurt the U.S. economy.

The United States – which contributes 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – also argued that it was unfair to exempt developing countries and major polluters like India and China from the same standards.

U.S. companies with factories in other countries must conform to Kyoto standards. In absence of federal regulations, many of these same organizations are imposing mandates of their own to reduce harmful emissions. Industry leaders like Dupont, International Paper and IBM are members of the Chicago Climate Exchange, an experimental market to limit and trade carbon emissions.

Cities, states and regions across the country are also jumping in to fill the leadership vacuum on the national level.

One hundred fifty four U.S. cities have a plan to fight global warming. They’re part of a growing network organized by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Council outreach director Susan Ode says the Climate Protection Campaign begins with a formal resolution.

SUSAN ODE: ”Local governments conduct an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. They adopt an emissions reduction target. Then they go ahead and implement the changes and keep track of it, and report so that they can improve and also be accountable to the citizens.”

TEXT: The resolution is a commitment to action.

SUSAN ODE: ”Typical of all local government pledges there are a lot of ‘whereas’ clauses. So the resolution does refer to the problems and describes it quite specifically.”

TEXT: Some specifics: Reflective rooftops cool city buildings in Tucson, Arizona. Snowplows and garbage trucks run on bio-diesel fuel in Keen, New Hampshire. Wind energy is a power option in Austin, Texas. And, landfill methane gas produces electricity in Los Angeles. These actions – and hundreds more - add up to an annual reduction of 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and a savings of 400 million dollars in energy costs.

Outreach director Susan Ode says the campaign works because people are taking local action in response to a global problem.

SUSAN ODE: ”Communities (are) where they drive, where they do their business, where they heat and cool their homes. It is also where they have the best access to elected leaders who have control.”

TEXT: Judith Greenwald considers the same issues on the state level as Director of Innovative Solutions for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. She says most U.S. states have implemented laws to address the impact of climate change.

JUDITH GREENWALD: ”So, for example if you look at climate action plans. How many states have climate action plans? There are about 29 of those and they are sort of all over the country. If you look at regional initiatives, the bulk of the country is covered by regional initiatives either on climate change or clean energy.”

TEXT: … Like the nine northeastern states, which have formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Expected to go into force in 2007, the plan would put a cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

JUDITH GREENWALD: ”What that means is that power plants will be assigned limits that they have to meet, but they can either meet those limits at their own facilities or they can trade emission credits with other plants around the region. So it is a way to reach environmental goals, at least cost.”

TEXT: While the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the furthest along, it is not alone. Western governors have developed a renewable energy scheme that would operate on similar trading principles. And Judith Greenwald says states in the upper Midwest have joined under the banner “Powering the Plains.”

JUDITH GREENWALD: ”And that one is interesting because it (involves) state officials, who actually work for the governor, either directly or indirectly. It is also state legislators. It is also with the private sector. So, it is a public private partnership, and the region is figuring out how they can work together to promote renewable energy, bio-fuels, wind power and all of the other kinds of initiatives which both give you clean energy, benefits to the agricultural economy and also help you out on climate change.”

TEXT: Judith Greenwald says at the national level, climate change cannot be separated from the debate over federal policy on everything from agriculture, to energy, to transportation. It is less complicated at the state level, so legislators there have been able to enact emission control laws and set up environmental initiatives. Although these state and local programs are not a substitute for federal action, Ms. Greenwald says they can lay the groundwork for the future.

JUDITH GREENWALD: ”And if you actually have some states out there trying it and you can actually see what it is that people do in response to meeting greenhouse gas constraints and what benefits are and what the costs are, it will be very helpful I think.”

TEXT: As more states implement emission control programs, environmental activists will continue to call on the federal government to incorporate those plans into a national policy to address global climate change.


INTRO: Scientists have developed a technique to determine how healthy the ocean is by assessing its color. They say the green-ness of the water can tell them the condition of microscopic plants crucial to ocean life and to the oxygen cycle we depend on. VOA's David McAlary explains.

McALARY: You wouldn't order phytoplankton from a menu, but these microscopic green algae are an important food. They are the first link of the food chain for all marine life and are most abundant where fish are in great supply.

Phytoplankton is also the undersea lungs of the planet. Ocean biologist Michael Behrenfeld at the U.S. space agency, NASA, says that, like plant life on land, these single-celled floating organisms inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.

MICHAEL BEHRENFELD: "Most people that I talk to are actually very surprised to hear that about half of the oxygen produced by plants on this planet actually comes from the oceans, not trees or shrubs or grasses. That's what is fueling our global ocean ecosystems."

McALARY: Phytoplankton also takes in about half of the carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere by plants. Carbon dioxide is considered a major contributor to global warming. Therefore, the vitality of phytoplankton is crucial to Earth's health.

Scientists have been trying to develop an accurate way to measure its abundance and growth rate since the plants were discovered more than a century ago. A traditional technique measured just the variations in the green color reflected up to satellite cameras by the chemical chlorophyl in phytoplankton. Mr. Behrenfeld says the problem is that no one knows how well the color of the chlorophyl, which can vary based on temperature and the amount of nutrients and light, relates to phytoplankton's volume, or biomass.

The new method Mr. Behrenfeld and his associates developed uses a complex mathematical formula to compare the chlorophyl color to the amount of carbon in the phytoplankton. Carbon is a better predictor for biomass. They are also getting a truer measure of the greenness of the chlorophyl by assessing not only its hue but also brightness, and by correcting for the brighter light bouncing back from land and the atmosphere.

MICHAEL BEHRENFELD: "We can now determine actually how green the individual phytoplankton are from space. From years and years of laboratory studies, we know that the greenness of the cells provides a fingerprint [clue] to growth rate. So that's what we're doing. We're getting the greenness of the cells as well as the biomass, and that gives us growth rate and biomass."

McALARY: The NASA scientist says the two measures together provide a more accurate assessment of ocean quality. The increased clarity will help determine how well the oceans' organisms are holding up under stresses such as pollution and global warming. Mr. Behrenfeld says it will also contribute to improved computer models that better predict how climate change will alter the environment.

MICHAEL BEHRENFELD: "One of the hopes NASA has with all the investment it is putting into Earth-observing satellites is that with this information, we will get a better understanding of how our biosphere functions today. If we can understand how it is working today, we hope that we can predict better how it will behave in the future."

TEXT: Earlier analyses of satellite imagery showed a decline of phytoplankton over the past two decades. But co-researcher David Siegel, a geologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says the good news from the improved analytical method is that it shows much more of the algae in the tropics than previously thought.

DAVID SIEGEL ACT: "The differences are 200 percent for the tropics. We are predicting much more production in the tropics by taking into account that the phytoplankton can change the amount of pigment per cell. So it's very exciting from the point of view of a satellite oceanographer."

McALARY: However, Mr. Siegel says the previous measurement technique overestimated how much phytoplankton production occurs in cooler latitudes.

The researchers warn that they have just begun using their new methods. They say they must collect much more satellite data before they can determine its production rate more precisely to give a more accurate picture of the health of the oceans.


HOST: Planetary scientists are getting excited about Pluto -- even though it never gets closer than four billion kilometers to Earth. A few years ago, the International Astronomical Union in Paris squelched talk about downgrading our solar system’s tiniest planet to mere asteroid status. And Pluto just survived another attempt to ignore it… VOA’s Ted Landphair says -- despite efforts to cancel next year’s planned “New Horizons” space probe to our most distant planet, the NASA project is in President Bush’s 2006 budget.

LANDPHAIR: But don’t pace the floor, waiting for the results of the visit to this far-off hunk of rock, which meanders around the sun for 248 years in a single orbit. If the New Horizons probe is launched, it will take eleven years to reach Pluto.

BRUCE BETTS: “Sounds like there’d be no rush, but there actually is a rush, scientifically.”

LANDPHAIR: Bruce Betts, a scientist at the Planetary Society, a space-advocacy group based in California, says that’s because Pluto has made the turn at one pointy end of its almond-shaped orbit and is now heading away from the sun.

BRUCE BETTS: “At some point, and it’s not exactly clear when, Pluto’s atmosphere is likely to freeze out on the surface. So if you want to see the planet while it actually has an atmosphere and also see whatever surface there is below what would freeze out, you need to do it in the next couple of decades.”

LANDPHAIR: Like rings drawn on a table, our sun’s planets orbit on the same, mostly flat plane. But Pluto’s orbit tilts a bit. It even intersects Neptune’s orbit for twenty years, briefly making Neptune our farthest planet.

Any chance of a monumental collision between Neptune and Pluto? Not really, says Russ Poch, a physics professor at Howard Community College in Maryland, who often writes about planets on the college’s website.

RUSS POCH: “They’re pretty much on opposite sides of the sun when that occurs. So it’s more likely you’re going to have a comet hitting a planet before that.”

LANDPHAIR: Pluto was first spotted seventy-five years ago by a young American astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, who named the distant, dark planet for the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto remained mysterious until 1990, when the Hubble telescope was launched into orbit six hundred kilometers above the Earth.

Hubble provided clear photos and spectral analysis of Pluto and its lone, curious moon, Charon-- curious because Charon is half as big as Pluto itself.

Charon wasn’t found until 1978, hiding amongst the so-called “Kuiper Belt” of objects, including Pluto, that traverse the edges of our solar system beyond Neptune. The Planetary Society’s Bruce Betts says the region is still yielding astonishing new information about our solar system:

BRUCE BETTS: “There have been a couple other discoveries. The most notable, in the past year or so, is a body called Sedna, which is still much smaller than Pluto but is a good-sized body. Sedna has a REALLY strange orbit. It’s very, very, VERY elliptical. It goes much, much, much farther out than Pluto.”

LANDPHAIR: Scientists are itching to get a close look at Pluto because -- like the four inner planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars -- it’s some form of rock, though ice-covered most of the time. It’s not a giant gaseous sphere like the other four outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. And Pluto has some unexplained bright markings that fascinate scientists.

So what? Who cares? And why? Howard Community College’s Professor Poch says even far-off Pluto may help us understand our world.

RUSS POCH: “With the [recent] Cassini probe to the moon Titan of Saturn, it was found to have some gases that were very similar to what our early Earth’s atmosphere had. People always want to hypothesize, ‘Well, if this is there, could life exist?’ We’re based on carbon-based life, but are there other kinds of life that might be based on other types of materials? So it would be interesting to see if there were chemicals out there that primitive life could evolve from.”

LANDPHAIR: A more familiar Pluto -- Mickey Mouse’s pet dog in Walt Disney cartoons -- made his first appearance in 1930, the same year Clyde Tombaugh named the new and distant planet. But the dog did not get its name until the following year. Whether or not Disney named the floppy-eared canine after the planet, he never said. (SIGNED)

SKIRBLE: We end our program this week with a peak into cyberspace. Our Website of the Week gives you a chance to reach out and bring space right into your life.

Unlike the stars, which remain in the same relative position every night, artificial satellites move against the night sky. In fact, the first satellite was named Sputnik, the Russian word for traveler. Today, many satellites can be seen with the naked eye ... if you know where to look. And that's where this week's featured website comes in. Point your browser to

There's a special focus on the International Space Station, including an easy-to-use list of sighting times in almost 700 cities from Afghanistan to Zambia. NASA spokesman John Ira Petty says complex computer algorithms predict whether a satellite will be visible. But he cautions, even if the satellite is in the sky overhead, conditions have to be just right for you to see it.

JOHN IRA PETTY: "The visibility occurs after dusk and before dawn. When they're in the shadow of the Earth you can't see them, and of course during the day you can't seem them either.’

TEXT: A separate feature of this NASA website presents a real-time map showing the current position of the space station, and where the next couple of orbits will take it.

JOHN IRA PETTY: "Well it gives the viewer a chance to see just where the space station is. It provides the viewer with an idea of what sighting opportunities might be available, and it's a graphic representation of just where this exciting orbiting laboratory is."

TEXT: The SkyWatch program also calculates sighting opportunities for seven other satellites. It will display a map of the sky with stars, constellations, sun, moon, and visible planets, plus the track your chosen satellite will take across the sky as observed at your location. You can get similar information from another online NASA program called J-Watch at


HOST: And that’s our show for this week. We welcome your letters. Let us know what you liked or didn’t like or what you’d like to know more about. You can reach us at, or write to us at Our World, Voice of America, Washington DC 20237 USA. Faith Lapidus edited the program. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I’m Rosanne Skirble inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday with Art Chimes as we explore the latest in science and technology on “Our World.”