Ray Suarez: From American Public Media, this is Reports from a Warming Planet, an American RadioWorks documentary. I’m Ray Suarez.
Across the world, a warming Earth is changing human lives and livelihoods.
William Kiwali: My farm is dry now, and so are the other farms, because there is not enough water.
These changes are already being felt from the arctic to the tropics.
Rosita Ramos: We had a creek right down there, a little waterfall. That’s where we would get water to drink and to wash our clothes. That waterfall was big, but now it’s really small.
Now entire countries are beginning to prepare for much larger changes.
Saleemul Huq: The numbers of people that will probably have to be relocated are in the tens of millions.
Fala Haulangi: Everything will disappear. Definitely, it’s going to be really hard for us to accept the fact that we’re no longer on the map!
In the coming hour, a special journey across the world, on-the-ground reports on the early signs of climate change.
Reports from a Warming Planet from American RadioWorks. First, this news update.
Suarez: This is Reports from a Warming Planet, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I’m Ray Suarez.
Around the globe, people are noticing changes to the world that surrounds them.
Israeli Saguro: When there wasn’t drought, I lived a happy life. I wasn’t suffering like I am now.
Marcelo Sevillano: It’s not just here. It wasn’t like this 15-20 years ago.
Caleb Royal: And it’s not normal. That didn’t happen 30 years ago.
Myrtle Demeulles: We love this place. We’ll learn to live with what’s happening. Except for this warm weather. We just don’t understand what the heck’s going on.
The early signs of climate change are showing up across vastly differing landscapes. From melting outposts near the arctic circle, to disappearing glaciers high in the Andes… from the deepest lake in Africa, which keeps getting warmer, to the deltas of Bangladesh and the atolls of the Pacific, where the water’s edge creeps closer. As we’re about to hear, in each of those places, climate change is no longer restricted to scientific modeling about the future. It’s happening now.
Last fall, a team of eleven young reporters, led by veteran environmental journalist Sandy Tolan, gathered in a classroom at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley. Their assignment: to identify the places around the world where global warming is already making changes to life and landscape. Sandy Tolan takes it from there.
Sandy Tolan: Our reporting team spent the first few weeks poring over thousands of pages of documents on the science and politics of global warming. We made lists of the dozens of places around the world where we might investigate. Our science advisor and my co-teacher was climatologist John Harte, of UC-Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. Under his guidance, we focused on two conclusions of scientists around the world: first, that the earth’s atmosphere is growing warmer-warmer than at any time in recorded history. And second, that this warming is driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. We found that climatologists have essentially reached consensus on both points. The intergovernmental panel on climate change, more than 2000 scientists working in more than a hundred countries, has concluded that global warming is happening and is driven largely by humans. So we decided not to focus on the false balance in much of the US media-the ‘is global warming real?’ debate that gives equal weight to unequal sides. Instead, we took it as a given that the world is heating up. We focused on the impact, in human terms, of a warming planet.
At the end of 2005, our team of reporters set out from UC-Berkeley to eight places around the globe. They came back with stories about how global warming is already changing people’s lives.
We begin with a story of melting ice. Sometime over the last few years, as temperatures rose in the Andes, the glacier atop a mountain in Ecuador vanished. Creeks are drying up. Lake levels are plummeting. The indigenous Quichua people in local villages are competing for shrinking supplies of water, while they try to understand what happened. Pauline Bartolone and Felicia Mello traveled high in the Andes of Northern Ecuador to get the story. As Pauline tells us, they met a villager named Rosita, a mother of four, who helped them learn the stories of the mountain know as Cotacachi.
[Rosita Ramos speaking in Spanish]
Bartolone: As a young girl, Rosita Ramos heard old people tell stories of the mountain that towers above their Quichua village. This mountain was alive, the old folks said, and her name was Mama Cotacachi. She was a mother who provided for the children living at her feet.
Rosita Ramos: For us, the mountain is not a volcano filled with lava or rocks. It’s full of grains and potatoes and all of the energy of the crops that we have here. We have a lot of contact with nature. Our parents always had a good communication with the land. And because of this communication they always had good harvests.
Bartolone: Wearing bright beaded jewelry, Rosita sits on a couch in the coolness of her simple concrete home. She has taken a break from the harsh midday sun that shines down on Cotacachi, a wide volcano rising to 16,000 feet, just 20 miles north of the equator.
The people here, Rosita says, think of the mountain as a beautiful pale-skinned woman with long white hair. Portraits show her wearing a cap of snow.
Ramos: I remember when I was little, I would see Cotacachi after a snowfall and she would be covered with snow. And now I see her with very little snow. We had a creek right down there, a little waterfall. That’s where we would get water to drink and to wash our clothes. That waterfall was big, but now it’s really small.
Bartolone: Indigenous people have shared stories about the mountain for generations. Lately their tales seem to hint at troubling changes. Rosita gathers those tales. She takes us across mountain canyons to a nearby town, where Maria Perugache is sifting quinoa on a blue blanket in front of her mud home. [sifting, conversation]
The two women talk in their native Quichua. Behind them, the bare brown peak of Mama Cotacachi pierces the clouds. Cotacachi is married to a nearby volcano, Perugache tells Rosita, but it hasn’t been a happy match.
Ramos: She says, “When they argue the thunderbolts fall, boom, boom. And that startles us, and we say ‘Oh my God, they are fighting!’ And that makes us laugh.” [laughing]
Bartolone: Not everyone in Cotacachi’s 43 mountain villages has heard the term “global warming.” But, according to scientists, that’s exactly what’s contributing to changes in their communities. Temperatures have gone up nearly three degrees Fahrenheit in the Ecuadorian Andes in the past half century.
Toward the end of our time in Cotacachi, Rosita takes us to a nearby village to visit a yacha, a Quichua spiritual leader. His name is Don Jose Maria Montalvo, and he uses herbs and prayers to cure patients in the patio of his tile-roofed home. He comes out to meet us in a tattered sweater and sweatpants, holding a glass ball that he says is made of ice from the mountain. The shaman’s eyes are tired. As Rosita translates, he says he draws his powers from Cotacachi. But lately, their relationship is changing.
Don Jose Maria Montalvo: [Ramos translating; Voiceover] Before, I could enter into the mountain, he says. She would come to me. But now it’s not the same. I can feel her energy pulling away.
Bartolone: The shaman says the mountain is responding to changing cultural ways. In a dream, Cotacachi showed him that people were burning the grass on her slopes.
Montalvo: [Ramos translating; Voiceover] And Cotacachi said to him ‘I’m burnt, look how they have burnt all my skirts.’ And since then he sees that the water is going away. The rain is decreasing. The weather also is changing. And finally he realized that his energy is disappearing, too.
Bartolone: The view from one small corner of the Andes, where memory stretches back a long way. But not long enough to remember a mountain with no snow.
Tolan: As Pauline Bartolone and Felicia Mello learned, Cotacachi’s vanished glacier is prompting more than cultural and spiritual loss. With creeks drying up, fights are breaking out over scarce resources, and some farmers suddenly find they don’t have enough water to grow food. So it is on the slopes of another receding glacier half a planet away. In Tanzania, the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro are in alarming retreat. There, like the people of Cotacachi, farmers are struggling with the changing weather. Reporter Kate Cheney Davidson traveled to the slopes of Hemingway’s famous mountain in northeastern Tanzania.[bird calls, voice of William Kiwali]
Kate Cheney Davidson: Meet William Kiwali, chairman of the small village of Kifura.
[faint sound of birds and insects]
William Kiwali: I’m a farmer. I grow coffee, corn, and bananas.
Davidson: Here on a sun baked farm a half-mile below Kilimanjaro National Park, the evidence of a changing climate is obvious. [sounds of walking in a dry cornfield] Mr. Kiwali leads us into a field of parched cornstalks that lean like drunkards at a bar. His farm, like many others on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, is not doing well.
Kiwali: My farm is dry now, and so are the other farms, because there is not enough water.
Davidson: Normally this region of East Africa receives two periods of precipitation, but the short rains, which were due in September, haven’t come for the past three years. Mr. Kiwali’s farm is one of hundreds that blanket this area, located in Mt. Kilimanjaro’s rain shadow. And despite occasional droughts, there’s usually plenty of water here. But Mr. Kiwali says this is not the land he remembers as a child.
Kiwali: In the past there was a lot of ice on the mountain, and the rivers were so full we could not cross them. Now there’s not enough water and the ice is diminished.
Davidson: For generations, people here have relied on a clever system of furrow irrigation. It can send water to farms miles away from any source. But now local villagers say the rivers and streams that feed the irrigation ditches are starting to go dry.
Kiwali: No, there’s not enough water for people, so they start quarreling. Sometimes they cut each other with machetes. It’s not normal. In the past there was no such thing.
Kelly West: My name is Kelly West and I work for IUCN, the World Conservation Organization based in Eastern Africa. We’re not just in a period of a few bad years. Climate change is happening and people need to change the way they use water. People are still in the mentality that we’re just having a bad year, but you’re not going to have the rains that you remember from your childhood again.
[sound of insects humming and children playing]
Davidson: There’s one region where the future is already here. As you might expect, it’s downstream. The people of Mwangaria, a village on the dry, dusty savanna below Mt. Kilimanjaro, are losing their traditional sources of water. In this part of Africa, as in some other places that fortune has skipped over, climate change is likely to aggravate what humans have already done to the landscape.
Israeli Saguro: My name is Israeli Saguro. My family name is Mmanyi, and I’m 52 years old. Yeah, sometimes we had drought, but not like this. I think it has been three years now and we have harvested nothing. When you grow corn they dry up before they can blossom. It used to be different than it is now. When there wasn’t drought, I lived a happy life. I wasn’t suffering like I am now. I had plenty of food and water, and the weather was good. Now it’s extremely hot and there is no day when the weather is good.
[sounds of insects]
Davidson: Mr. Saguro gets up from the couch in his modest house made of narrow logs chinked with mud. Gently, he lifts a small wooden instrument from a peg on the wall. It’s called an irimba, and his father showed him how to make it. [strumming of irimba] Mr. Saguro tells us he knows exactly what song he wants to play.
Saguro: I wanted to play this song because I see what is happening now in this generation.
Davidson: The song says people are dying and asks, who is willing to climb aboard the Lord’s ship to help?[irimba playing and singing, fading under]
Suarez: That report by Kate Cheney Davison, with Elizabeth Chur. When we come back, a tour of island and delta nations, where people face another, even more drastic impact: rising waters, and the loss of their homes, their culture, and even their place on the map.
I’m Ray Suarez. You’re listening to Reports from a Warming Planet, from American RadioWorks. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is Reports from a Warming Planet, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I’m Ray Suarez.
This hour, we’re looking at the signs of climate change around the world. Melting ice is already causing problems for people living in the warming Arctic, and on the slopes below ancient glaciers. In the not-so-distant future, ice melt could plague people much further away, who live on seacoasts around the world. People along most of the world’s coastlines aren’t feeling the impact yet, but some are already leaving their homes … and others are making plans to ride out the coming changes. Here again is reporter and UC-Berkeley journalism professor Sandy Tolan.
Tolan: Rising seas represent one of the gravest threats of global warming. Sea levels are already on the rise, because warming water expands. According to a 2001 report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change, seas could rise anywhere from three inches to three feet by the end of the century. More recent studies call those findings too conservative. The bigger worry now is for the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. Scientists believe a quarter of that ice could melt by the end of the century. If that happened, seas would rise another ten feet. Major world cities, including New York and Washington, would need to ring their populations with towering dikes, or go underwater. Even without such a meltdown of the ice sheets, rising seas will threaten millions of coastal dwellers, and could plunge entire island nations completely under water by the year 2100.
Some residents say they’re already beginning to notice subtle changes. Now, a visit to Kiribati, a string of atoll islands halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Which reporter Aaron Selverston approaches now, from the air.
[sound from inside jet]
Aaron Selverston: From 10,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the tropical island of Tarawa resembles the vanishing stage of a waning moon – a razor thin crescent of shimmering green against a vastness of dark ocean, its very existence seems accidental, precarious, as if a single thunderhead could wash it away.
Dropping to 1,000 feet, detail of a coconut grove emerges, a carpet of thick, green fans swaying against the wind. [wind] At 500 feet, closing in on the beach, a collection of thatch-hut dwellings appears near the shore. [walking on beach] Down on the sand, a man is walking, contemplating how the shoreline has changed in the thirty years since he last came to this spot: the site of his childhood home. He stops in front of two cement blocks poking out of the sand.
Uentabo MacKenzie: Yeah, this is the foundation of the house I grew up in.
Selverston: Uentabo MacKenzie.
MacKenzie: That used to be my playground. I remember playing soccer between the house and the trees way back there.
Selverston: MacKenzie, an expert on the South Pacific who authored a World Bank report on the social impacts of climate change, says people all across this island nation, the Republic of Kiribati, are complaining of erosion.
MacKenzie: This is serious. In terms of how people measure it, it has come to the second row of trees.
Selverston: He points out to where the waves are crashing.
MacKenzie: There used to be coconut right up to there, and big trees even further back than where the water is now. A lot of land has been eroded away. A good fifty meters – fifty, sixty meters – is now under water. So I feel sad coming back to my old playground.
Selverston: More of these difficult changes are likely for I-Kiribati, as people here call themselves. Climate scientists say coral atolls throughout the South Pacific could be the most susceptible areas in the world to the effects of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored group representing the scientific consensus on climate change, says that rising sea levels could cause not just erosion, but also flooding and salinization of soils and freshwater.
I-Kiribati from across the islands are already complaining of these problems. Some of what islanders are noticing now is probably locally caused. In his office, surrounded by stacks of academic journals, MacKenzie describes how concrete causeways that link islets together in Kiribati have led to erosion. Climate change will exacerbate these problems.
MacKenzie: I have no doubt that these islands will be inundated. Or, if they’re not inundated, the livelihood of people will be very difficult, because it will affect saltwater incursion into our water tables, it will affect our plant-life, it will affect the water we drink.
Ron Dunbar: It’s a humanitarian disaster. These people will lose their homes, their own nation. They’ll end up moving at some point.
Selverston: Rob Dunbar is professor of environmental and geologic sciences at Stanford University, and has spent the last 15 years studying climate in Kiribati.
Dunbar: When their government looks ahead, say, 100 years, 200 years, you know, there’s a pretty good chance those islands won’t even exist.
Anote Tong: It’s seriously a matter of survival.
Selverston: Kiribati President Anote Tong devotes an increasing share of his time to these issues. I caught up with him at Tarawa’s airport, on his way back from the outer island of Butaritari. People there complained to him that taro pits have become flooded with saltwater. Taro is a root crop and staple food in the South Pacific.
Tong: We can only adapt so far. For countries like Kiribati is that we may have already gone well beyond adaptation. Maybe we’ve reached the stage where very little can be done now to reverse the process.
We really cannot discuss issues like development if in the longer term we are facing an issue of survival. So no matter how much we develop over the next decades, if in fifty years time we’re going to go under, what is the purpose of it all?
Tolan: That report from Aaron Selverston. Some Pacific Islanders are leaving their homes already. Fearing rising sea levels, they are fleeing to safer places. Places like New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, where islanders from one of the world’s smallest nations, Tuvalu, struggle to retain their island culture in a modern environment. Reporter Alexandra Berzon tracked down families from Tuvalu now living in the suburbs of Auckland.
[Tuvaluan songs and drumming]
Alexandra Berzon: It’s the biggest party of the year for one of the nine islands that make up Tuvalu, Nanumea, the annual celebration of the day European missionaries brought Christianity to the island. Families gather on mats and feast picnic-style on foods like funafuna, donuts filled with jam, taro drenched in coconut milk, egg fu young, and buckets of KFC chicken. Then competing groups of elders and youth take turns dancing, singing and drumming on a big wooden box into the early hours of the morning.
Tuvaluans have been performing these songs for generations, across their string of low coral atolls. But this event is not taking place in Tuvalu. Instead, we’re 2,000 miles away in Auckland, New Zealand. And here, surrounded by tradition, sits a group of young girls looking unimpressed.
Amy: What’s your name?
Berzon: Ali. What’s your name?
Berzon: Nice to meet you, Amy.
Amy: Nice to meet you, Ali.
Berzon: Amy is seven and her favorite song is “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas. [Amy singing “My Humps” with Tuvaluan music in background; trucks, construction sounds]
Here in this West Auckland suburb where many Tuvaluans have settled, you won’t find an ocean outside the door, coconut trees on the shore or taro in every garden. You’re more likely to encounter malls and wide boulevards. Over the last decade, the islanders have come here for many reasons – better jobs, college, overcrowding on the islands – and to escape what many see as a threat of sea level rise, caused by global warming.
Penisita Taniela: That’s me. Prepare the breakfast every morning for my family.
Berzon: Penisita Taniela arrived in New Zealand with a small suitcase and a carton of fish. He lives now in the western working-class suburb Ranui in a three-bedroom home with his wife, children, father, stepmother, and sisters. [sound of kids] Peni’s living room, like most Tuvaluan homes, contains no furniture – just hand-woven straw mats that his father and step-mom sleep on. Shell necklaces and family photos line the walls. As Peni fries pancakes on a leisurely Saturday morning, his two young kids ride around the living room on a shiny new bike with a squawk box. [sound of loud bell] Nearly twenty years ago, when Peni was just a teenager living on his family’s land, he remembers hearing that some day the sea would rise and drown his island.
P. Taniela: Just my dad said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. We are just waiting for many years.’ Not, not now.
Berzon: But over time, Peni and his family noticed changes – high tides getting higher, beaches eroding, water coming up through the soil. Here’s his father, Telaki Taniela.
Telaki Taniela: As a kid we used to play on the beach. We see the high tide and all that but in recent years high tide gone over beyond what it used to be. I said to myself, yes, the scientists are really telling the truth. I managed to build two houses there. I just got up and go and left it behind to my family there. I don’t want to get up in the morning and find myself underwater.
Berzon: Gauges in Tuvalu indicate the sea has risen an average of five and a half milliliters per year in recent years. That’s consistent with average worldwide sea level rise. The greater worry, though, is for the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which represents the consensus of 2000 scientists, predicts that over the next 50 to 100 years, global warming will cause oceans to rise up to three feet, and possibly much higher depending on the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Tuvalu, along with a handful of other islands, is particularly vulnerable, because its islands are low-lying and narrow-no more than three feet high in many spots. [sound of video from Tuvalu] After breakfast Peni squats in front of his 12-inch television and searches through piles of old VHS tapes. He inserts a video his father took years ago of a dance performance in Tuvalu and stares at the screen. His one- and two-year-olds bang on their bike in time with the drummers from the island.
P. Taniela: I show my kid that movie from Tuvalu and say, ‘Ohhhh, Tuvalu, Tuvalu, where is Tuvalu?’ They don’t know where is Tuvalu. And say, maybe they will go there one time. Maybe one day we go there and see the island.
Tolan: That report by Alexandra Berzon. Hundreds of thousands of people live on islands that may eventually be underwater. But the effects of rising seas may be even more catastrophic in densely populated south Asia, where tens of millions of people live in low-lying deltas. In Bangladesh, people are accustomed to coping with natural disasters. But as reporters Sandhya Somashekhar and Emilie Raguso make clear, this one could be different. Now, to the deltas of southwest Bangladesh, far from the capital. The story is narrated by Sandhya.
[people talking, sound check, bells, generator sound, drums]
Sandhya Somashekhar: It’s sunset in the jungle, and four musicians are tuning a drum and harmonium on stage. [harmonium sound, sound check, music] People gather in the clearing, scarves wrapped around their heads and ears against the chill of dusk. There are hundreds of them – old men wrapped in shawls, women in saris, a little boy in his father’s overcoat. [Bangla song] As the play opens, a dozen performers in red-and-white-checkered costumes act out a happy village scene. They collect lotus flowers and tend to their chickens and goats. Suddenly, a storm hits, flooding the entire village. [storm sound, man weeping, flute] The play, called “Environmental Thinking: Where will we go?” is about the dangers of climate change. Floods, droughts, cyclones and saltwater pollution of farmland all appear in this show, just as they may someday in this very village.
Mohon Kumar Mondal: To the village people, plays and dramas are a great source of entertainment and joy, because they don’t really have access to cinema. So whatever you say in a drama or a play, people remember it better.
Somashekhar: Mohon Kumar Mondal is an environmental activist with the local group Working for Coastal People. He helped to bring this play to southwest Bangladesh, where he grew up working the rice paddies with his father. Already, the ocean has begun to seep into the freshwater supply here. As a result, crops fail and people now walk miles for drinking water. So far, the main causes of this problem are massive dams built upriver in India and other man-made factors. But climate change will worsen the situation.
Mondal: In my case, since I am quite educated, I can go to Dhaka and live quite happily. But what will happen to my neighbors and relatives who are really uneducated, who don’t even know what climate is, not even what is going on in the outside world? For them the disaster will be unexpected, so they are going to die.
Somashekhar: Few doubt that global warming will bring disaster for Bangladesh, where 144 million people live in a space the size of Wisconsin. And the country is plagued year after year by natural disasters. Now comes climate change. Warmer temperatures will increase the intensity of cyclones that churn up over the Bay of Bengal and make the weather more unpredictable. Researchers have noticed that floods along the country’s three major rivers are happening more frequently, a trend that will worsen. But the most alarming effect of climate change is sea level rise. Within the next 100 years, the oceans could rise by a meter or more, inundating the coastal areas and devastating prime agricultural land.
Saleemul Huq: Firstly, it is a low-lying deltaic country, with large parts of the country just within one meter of the mean sea level.
Somashekhar: Saleemul Huq is a plant scientist and founder of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, the country’s top climate change research and policy organization.
Huq: And if sea levels rise by a meter, that means that a large part of the country, something like 10 percent, will go under water. The numbers of people that will probably have to be relocated, will have to move, will certainly have to change their livelihoods to survive, are in the tens of millions.
[sound of birds chirping]
Somashekhar: One of those people at risk is Ismail Hossain, a rural farmer living on the banks of the Kabadakshya River. [sheep baaing] He knows nothing about melting glaciers or carbon emissions, but he is intimately familiar with nature’s ferocity. Though his small village seems an oasis of palm trees and thatched huts, the river often spills over during the rainy season, flooding homes and turning emerald fields of rice into pools of mud. [Hossain talking in Bengali] Like many village dwellers in this country, Mr. Hossain isn’t quite sure of his age, but estimates he’s around 50. He tells the story of the great flood of 2000, when the water gushed into his property and stayed there for months.
Ismail Hossain: At first I thought that the water will never go and that everything has been destroyed forever. Everything you are seeing was underwater. If I wanted to go anywhere else I had to call a boat and go everywhere through boats.
Somashekhar: [Hossain speaking in background] The international aid agency CARE has been trying to teach people like Mr. Hossain to build stronger houses, carve moats around their homes and switch to salt-resistant crops, all in anticipation of climate change. He learned to build gardens that literally float on the water, an indigenous technique that he improved upon himself.
Hossain: I first placed bamboos on the water and then pulled some of the water hyacinth on the bamboos. Then I collected the mud and put the seeds in the mud. Within four or five days, the seed came up and there was a beautiful tree coming out of the seed. Many people came here to see such an amazing thing.
Somashekhar: Mr. Hossain now has 13 vegetable gardens resting on the surface of the river, oblong beds overflowing with tomatoes and pale green bottle gourds. Still, he senses the worst is yet to come.
Hossain: In the rainy season, the rain isn’t coming in due time, and in the winter it isn’t as cold as it used to be. I realize that the seasons are changing as the time goes on. I fear that something like this can happen in the future. But if such things happen and I can’t grow vegetables anymore, I will find a way to survive.
Somashekhar: Then he said something you often hear here.
Hossain: When there is trouble, there is a way. [laughs]
Somashekhar: It would be foolish to underestimate Bangladeshi ingenuity, or the technological advances that could unfold in the coming years. But there is more than ever at stake for this drenched and downstream place, where so many people live at nature’s whim.
Suarez: I’m Ray Suarez. You’re listening to Reports from a Warming Planet. When we come back, a look at the impact of climate change on a tiny fish that feeds millions in Africa.
Myonge Seph: Oh it was so good. When we used to fish with our fathers is was really good. There were so many Dagaa.
And how people from Canada to the South Pacific are planning for the coming changes.
Merv Gunter: Are we worried? Yes, I’m afraid so. And I think we should do everything we can about it. And can we so anything more than that to stop climate change? No. So we will co-exist with that. We’ll have to.
To hear any of these stories again, visit our Web site, americanradioworks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is Reports from a Warming Planet, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I’m Ray Suarez. For people who live along the world’s sea coasts, climate change threatens catastrophe; rising sea levels put their villages and cities in the way of rising water. But global warming threatens people who live inland, too. And in some places, even small, subtle changes are already making it harder for people to make a living.
Now back to environmental reporter and Berkeley journalism professor Sandy Tolan.
Tolan: Along one of the longest, deepest lakes in the world, a crooked finger of water that lies between four east African nations, generations of fishermen have lighted the nights with kerosene lamps. The lights bobbing on the lake have been a sign of faith that even in hard times, the deep waters would provide for the people. But now Lake Tanganyika is warming. And some signs indicate that a tiny sardine known as Dagaa may be in decline. It’s a fish millions of people depend on for protein. Jori Lewis traveled far from the capital of Dar Es Salaam to Kigoma in northwestern Tanzania, near the border of Burundi, to bring us this report.
Jori Lewis: The area around Tanganyika is like a one-factory town except there’s no factory. There’s only the lake: 420 miles long, nearly a mile deep, and with seemingly enough fish in its depths to support the over 10 million people living on its shores. [lapping water] Although there are over 300 species of fish in the lake, only dagaa shows up on the tables of even the poorest people. Only dagaa directly provides jobs to at least a million people in a place where there isn’t much work. And only dagaa swims in the lake in such abundance. Dagaa feeds the nation, and the nation is growing. In Kigoma, the poorest region of one of the poorest countries in Africa, dagaa is essential.
Fishing in these parts follows the path of the moon. When the moon is not full, they go out into the open waters in search of a good place to catch dagaa, the silvery wonder the length of an index finger. The fishermen use kerosene lamps to attract zooplankton, dagaa’s main food. It’s a classic mouse trap. Lure the zooplankton and the dagaa will follow. And the darker the night, the more they are all seduced by the lights above. So, dagaa fishermen float on the waters of Africa’s deepest lake all night, waiting.
Hudson Nkotagu: You see in the night when the fishing is taking place. You see, you know… a big city with a lot of lights. Like maybe New York. It’s a comparison. But it’s actually fishermen who are actually fishing.
Lewis: Hudson Nkotagu is a geologist at the University of Dar Es Salaam and has spent a lifetime studying the lake. He says Lake to Tanganyika is threatened by several factors.
Nkotagu: Pollution is coming from various sources. Excessive fishing and also use of inappropriate fishing gear. Now, another threat that is coming up recently is the climate change.
Catherine O’Reilly: There’s really no question the lake has warmed up. Point eight degrees C over the past 80 years.
Lewis: Bard College biologist Catherine O’Reilly has been studying the lake’s ecosystem for over a decade. In 2003, her article in the scientific journal Nature showed that a warming trend in the region is affecting algae in the lake. This development may be putting the dagaa population at risk in a place where this little fish is the biggest thing going.
O’Reilly: So we see fewer algae, and the algae are growing slower than they used to, so that suggests that there’s not as strong a base for the fish food web as there used to be. All the data that we have available to us right now-including the fish catch data, the climate data-all of that data points towards decreased fish populations.
Lewis: Some fishermen are saying that over time their dagaa catches have gone down. [hammering] Retired dagaa fisherman Myonge Seph fixes the cracks in his sons’ boats by patiently pounding in bits of cotton dipped in bright yellow palm oil. He says dagaa fishing is certainly not as good as it was 30 years ago when he was first starting out.
Myonge Seph: Oh, it was so good. When we used to fish with our fathers, it was really good. There were so many dagaa. People could fish five thousand tons. In tons! Back in those days there was so much dagaa.
Lewis: Seph, a wiry man of 46, knows the moods of Lake Tanganyika. He knows, for instance, that there are at least four different types of winds that blow on the lake, and that the big ones come when the corn has babies. That wind starts the time of scarce dagaa. Seph knows the routine well after a lifetime on the lake. It has its ups and downs.
Seph: We fish because we have no other job. Our grandfathers fished here. Our fathers fished here. We’ll fish here and pass it on to our children who will fish and pass it on again. It’s our legacy.
Lewis: Most fishermen say it’s impossible for the dagaa to ever permanently go away. They know there are periods of plenty and periods of scarcity. During the periods of scarcity, the lake’s lights darken. The fishermen say the dagaa always come back. They always have before, and most people can’t imagine that this cycle could ever break down. But this deep and ancient lake is changing, and not everyone will be able to change with it.
[call to prayer]
Tolan: In Tanzania, despite warnings from some scientists, fishermen have faith that their lamps will never blink out. Indeed, around the world, faith seems to be driving the belief that a warming planet will not change the way we live. In the US, many people continue to believe that scenarios of rising seas represent science fiction, not scientific consensus.
Some people say technology has gotten us out of fixes before, and will do so again. In south Asia, many Bangladeshis are convinced that they’ll weather the coming storm, just like they have so many others. And in the South Pacific, many islanders believe that a benevolent God would never let the faithful drown. After all, in the book of Genesis, God promised Noah that never again “shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” As a token of that covenant, he set his rainbow in the clouds. Many Pacific Islanders see a rainbow as a sign of reassurance-just like the lights on Lake Tanganyika-that all is right with the world.
Now, a final report from a warming planet, from our team from the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. This, too, is a story of faith. Faith that a frigid town that has always survived on its wits will do so again. Faith that humans and even animals will find a way to adapt to the bewildering changes around them. This report from Jon Mooallem and Nick Miroff, who narrates the story of a little town in upper Manitoba, Canada, near the Arctic Circle.
Nick Miroff: Churchill is a town of roughly 900 people, a shivering outpost on the otherwise vacant tundra south of the Arctic Circle. There are no roads in. Every fall, about a thousand polar bears lumber around just outside town waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. When it does, they’ll cross through Churchill and spend all winter on the ice, gorging on seals.
The town survives on the same feast-and-famine cycle. Ten thousand tourists come to watch the bears while they’re marooned here each fall. “Bear season” is the town’s biggest source of income. Visitors stay at the Lazy Bear Lodge, they eat at the Hungry Bear Café, and they buy bear mugs, bear key chains, bear sweatshirts, and bear baby bibs. For six weeks, the entire town runs on the rhythms of the tourists.
[motor noise, camera shutters]
Tour Guide: Sometimes it’s just about taking a quick shot, putting the camera down and enjoying the moment. Beautiful, beautiful. Be able to see a bear walk on the ice along there. Beautiful.
Miroff: A tundra buggy looks like a big white lunchbox on monster truck tires. Packed with tourists, they rumble around the old military trails and tidal flats outside of town. There, bears loaf on tangles of kelp and, once in a while, get up and spar like drunken heavyweights. Sometimes a bear will rear up to lean on a buggy, smearing the hull with muddy paw prints. Mostly, though, they lie around and look bored.
[camera shutters, chatter]
Tourist: One picked a pile of mud to lay down on. One is on straw.
Miroff: A non-profit called Polar Bears International has been bringing scientists from all over North America to educate school and tour groups. Questions about global warming inevitably come up. [sound of conversation] Dr. Jane Waterman is spending the afternoon on a tundra buggy monitoring bear behavior with a group of volunteers.
Jane Waterman: The bears’ males will move onto land when the ice melts in July and, basically, go splat. Remember, these guys are on holiday right now. There’s no food, there’s no sex, there’s nothing. And it’s when the sea ice forms that they can get back out there and make a living.
Miroff: A living for a male polar bear goes like this: stalking across the frozen bay for six months, ambushing seal pups and yanking them through the ice. All they eat is the fat. A large male bear can eat 150 pounds of it on a good day. [volunteer chatter] The bears stay on the ice until the last of it melts on the part of Hudson Bay south of Churchill. There, they decamp. They spend all summer living off reserves in what’s called “waking hibernation,” waiting for freeze up. But, in fall, when the ice begins to form again, it forms first on the opposite side of Churchill-so the town is in their way.
Waterman: Most of them go through town because it’s their major migration zone, and they’ve been doing that for thousands of years, way before the town was there. Within 24 hours of the sea ice actually forming, these bears are gone.
Miroff: Warmer temperatures mean the Bay is frozen for a shorter stretch each year–lengthening the time when the bears are forced onto land and not eating. As the ice disappears, researchers in Alaska report polar bears drowning, forced to swim between increasingly distant ice floes. Also, with less time on the ice to hunt, more bears are seen scavenging the beaches for whale carcasses.
Waterman: Certainly this is one of the warmest years I’ve ever seen. Usually in November we’re starting to see freeze up, and these fresh water ponds are still open water in them. And I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it like that at this time.
Miroff: Churchill’s bear population has already fallen more than 20 percent in the past 17 years, and U.S. and Canadian researchers found this directly correlates to the loss of sea ice. The short-term predictions are dire.
Merv Gunter: My name’s Merv Gunter. My wife Linda and I own and operate the Tundra Buggy Adventure, the polar bear experience up in Churchill, Manitoba. Are we worried? Yes, I’m afraid so. And I think we should do everything we can about it. And can we do anything more than that to stop climate change? No. So we will co-exist with that. We’ll have to. As will the bears. They’re a very tenacious and a very amazing species with their ability to evolve and to adapt.
Bob Penwarden: I’m worried. Because it’s the livelihood of a lot of people in this town.
Miroff: Bob Penwarden and his wife own The Tundra Inn, a small tourist hotel off Churchill’s main drag.
Penwarden: I, I believe home is here for those bears. I don’t say these scientists are right. But I don’t even believe they’re right on this global warming. The bears, this is home. You know, I may be dead wrong. And, and, they do wander, and hell knows where they go? But they’ll be back, next spring.
Miroff: Some folks in Churchill seem convinced that the bears will find a way to survive. That they’ll learn to eat berries and evolve into grizzlies. The town has always gotten by on its pioneering spirit. It may be that they expect the same stubborn resilience out of their bears. But for the bears, it isn’t a question of will.
Waterman: Natural selection can happen very quickly in, like, bacteria, because they can breed in 20 minutes. Polar bears live 20 or 25 years. That means that for changes to occur genetically, it’s going to take a little bit of time. And that’s something they don’t have.
Tolan: For the polar bears of Churchill, time may be running out. But the bears are not alone. Across the world, some people are slowly waking up to the problem facing their own species, while others cling to the faith that nothing will change. Still other, like Myrtle Demeulles of Churchill, have faith their communities will adapt, even if they don’t know how.
Demeulles: We love this place. We learn to live with what’s happening-except for this warm weather! We just don’t understand what the heck’s going on. And really believe it’s the big cities down south causing it.
Tolan: Down south in the United States, six percent of the world’s population churns out a quarter of its carbon pollution, most from tailpipes. China, with its much larger population, is also driving the problem by burning more and more coal as it tries to modernize.
At first, the impact from melting ice and rising seas will more likely threaten the isolated arctic region, and some of the poorest countries in the world. Places like Ecuador. There, in the ancient capital of Quito, Environmental Minister Julio Cornejo points out that the people who contributed least to the problem may well suffer the most.
Julio Cornejo: Global warming is not the fault of Third World countries. We’re dancing at a party that we didn’t even want to attend. But we are beginning to change our habits anyways, and we’ll have to keep doing that. If we don’t, climate change will grab hold of us and we’lldisappear.
Tolan: Eventually, it will not be only poor and isolated places bearing the brunt of global warming. Some climate experts believe we’re already feeling an impact in the US, from more intense hurricanes, and that before long, Florida’s coastlines will be vulnerable. The United States has balked at signing the Kyoto Protocol, the most comprehensive worldwide agreement to limit carbon emissions.
Experts say there’s still time to turn things around, especially by focusing on emissions from the US, China and India. But it would have to happen quickly. Otherwise, scientists predict peril for half the world’s species-including human beings. Without measurable steps to slow the rise in carbon levels, it’s clear the problems will come all the way home.
Suarez: Reports from a Warming Planet was produced by Elizabeth Chur and Sandy Tolan, with Felicia Mello, and the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. It was edited by Catherine Winter. Project reporters were Pauline Bartolone, Alexandra Berzon, Kate Cheney Davidson, Durrell Dawson, Jori Lewis, Felicia Mello, Nick Miroff, Jon Mooallem, Emilie Raguso, Aaron Selverston, and Sandhya Somashekhar. Science advisor was Dr. John Harte of UC-Berkeley’s Energy and Resources group. Special thanks to editor Ingrid Lobet of NPR’s Living on Earth, where some of this work aired in a different form.
Senior producer for American RadioWorks, Sasha Aslanian; project manager, Misha Quill; associate producer, Ellen Guettler. Web production by Ochen Kaylan. The executive editor is Stephen Smith. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. I’m Ray Suarez.
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