Dan Charles

Life Kit: Green Living

Apr 24, 2021

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World leaders gathered for a virtual climate summit earlier this week, they promised to stop releasing so much heat-trapping greenhouse gas into the air. And we can all do the same. NPR's Life Kit and science correspondent Dan Charles have some tips for how to reduce carbon emissions from our homes.

North Dakota has lots of coal. It also has strong and consistent winds. It might be the perfect spot to showcase the long-awaited "energy transition" from climate-warming fossil fuels to climate-saving renewables.

Farming has destroyed a lot of the rich soil of America's Midwestern prairie. A team of scientists just came up with a staggering new estimate for just how much has disappeared.

The most fertile topsoil is entirely gone from a third of all the land devoted to growing crops across the upper Midwest, the scientists say. Some of their colleagues, however, remain skeptical about the methods that produced this result.

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Updated on March 10th at 12:30 p.m. ET

Facing the rising threat of wildfire and extreme drought, Flagstaff, Ariz., unveiled an ambitious effort two years ago to cut the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.

The world continues to lose millions of acres of its most valuable tropical forests each year. But defenders of those forests have just deployed a new tool in their struggle to stop it — or at least alert the world when it's happening.

It's an upgrade of a system called Global Forest Watch, created by the World Resources Institute. The website makes it possible to monitor what's happening to distant tropical forests almost in real time through satellite imagery.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Obama Cabinet veteran and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, a source familiar with transition discussions confirmed to NPR.

Vilsack returns to an agency he helmed for eight years as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary.

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The company Bayer announced today that it will pay roughly $10 billion to people who say they got cancer after using the company's most widely used weed killer. NPR's Dan Charles has that story.

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Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

At a White House briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator, laid out a grim vision of the future.

The best computer models, she said, predict that between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 during the coming months, even if the country continues the strict social distancing measures that most states have adopted. Relaxing those restrictions would send the toll much higher.

As Americans scattered to the privacy of their homes this week to avoid spreading the coronavirus, the opposite scene was playing out in the Mexican city of Monterrey.

A thousand or more young men arrived in the city, as they do most weeks of the year, filling up the cheap hotels, standing in long lines at the U.S. Consulate to pick up special H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers, then gathering in a big park to board buses bound for farms in the United States.

In northeastern Kansas, there's an open-air ecological laboratory called Konza Prairie. Scientists like Ellen Welti go there to study plants, insects, and big animals. "In the spring it has a lot of beautiful flowers, it has bison; everybody should go visit and check it out for themselves," says Welti, who is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oklahoma.

In this landscape, grasshoppers play a crucial role. They eat the grass; birds eat them.

Every summer for the past three years, the phones have been ringing like crazy in the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. Farmers and homeowners were calling, complaining that their soybean fields or tomato plants looked sick, with curled-up leaves. They suspected pesticides from nearby farms — a kind of chemical hit-and-run.

It was up to investigators like Andy Roth to find the true culprit.

On a soggy field in eastern North Carolina, Jason Tew and his crew of loggers are cutting trees and sorting logs into piles based on their size and the type of wood. There's a lot of pine, but also hardwoods: poplar, sweet gum, elm and oak. Some piles will go for making plywood; some will become absorbent fiber in baby diapers.

The least valuable pile is full of small hardwood tree limbs. "It's basically trash," Tew says. "We would have normally hauled that back in the woods and just left it."

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Chad Dechow, a geneticist at Pennsylvania State University who studies dairy cows, is explaining how all of America's cows ended up so similar to each other.

He brings up a website on his computer. "This is the company Select Sires," he says. It's one of just a few companies in the United States that sells semen from bulls for the purpose of artificially inseminating dairy cows.

Dechow chooses the lineup of Holstein bulls. This is the breed that dominates the dairy business. They're the black-and-white animals that give a lot of milk.

Every year, the company Ingredion buys millions of tons of corn and cassava from farmers and turns them into starches and sugars that go into foods such as soft drinks, yogurt and frozen meals.

Lots of things can go wrong along the way. Weather can destroy crops. Machinery can break.

Lately, though, Ingredion's top executives have been worried about a new kind of risk: what might happen on a hotter planet.

Something odd is happening to streams and rivers on the high plains of Kansas and Colorado. Some have disappeared.

"We would go and visit these streams, and in many cases it's like a dirt bike channel. It's no longer functioning as a stream," says Joshuah Perkin, a biologist at Texas A&M University who studies the fish that live in these streams.

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Robert Henry is driving along the top of a Mississippi River levee, giving me a tour of land where he'd love to be planting soybeans right now. We're just east of New Madrid, Mo.

"Smells kind of raunchy, doesn't it?" he says.

From the window of Henry's truck, I see what looks like a swamp, with trees standing in water. Then we make a turn, and suddenly, as far as I can see, there's water. It covers a wide flood plain between the main river channel and the levee. This is where Henry normally grows his crops.

It's a disturbing question that haunts many shoppers with good intentions: What am I actually accomplishing by buying coffee or chocolate with the Fair Trade label? Does the extra money that I pay actually benefit the people who harvested those beans?

Let's say you want to help stop global warming and kick your gasoline habit.

You buy an electric car. And then you go to charge it up and you think: Wait, where's this electricity coming from?

Nationwide, 60% of it comes from power plants burning coal and natural gas, belching carbon dioxide. And across the country, energy experts are trying to figure out what might persuade these electric utilities to change.

John Draper and I are sitting in the cab of a tractor on the research farm he manages for the University of Maryland, alongside the Chesapeake Bay. Behind us, there's a sprayer.

"So, away we go!" Draper says. He pushes a button, and we start to move. A fine mist emerges from nozzles on the arms of the sprayer.

We're spraying glyphosate, killing off this field's soil-saving "cover crop" of rye before planting soybeans.

Farmers have been using this chemical, often under the trade name Roundup, for about four decades now.

When NPR interviewed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February about her Green New Deal, she said that her goal was bigger than just passing some new laws. "What I hope we're able to do is rediscover the power of public imagination," she said.

Well, we're unleashing our imagination and exploring a dream, a possible future in which we're bringing global warming to a halt. It's a world in which greenhouse emissions have ended.

This week, the governor of Connecticut proposed a statewide tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Several cities have already enacted such soda taxes to raise money and fight obesity. And there's new evidence suggesting that these taxes do work — although sometimes not as well as hoped.

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For months, farmers from Mississippi to Minnesota have been waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to make up its mind about a controversial weedkiller called dicamba.

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