Accessibility links

Breaking News

Our World — 12 May 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: Taking a new view of nature's bounty as capital assets ... cataloging all of earth's species on the Internet ... and endorsing a plan to build a renewable-energy future for America:

ECKHART: “What you see here in this document is a commitment, a statement that technically we believe that we can provide 25–35 percent of our nation's energy requirements in the next 20–30 years.”

Leaders in the renewable energy industry make an appeal for the planet … that and promising treatments for cervical cancer and osteoporosis. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World."

People in the 21st century, on average, live longer and are better nourished and healthier than ever before in human history. But this progress has come at an alarming cost to the environment.

The United Nations Ecosystem Assessment — released in 2005 — reported that 60 percent of global ecosystems are either degraded or used unsustainably, and that between 10 and 30 percent of the earth's mammal, bird and amphibian species are threatened with extinction.

The UN study suggested attaching a monetary value to those ecological services that sustain life - including clean water, clean air, and healthy soils..

A new report published this week by the World Resources Institute responds to the UN findings with a detailed plan of action.

The report is called “Restoring Nature's Capital.” World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash says it is an effort to rethink the economic, social and political value of nature's bounty.

LASH: “I think the evidence of the Millennium Assessment is not that you should chose differently when you chose between ecosystems and development, it is that you can have ecosystems and development or neither.”

Lash says nature's assets — lands, waters, forests and reefs — are undervalued. He points to the case of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. In the early 1960 farmers began to use its waters to irrigate their crops. Since then the sea has shrunk by half its original size.

LASH: “The result is, the sea has lost 90 percent of its volume. People along the shores who depend on fishing industries or other values coming directly from the Aral Sea have been forced to leave. Some 40,000 people have been driven out. Sixty thousand jobs in canneries in the fishing [industry] were lost. Salt- and pesticide-laden winds now rake across the area and affect crops as much as 1,000 kilometers away.”

The new report offers a plan to reverse this kind of ecosystem degradation. WRI's Jonathan Lash says among its recommendations is one that would give business, government and civil society new information about the capital assets of ecosystems.

LASH: “This is a teachable moment. When we talk about nature this time around — now that the public is once again paying attention — we should go beyond 'charismatic megafauna' and talk about the value of ecosystems to human survival.”

For example, Lash says, consider the role of the manager who must decide whether or not a new shrimp development project should go forward.

LASH: “You couldn't even get good information to make that decision, even if you knew that [the information] would help you and there was some question. Until we create information tools and norms, decision makers can't be held accountable for making better decisions.”

In addition to more information about the value of ecosystems services, the report calls for creating new economic incentives tied to good environmental stewardship, strengthening the rights of local people to use and manage natural resources, making decision-makers more accountable and developing ways to manage nature's bounty across geographic and political lines.

Report co-author Janet Ranganathan:

RANGANATHA: “Those are the five ways that we can start to mesh ecosystem services into the way we make decisions about development. They have to happen simultaneously. There is no good [in] having information if you don't have rights over resources and if you have information but no incentives. You have to line these five these up. So [in the report] we give lots of examples.”

Ranganathan cites how one such project in India is working.

RANGANATHA: “We have a group there that is working on watershed restoration linked to sustainable rural livelihoods. That is an example where communities work together to invest in the restoration of their watersheds. The results have been startling: four to five times increase in income related to some of the rural benefits there. And now it is being taken to scale. We have more than 1,000 villages where the same restoration has happened.”

The World Resources Institute also has initiated a pilot research program with five large multinational companies. Ranganathan says its purpose is to help corporate culture better understand how routine business decisions can impact natural resources and the bottom line.

RANGANATHA: “A good obvious example is Coca-Cola. You know most of its product is fresh water and understanding how they depend on that service and then understanding [what is known] about the conditions and trends of that service, where [they] are actually extracting [water] in the operations. They actually start to develop an understanding of what the business risks and opportunities are of each system change in the context of the business.”

Summing up the report's action plan Ranganathan says, One thing is abundantly clear: when it comes to managing our natural resources, 'business as usual' is no longer an

As people everywhere think anew about taking stock of nature's bounty there's a new Internet site that should make their task much easier. VOA's science editor David McAlary reports the website plans to catalog every living thing on earth — nearly two million known plant and animal species.

McALARY: An electronic Encyclopedia of Life has long been a goal of researchers. They say it is possible only now because of advances in Internet technology, high-resolution digital photography, and the ability to quickly read the genetic codes of species.

EDWARDS: “I almost cannot put into words how exciting this development is for scientists, citizens around the world, and me in particular.”

McALARY: This is James Edwards, the Executive Secretary for the Global Biodiversity Information Center, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the Encyclopedia of Life's first Executive Director.

EDWARDS: “Once completed, the encyclopedia will provide scientists, students, and all citizens with multimedia access to all known living species, even those that have just been discovered.”

McALARY: The project is a collaboration of six scientific organizations including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Harvard University near Boston, and Chicago's Field Museum. But organizers say they hope to gain the participation of institutions around the world.

One of the intellectual forces behind the project is renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who says only about 10 percent of all living things are currently known.

WILSON: “Our lives depend upon this largely unknown living world that we now propose to understand more fully. Humanity exists, in other words, on a little-known planet. What knowledge we have is scattered all through very technical literature. It is hard to obtain. It is usually available to and known about by a limited number of experts.”

McALARY: Wilson says the Encyclopedia of Life will change that and, in so doing, will advance the discovery of new species that could be adaptable to agriculture and medicine. He points out that it will let scientists better anticipate disease outbreaks and the encroachment of invasive plants and animals.

WILSON: “Only with such encyclopedic knowledge can biology as a whole mature as a science and acquire predictive power. Never again need we overlook so many golden opportunities in the living world around us or be so often surprised by the sudden appearance of destructive aliens that spring from that little-known world.”

McALARY: The Encyclopedia of Life will cost $50 million to develop, with support from the six founding institutions and two U.S. charitable foundations.

One of the charities is the MacArthur Foundation, whose president, Jonathan Fanton, says researchers worldwide will be able to contribute their knowledge to the website. He predicts that the project will be a boon to science in low-income countries.

FANTON: “The Encyclopedia of Life has clear utility for information sharing, especially in developing nations, where access to science is very limited. I think it is fair to say this could be a revolution for science in the developing world.”

McALARY: Encyclopedia executive director Edwards says the goal is to catalog one million species — a little more than half of those known — in five years. It is accessible at

The technology exists to curb the potentially harmful greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming. That is the major finding in the most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last week. Some of those technologies, including renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, geothermal and bio-diesel, are generating great interest among people looking for more environmentally friendly energy sources that can compete on the market with fossil fuels.

In his State of the Union Message in January, George Bush told Congress and the American people that it is in the vital interest of the country to diversify the nation's energy supply. He pledged his Administration to the goal of reducing gasoline consumption in the United States by 20 percent over the next decade.

BUSH: “To reach this goal we must increase the supply of alternative fuels by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons [130 billion liters] of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target.”

Leaders in the field of renewable energy applaud the U.S. plan and also support a new report published by the American Council on Renewable Energy, or ACORE for short. Released at an ACORE-sponsored meeting last week, the report describes how renewable energy sources can reduce America's oil appetite, supply jobs and protect the planet from the dangers of climate change.

Speaking to representatives of renewable energy companies and trade groups ACORE's president Michael Eckhart said the report represents a hopeful vision.

ECKHART: “What you see here in this document is a commitment, a statement that technically we believe that we can provide 25–35 percent of our nation's energy requirements in the next 20–30 years.”

The report calls for greater commitment on Capitol Hill from leaders like Washington State congressman Jay Inslee. Inslee, who has written a forthcoming book on clean energy, has also proposed new legislation that would favor the renewable energy industry with long-term tax incentives, research and development support, and a means to tie their energy systems into existing electric power grids.

INSLEE: “Now people can argue, 'Well, gee, we can't subsidize renewable energy. That would be un-American. Well, show me your competitors! Tell me they are not subsidized. [And tell me that] the fossil fuel industries, which you compete with, can put their garbage into our atmosphere and pay nothing for the privilege. We are going to develop a 'cap and trade' system [to govern carbon emissions], which will eliminate that larger subsidy. And when that happens you will become competitive in about seven days.”

But excluding large hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest, renewables account for a scant two percent of America's energy supply. ACORE's Michael Eckhart says the potential is far greater.

ECKHART: “We think in the long-term renewable energy can provide as much as 50 percent of our electricity needs and as much as 50 percent of all of our energy needs as we move on through this next century.”

Eckhart says that future depends on getting consumers to change their habits.

ECKHART: “… to be more energy efficient, to install solar equipment on their homes, to buy green power from their utilities to shift to higher efficiency automobiles and buy ethanol and bio-diesel to begin to shift their patterns. [That is] not to say a less [grand] lifestyle. It could be better. [We must] change how we do things.”

Eckhart says as the market for renewables grows, so will competition among energy providers. And he believes that could level the playing field to make bio-fuels, for example, less costly than gasoline.

ECKHART: “And how it does that is through a variety of techniques that the government has in passing laws that allow the economics to be different. And what we specifically what to do here is simply allow the marketplace to benefit monetarily from these public benefits. If we generate electricity without polluting, who gets paid to do that versus making electricity that does pollute? Right now there is not penalty for the polluting and there is not reward for non-polluting.”

Much like a football coach before a big game, Michael Eckhart rallies his supporters. He says it is within their power to turn the tide on global climate change.

ECKHART: “We are now together in one renewable energy industry with a lot of industries in that. But we are acting together. We are talking together and we are going to politics together and policy together. We each have a solo, but we have a chorus. And you've heard the chorus. That's what you have done here today. We are going to win and we are committed to it.”

Michael Eckhart is optimistic that legislation supporting renewable energy development will reach the President's desk within the year.

Wind power is among the fastest growing renewable energy sources in the United States It has quadrupled since 2000 and the facilities found in 36 states produce about 1 percent of the nation's electricity. That's expected to increase to as much as seven percent within 15 years.

A new report released by the National Academies of Science looks at the environmental impacts of wind farms, a study requested by the U.S. Congress. It notes that wind turbines kill 20,000–37,000 birds each year. Migratory bats are also at risk.

Paul Risser is chairman of the committee that prepared the report. He says the industry has grown far faster than the nation's ability to plan or regulate it.

RISSER: “We need to have the kind of planning steps and the kind of regulatory steps that our study describes and those need to be aligned all the way from the federal level to the local level to make sure that we not only measure the impact of individual wind facilities but also the cumulative effects when one builds two or three facilities side by side even if they maybe in different states.”

The report estimates that wind could displace approximately 4.5 percent of greenhouse gases emissions within 15 years in the United States. While this is good news, Risser says, wildlife must be considered as new turbines are built.

RISSER: “Taking into account the information we have today we can make better decisions on where to site these facilities and that we need to continue to measure them so we know the impacts.”

While to date, all wind farms in the United States have been built on land, some new developments are taking place offshore, encouraged by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which has promoted the search for new renewable energy resources. This has created some unexpected tensions between renewable energy advocates and other environmental groups eager to protect delicate offshore ecosystems.

Jan Sluizer reports from San Francisco:

SLUIZER: The Energy Policy Act authorized a small but powerful bureau within the U.S. Interior Department to lead the push to develop renewable energy resources.

Known more for negotiating offshore leases with oil and gas drillers than for protecting the environment, the Minerals Management Service, or MMS, was also required by the 2005 law to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for all off-shore renewable energy projects, and to solicit public comment on those projects by holding a nationwide series of open hearings.

Maurice Hill is the MMS official who's been coordinating these hearings in cities across the United States, including the latest one here in San Francisco:

HILL: “We invited the public here to San Francisco to give their input to the Minerals Management Service, to hear about the types of impacts that they see, the types of mitigation measures that they see. We want them to tell us anything that we have missed.”

SLUIZER: Hill says public interest in renewable energy, especially wind power, is growing, as is the industry itself.

HILL: “It's a nascent industry. They're feeling their way. They're trying to work through the issues to develop this new technology. They're essentially pioneers in this process. To be honest, it's an uncertain viability. Each technology will be tested. Some will work; some won't. Survival of the fittest.”

SLUIZER: At every public hearing there has been broad agreement that the Energy Policy Act is an important first step in weaning the nation from dependence on fossil fuels. But opinions have differed sharply on specific renewable energy projects and their potential environmental impacts.

At previous New York and New Jersey public hearings, for example, many witnesses expressed concern that a proposed offshore wind energy project, involving hundreds of massive wind turbines, might interfere with commercial fishing operations along the mid-Atlantic coast.

At a public hearing in Boston, wildlife experts told the MMS officials they fear that large numbers of birds could be struck and killed by spinning wind turbines now planned to be built on an important bird migration route.

Other witnesses complained that the proposed offshore wind turbine array, which would likely be visible from the beach, would destroy the visual beauty of the New England coastline.

Questions of federal-versus-state control over the offshore environment have also come up. West Coast states, for example, have jurisdiction over the first three nautical miles offshore. The federal government has control over the next 197 nautical miles.

At the San Francisco public hearing, environmental groups expressed concern that the nation's Outer Continental Shelf, as this offshore region is known, might be zoned by the federal government for renewable energy development without sufficient local oversight or environmental safeguards.

Kate Wing is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, working on its oceans program.

WING: “Until we have a national policy about how we are going to govern our oceans from three to 200 miles, this PEIS is really going to be the first step into the fray about how we stick things in that area of our oceans, be they for energy or for the production of food or for whatever uses may be coming our way.”

SLUIZER: Wing says her organization believes the stakes are very high at these public hearings, because the PEIS — the Interior Department's environmental impact statements — will set the ground rules for development of the country's renewable energy resources for years to come.

KATE WING: “It's really important that we get it right and that we do it in a way that protects all of those important natural resources out there, and still allows us to do things like create alternative energy that are going to help us reduce the impacts of global warming. Someone needs to be in charge and taking leadership and creating a vision for how the oceans are going to be, how they are going to look years from now, and not just that we have individual agencies doing their own thing, not paying attention to what the other ones are working on.”

SLUIZER: After the San Francisco public hearing, Minerals Management Service official Maurice Hill tried to offer activists like Kate Wing some reassurance. Hill said his office would continue to work closely with local, state and other federal agencies to address public concerns about offshore energy projects and their potential environmental impact.

Turning to health news: Two studies appearing this week in the New England Journal of Medicine confirm that a new vaccine is effective in preventing cervical cancer, a disease that kills almost 300,000 women around the world each year. But as VOA's Jessica Berman reports, some observers worry that unanswered questions still surround the new vaccine.

When it as approved by U.S. regulators a year ago, health officials were very excited about what was billed as the first cancer vaccine.

The drug, called Gardisil, protects women and young girls against four types of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV, including two aggressive cancer-causing types.

Now, two international studies involving thousands of women in 16 countries have reached a similar conclusion.

Kevin Ault is a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University in the US state of Georgia, and co-author of one of the two, three-year studies which involved 5,400 women between the ages of 16 and 24.

AULT: “We found that we had 98 percent protection against the precancerous changes caused by those two types.”

But unlike prior studies that led to Gardisil's approval here in the US, the women in the latest studies were not first screened for HPV infection. They were treated like regular patients and vaccinated.

The vaccine proved to be less effective overall because the drug did not benefit women who were already infected with the virus.

So, while Gardisil remains 98 percent effective in preventing HPV infection in most women and girls who have not been exposed to the virus, its overall effectiveness drops by half.

But Kevin Ault says the vaccine is more beneficial than the numbers would now suggest.

AULT: “In the study, we found that 75 percent of women had not been exposed to any four types in the vaccine, and we were studying women in their late adolescence and twenties who were sexually active. So, you know it depends upon whether you look at a glass half empty or half full.”

In the second study published in the New England Journal, researchers also found the vaccine to be extremely effective in protecting selected groups of women against HPV.

But Karen Smith-McCune, a gynecologist at the University of California in San Francisco, is troubled by another finding:

Seventeen percent of vaccinated women in the study developed precancerous changes. Gardisil targets two of the most aggressive HPV types that are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers.

Smith-McCune says that leaves 15 other HPV types with the potential to cause cervical cancer.

SMITH-MCCUNE: “One of the unknowns still is whether vaccination will alter the behavior in any way of the remaining non-vaccine types of HPV.”

Experts agree that for the time being, the vaccine won't replace the need for annual screening exams to look for precancerous changes that might be caused by the other 15 HPV types.

In other health news, Rose Hoban reports on a once-a-year drug that shows great promise in treating osteoporosis, a disease that makes bones prone to fracture, especially among older people.

HOBAN: In some countries, the lifetime risk of an older woman having a hip, wrist or vertebral fracture is between 40 and 50 percent, according to Dr. Jane Cauley from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

CAULEY: “Hip fractures are the most devastating consequence of osteoporosis, associated with high risk of mortality within one year of the hip fracture and are a major cause of loss of independence of an older woman and older man so that 50 percent of women or men after their hip fractures aren't able to carry out their activities of daily living.”

HOBAN: Cauley was one of the international researchers who worked on the trial of a drug called zoledronic acid to prevent the bone density loss that's associated with developing osteoporosis. One interesting property of these medications, Cauley notes, is how long they stay active in the body — a property known as half-life.

CAULEY: “These types of compounds, bisphosphanates, have very long half-lives, so the half life is 10 years or more, and that's why they can be given intermittently and the patterns of use of some of the oral bisphosphanates is at least weekly or monthly.”

HOBAN: In the trial, Cauley and the other researchers gave 4000 women a single yearly intravenous infusion of zoledronic acid and studied what happened to their rate of hip fractures. They compared those women to another 4,000 women who received a placebo. The study lasted for three years.

CAULEY: “Women who were randomized to the active zoledronic acid experienced a significant reduction in their risk of fracture. So that their risk of vertebral fracture was reduced by 70 percent, and their risk of hip fracture was reduced by 40 percent and all fractures were reduced by about 25 percent.”

HOBAN: Cauley says the researchers will continue to study all the women for at least three more years.

The drug is already on the market for use in several other disorders including the bone loss associated with certain cancers. The research appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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, 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.