National News

Darkened By A Bloody History, Baltics Hope To Be Bolstered By NATO

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 13:02

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are now members of the EU and NATO, but they have painful memories of the Soviet occupation. The Baltic states are asking for a bigger NATO presence in their countries.

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Captain Ahab's Revenge: Brewing Beer From An Ancient Whale Bone

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:52

Yeast scraped from a 35-million-year-old whale fossil is the key ingredient in a "paleo ale" from a Virginia brewery. Like many scientific innovations, the idea came about late one night over a pint.

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China's fight for cleaner air

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:23

As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

For the people of Beijing in 2008, "it" was air pollution. "Up until then, every day the sky was a shade of gray or cream," says Huang Wei, Director of Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Program in Beijing, "But in the countdown time to the Olympics, the sky suddenly turned blue. Many of us, people of all ages, would stop on the street and marvel at how wonderful it was."

Beijing had shut down factories, restricted traffic, and improved public transportation, all in time for the opening ceremony of the Summer Games to escape international ridicule and embarassment for its perpetual toxic smog that made any athletic endeavor harmful to your health. But after the closing ceremony, Beijing was right back where it started. As the blue sky disappeared behind the familiar veil of smog, the people of Beijing had learned a valuable lesson: "The Olympic Games revealed to everyone - the government and the people - that in terms of solving our air pollution problem, it can be done," says Zhang Jianyu, China Director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

But China still had a ways to go. In response to the global economic crisis that same year, Chinese leaders announced a $586 billion stimulus plan focused on building infrastructure, allowing the pollution to get worse. At the same time, the U.S. embassy in Beijing installed an air monitor on its building and began broadcasting hourly levels of a range of pollutants, including PM2.5 - particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns - tiny enough to penetrate your lungs and enter your bloodstream. “Up to that point, China’s government reported the air quality, but it wasn’t very specific," says Greenpeace's Huang Wei. "If the pollution level reached a certain point, they might publish it as simply 'bad.'”

The U.S. Embassy air monitor, however, spat out numbers. People in Beijing downloaded smartphone apps that recorded the U.S. Embassy’s hourly Air Quality Index and many began to memorize what the numbers meant. 0 to 50 meant the air was good – rarely the case. An average air quality reading in Chinese cities hovered around 150 – labeled ‘unhealthy,’ but sometimes, it climbed into the 300 to 500 range, prompting officials to urge people to stay inside. “When it’s 400, I don’t ride my bike anymore,” says Zhou Xizhou, director at IHS Energy in Beijing. “There is the physical side, you can feel it," says Zhou of Beijing's worst air days, "I do feel it in my eyes, but for a lot of people it’s also psychological. Just being in a gray polluted environment, you feel somewhat suppressed.”

In the winter of 2012-13, pollution levels went beyond the U.S. Embassy’s own index, forcing airports to shut down because pilots couldn’t see the runway. The international press dubbed it ‘the airpocalypse’. That winter in Beijing saw air quality index readings climbing towards 1,000. As a comparison, when the air quality in Paris hit 150 this year, the city instituted a driving ban and offered free public transportation.

But Zhou says there is good news on the horizon. “What’s encouraging being in the energy sector is that we are seeing unprecedented actions and determination to address this issue. A part of me wishes that this will be China’s 'Silent Spring' Rachel Carson moment."

Zhou says China’s way of addressing air pollution is different from the American approach of the 1960s and '70s, the era of clean air legislation and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

China’s government prefers the mandate approach. “For example, issuing a mandate that says every coal fired power station in Beijing will be gone by the year 2016," says Zhou, "You can’t do that in America.”

China’s top-down authoritarian regime may inspire hope that China could clean up its air with a few snaps of its leaders’ fingers. But in China, central power has limits - local governments in China often disregard new mandates and laws handed down from the Beijing because there’s often no funding to implement them. “China’s local governments have no motivation at all to deal with environmental problems unless they make money," says Peking University Professor Xu Jintao. "That’s why I think a pollution tax would work. If some of that revenue goes to fund the local government, they’ll quickly help solve this problem.”

Using London as a model, Beijing has plans next year for a traffic congestion charge on drivers who enter the city. Xu says implementing these kinds of measures now, while China’s consumer culture is still young, is important because it frames a new social mindset. “China’s growth model is based on the idea that natural resources are free," says Xu, "We’ve never considered clean water, clean land, or clean air as scarce resources. But now, in China, they are scarce. Nothing is free. When you go the market, you won’t find free cabbage. You need to pay for it. And now Chinese consumers will need to pay for clean air, land, and water.”

But the Environmental Defense Fund’s Zhang Jianyu isn’t sure Chinese consumers will sacrifice the perks of being a consumer just to save the environment. “Everyone in China now wants a car, and it’s hard to deny them that," points out Zhang. "If China’s 1.3 billion people live like Americans, planet earth is finished. That’s my biggest concern. How can you deprive the Chinese of their right to become consumers and live a modern lifestyle? None of the developed countries have been good models, and we're heading down the same path of consumerism.”

It’s a path the U.S. has already traveled, polluting much of the world in the process, and now it’s China’s turn, says Zhang. If the U.S. and other developed countries don’t help China clean up, he says, the smog that plagued LA in the 1950s will return.

Except this time, it’ll be blowing from across the Pacific.

With A Deadline Days Away, Iran Nuclear Deal Might Get An Extension

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to Washington, D.C., after meeting the Iranian foreign minister about nuclear negotiations. The deadline for a deal limiting Iran's nuclear program is Sunday, but it might be extended.

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A Brief Lull Shatters In Gaza, As Cease-Fire Falls Apart

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

An attempt at a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas has broken down. Hamas rejected the terms of the cease-fire, and Israel renewed its campaign of air strikes on the Gaza Strip.

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Despite Brightening Signs, Fed Is Likely To Stay The Course

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is on Capitol Hill, delivering her semi-annual economic report to Congress. Yellen expressed concern that labor force participation remains weak and that there's been a lack of progress in the housing sector.

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A Few New Faces Aren't Likely To Satisfy Iraqi Government's Critics

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

Iraq chose a new speaker of its parliament today — a small step that the U.S. has been urging it to take toward ending the crisis there. But many say it's far from the overhaul that's needed.

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Vargas, Journalist And Immigration Activist, Is Detained In Texas

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented Filipino immigrant, has been detained at a Border Patrol station.

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House GOP Counters Obama's Request By Promising Own Proposal

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

House Republicans have resisted granting President Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency immigration funds. Now, they're crafting a package of their own to respond to the crisis at the border.

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Bloated In Budget And Absent At Airshow, F-35 Charts A Troubled Course

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be combat-ready next year. But the aircraft, which is already over-budget, failed to show up at the International Air Show in the UK. The show was to be its big overseas debut. Christopher Werth looks at what this means for the plane's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

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California Rolls Out Statewide Restrictions On Water Use

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

California is set to impose mandatory water restrictions Tuesday. Urban water users will be prohibited from spraying down pavement, watering landscaping in a way that causes runoff and running fountains that do not re-circulate their water.

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How Congress Is Turning To A Finesse Of Wording In Highway Payments

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:21

Lawmakers looking for ways to patch a hole in the Highway Trust Fund have zeroed in on a budget gimmick called "pension smoothing." Visitors outside the nation's capital say it has a nice ring to it — until they find out what it really means.

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Why Some Politicians Turn Down Free Money

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:14

Once in a while, elected officials turn down raises because they think it looks bad if they're also having to cut budgets or raise taxes. Sometimes, though, they're genuinely altruistic.

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U.S. Customs Seize Giant African Snails Bound For Dinner Plates

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:06

Officials say the snails are "highly invasive, voracious pests" that eat paint and stucco off houses. But the snails are a prized delicacy in West Africa, where they're marinated or grilled on sticks.

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Laughing in Hollywood just got cheaper

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:02

Hollywood is making a lot of comedy films this summer, but they're not spending as much as they were before. The cost of making a comedy has dropped almost 50 percent in the past four years.

So what does this mean for the movies that weren’t a big hit in the box office, like "Blended," starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore? Are those movies going to lose money?

"They’re still going to make money," says Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief at The Wrap. "It’s not going to make $100 million at the box office, like most Adam Sandler comedies have in the past, but it’s still going to make a profit."

Hollywood has finally figured out how to pay the talent less, and keep production costs down. However, these movies are still profitable because overseas ticket sales make up 70% of the global box office.

"When it comes to comedies, humor is such a particular thing," says Waxman. "It may work in some countries, and not work in others."

In China, the polluter 'that-must-not-be-named'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 11:31

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is home to a thriving teahouse culture. But there’s more than tea brewing here. The tradition of chatting away the day with friends has, for centuries, made it easier for folks here to gossip and talk about politics and current events. Lately, the talk has been about air pollution.

“There are more people and more cars and more industry," complains Wu Youqiong, who sits and drinks tea with her family, "The pollution is bad for all of us – we all have lungs. The government needs to do something about it.”

In the past year, one of the most notorious projects in the history of China’s oil industry began operation outside the city. It’s a $6 billion petrochemical plant run by China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s largest state-owned oil company, and it has become a focus of a corruption investigation into the family of Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief. "The people here didn’t want the plant built, but they built it anyway," says Wu, "It’s going to harm everyone’s health. It’s something people should protest."

The people of Chengdu tried.

Last year, many here among the city’s 14 million residents planned a weekend public demonstration to protest the plant. When the local government found out, police detained organizers, sent out text messages warning people to stay inside, and the government required people to work on the Saturday of the protest, forcing high school and university students to remain in class through the weekend.

Officials are still paranoid– within minutes of arriving in Chengdu, I call a source who had agreed to talk with me about how the pollution affects her family. She abruptly cancels our interview – she’s being interrogated by police officers who had intercepted our emails and text messages. The next day, I hire a driver to take me to Pengzhou, the site of the petrochemical plant. It's a refinery that’s as large as the nearby city. In a small village in the plant’s shadow, I stop to talk to a farmer. "My home was destroyed for the plant last August," a woman tells me, "The sky here is always polluted now. The plant has had a huge impact on our health."

Before I can get her name, a man pulls up beside me on a motorcycle and asks me what I’m doing. He glares at the woman and she dashes off.

I tell him I’m a journalist and I’m talking to people about pollution. “There’s no pollution here,” he says.

Before I can ask him more questions, he makes a call on his cellphone. A minute later, a group of thugs show up. I hop in the car, and we drive to another location where I again begin talking with people, but the men catch up to me and intimidate them, too. Before long, I'm being chased out of Pengzhou by six cars; a motorcade of thugs with a foreign journalist in the lead.

Back safely in Chengdu, I speak with Jin Lei and Guo Xiaohong, a husband and wife who are concerned about the plant. "A lot of people are concerned about the plant," says Guo, who used to work for an environmental NGO in Chengdu. "but people are no longer willing to do anything about it – they don’t think they can change the situation."

Jin and Guo’s two daughters are playing in their living room. A couple of years ago, when the pollution in Chengdu was particularly bad, the couple had to bring both girls to the emergency room several times for breathing problems. “The pollution that year was just as bad as Beijing’s," remembers Jin. "I used to train for triathalons, but I’ve stopped that because my bronchitis was so bad.”

Back in 2005 when Jin and Guo were studying at elite schools in Beijing, they were among a group of students permitted to attend a talk by Al Gore. He was visiting Beijing to talk about his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. After the talk, officials allowed only one question from students.

Jin raised his hand and Gore called on him.

“I asked Mr. Gore what can we, as normal people, do to help China’s environment?" remembers Jin. "He said, ‘You are the representatives of China’s young generation, and you must have faith that things can change. If you don’t have faith, then future generations will have less faith.’”

Jin and Guo have now applied this message to how they live in Chengdu. The couple uses reclaimed water to help grow their urban garden, and they’ve taught their daughters to use bath water to help flush the toilet. “Whatever mandate the government hands down that will help protect our environment, we will support it 100 percent," says Jin. "As a country, we must work together. Otherwise, we’ll all pay the price.”

We must have faith, he says, echoing what Al Gore told him - that things can change. But sometimes in China, it’s hard to keep that faith: Just two hours after I leave Jin and Guo’s home, the police show up to intimidate them, too.

What bright lights can tell you about a nation's economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:52

The pale blue dot aglow with millions of little lights. It's an image that never ceases to fascinate. But those lights might tell us more than you think.

A new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics says that cities and regions that are the birthplaces of a country's leader recieve perferential political and economic treatment in some nations, evidenced by how bright they appear from space after the leader comes into power.

From Wired Magazine:

Paul Raschky from the Monash Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability at Monash University in Australia compared the night-time light intensity of 38,427 subnational regions between 1992 and 2009 with the birthplaces of political leaders of 126 countries.

"Our results suggest that being the leader's birthplace increases night-time light intensity and regional GDP by around four and one per cent respectively," Raschky said, citing previous research that confirms the connection between economic activity and light generated at night.

Here's a look at some of the cities that the study examined, and other images from orbit that show how different economic conditions can change the view from space:

Gbadolite, Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo)

A screenshot from NASA's "Blue Marble" application showing the city of Gbadolite. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

This small town in the Democractic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) was emphazised by the study for the lavish economic favoritism bestowed upon it by the country's authoritarian president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was born near Gbadolite.

"Mobuto built a huge palace complex costing millions of dollars, luxury guesthouses, an airport capable of handling Concords, and had the country's best supply of water, electricity and medical services," says study researcher Paul Raschky.

Hambantota, Sri Lanka

A screenshot from NASA's "Blue Marble" application showing the region of Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

Another region identified in the study for receiving preferential treatment from Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was born in the district. The largest city in the area, Hambantota has a population of 11,000, has seen the construction of a 35,000-seat cricket stadium, and has plans to build a large port.

North Korea and South Korea

An image taken from the International Space Station on Jan. 30, 2014, shows South Korea (lower right) and China (upper left) with North Korea in the center. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory) 

A photograph from space perfectly illustrates differences in economic development between North and South Korea — a brightly illuminated South, and an eerily dark North.

The Nile River

(Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

The Nile River with its valleys and delta make up less than five percent of Egypt’s land area, but more than 90 percent of its population lives there. The string of lights illuminating the river's path through the country at night highlights the societal importance of the Nile in Egypt.

North Dakota's fracking fields

Illustration by NPR/NASA

An NPR science writer was looking through NASA's images of Earth at night, and noticed an unusual glow coming from the normally fairly dark North Dakota, one that revealed how the light across the U.S. is still subject to economic changes.

Their explanation:

What we have here is an immense and startlingly new oil and gas field — nighttime evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. One hundred fifty oil companies, big ones, little ones, wildcatters, have flooded this region, drilling up to eight new wells every day on what is called the Bakken formation.

What was previously wheat and corn fields has quickly become a blazing energy business that has made North Dakota the second largest gas-producing state in the country.

Two Former State Attorneys General Arrested In Utah

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:49

The former chief law enforcement officers face 23 counts of bribery, obstruction of justice and other charges. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert calls it "a black eye" for the state.

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Odin's Beard! Marvel Announces A New Thor — And She's A Woman

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:02

The comic book publisher said the new character will be the Thor of the Marvel Universe.

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Why A Village Leader Ordered The Rape Of A 14-Year-Old In India

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:00

Rape is illegal in India. But history and tradition make it hard to enforce the law. And in remote parts, rape of a female relative is still considered fair punishment for a man's crimes.

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