The Science Issues Happening In Your Backyard

34:26 minutes

three images, of solar panels, salmon at a fish market, and a pill bottle labeled "oycontin"
Credit: Shutterstock

With the midterm elections less than a week away, science is on voters’ minds even when it’s not on the ballot. From coastal floods in Florida, to the growing pains of renewable energy in Hawaii, to curbing the opioid addiction crisis in Kentucky, different stories hit closer to home depending on what state you’re in. Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to walk through some of the top science stories in every state, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, as found in recent Popular Science reporting.

[Design a model shelter that could stand up to the elements.]

They’re joined by reporters Elizabeth Harball, from Alaska’s Energy Desk, Kristofor Husted, from KBIA in Missouri, and Annie Ropeik of New Hampshire Public Radio. The three reporters share stories of salmon conservation policy, meat substitute labeling, renewable energy expansion, and more from their respective states.

And they take listener input: What’s the most important science story YOU see in your state?

We asked this question on Twitter earlier this week. Check out the responses below:

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an environmental reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire.

Kristofor Husted

Kristofor Husted is a Harvest Public Media reporter based at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri.

Elizabeth Harball

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter for Alaska Public Media’s energy desk.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. No matter what state you are voting in, chances are science, health, energy, or the environment is on the ballot. Whether that’s in Alaska, where protections for salmon spawning streams is up for a vote, or Illinois, where congressional candidates are fighting over who is more invested in protecting the Great Lakes.

Even if there is no option to blacken a bubble on a ballot, science policy will be decided this election cycle, decisions that will put into the hands of whomever wins a 2018 local, gubernatorial, or congressional seat. So what are the science issues in your state or community that you want your politicians to pay attention to? Let me start the conversation with this one about chicken farms.

JUSTIN: Hi, I’m Justin from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. And my biggest issue I’ve seen in this area is the massive increase of chicken houses polluting our water table. It has also diminished our water table. It’s caused a lot of air pollution. And I would say that’s raised the greatest issue we are facing here in rural northeastern Oklahoma.

IRA FLATOW: Well, chickens may not be an issue in your state, so what is? Helping me steer this ship today is Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science. Welcome to the co-pilot seat, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: And we want to hear from you what the biggest science issue in your state. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us at @scifri. Sophie, Pop Sci did some special reporting on science in the states, correct?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right, we looked at all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington DC, and tried to figure out what is the key science policy facing this state, so we could kind of bring science to the forefront of voters’ minds. Because politicians don’t always address science issues when they’re on the campaign trail.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they have to be asked, don’t they?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, they do. Climate change, for example, is a big issue. It has the ability to affect every single state, and yet you often find politicians sidestepping the issue, not wanting to comment on it.

IRA FLATOW: And in surveying all these states, were there any single things that stuck out, any surprises to Pop Sci people?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: One of the things that really, I found surprising was in Hawaii. So Hawaii is in the middle of the ocean, which makes it a great place for wind energy. And they’ve actually set a really ambitious goal of being entirely on renewable energy by 2045, which is great.

But on the downside, it turns out that these wind turbines are not so good for the Hawaiian hoary bat. This happens to be the only native land mammal in Hawaii. It’s endangered, and it is kind of defenseless against these wind turbines. It just flies right into them, and so the state is mulling forcing these wind energy producers to put some protections in place for this little bat.

IRA FLATOW: Lots of tweets and phone calls coming. In let me go to the first tweet. This one is from Lindsey. And she says water, water, water, drinking water, storm water, wastewater, groundwater, rising sea level, coastal stem flooding, rivers flooding, et cetera, et cetera, plus all the things we like that live in the water, fish, lobster, seaweed, everything. Water.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Water is a major issue it came up again and again and again in states all across the continent. So for example, here in New York there’s an issue with the infrastructure that’s used to deliver drinking water. So some estimates have said it will require $40 billion with a B dollars to take care of improving the treatment centers and the pipes that carry this water. The state legislature has only earmarked $2.5 billion.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. You can call in. We’d like to hear from you. 844-724-8255 Let’s go to Terry in Sebastopol, California. Hi, Terry.

TERRY: Hello. My major concern is the movement of the Mojave Desert north of San Francisco. We’re drying. We’re flaming. We’re frying. We now have southern California spiny lobsters living north of San Francisco. Never before in the history of California ever, even in the fossil records. That’s my concern. We are turning into a desert.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, yeah. Yeah, was that right? Thanks for the call.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, warming temperatures and climate change is exacerbating drought and also wildfires in a lot of states.

IRA FLATOW: Wildfires, sure.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, so for example, in New Mexico they’re having a lot of issues with drought. And drought really goes hand-in-hand with wildfires. When it’s dry, things are much more prone to burning.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, when I was in Utah earlier this summer, there was the biggest wildfire. They’re sort of cycling around the Southwest. Who’s got the bigger one this week? They’re everywhere.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s a contest nobody really wants to win.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Guy in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Guy.

GUY: Hi, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

GUY: I haven’t spoken to you in a long time. Anyway, they just came out that off the Oregon coast, they’ve just declared that there is a hypoxia season now. So the ocean warming is getting to the point where everything on the bottom of the ocean is dying because there is no oxygen. And it’s really hitting our crab fishermen badly.

IRA FLATOW: OK, thanks for the call.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, when we talk about water issues, we’ve been talking about freshwater and drinking water. But this is definitely an issue in oceans as well. So yeah, salt water issues– when you’ve got a lot of runoff, those nutrients can encourage algae blooms, which will pull the oxygen out of the water, which is no good for the other creatures that live in the water. So that’s definitely an issue.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, especially in Florida, algae blooms has bloomed up, so to speak, as an issue this year, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, definitely. Florida has had a real problem with that this year.

IRA FLATOW: And we also saw some really unusual stories, I mean, little ones you wouldn’t– something about dry cleaning fluid in the states, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes! This one was fascinating. So Kansas had an area where hundreds of residents, for apparently the past six years, have been bathing in and drinking water contaminated with a dry cleaning chemical called PCE. So it turns out that back in 1995, the state passed a law that was lobbied for by the dry cleaning industry that encouraged regulators to overlook this chemical’s presence. And it turns out it has contaminated the water in this area above the level that the EPA deems safe.

IRA FLATOW: In Mississippi, there was talk about bridges being their problem.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I was surprised. More than 500 bridges in Mississippi have had to be shut down because they’re no longer dangerous. And this isn’t just an issue for people who need to be able to get to work. This is an issue for people who need to be able to go to the doctor’s office. I mean, transportation across the state relies on people being able to drive over safe and reliable bridges. And it’s a big problem.

IRA FLATOW: Whatever happened to those infrastructure plans to rebuild America, and all those highways and bridges?


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You would hope that there would be federal support as well as state support for this. Because I think infrastructure definitely is a problem that crosses state lines all over the place.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Let’s go to Alpena, Michigan. Hi, Matt, welcome to Science Friday.



MATT: Hi! So my name is Matt. I’m from Michigan. And what I wanted to talk about was an invasive species that you probably all heard of called the Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes. As you know, the Great Lakes are the single biggest allotment of freshwater in the world in one spot. The other is that one crazy lake in Russia that’s bigger than Superior, but we’re not going to talk about that one. But it’s a big deal. It could be the single greatest threat to the natural fisheries in the Great Lakes that the Great Lakes have ever seen.

IRA FLATOW: Have you seen them? Have you seen them yourself?

MATT: Go on, I’m sorry?

IRA FLATOW: Have you seen them yourself, Matt?

MATT: Have I seen them myself in the Great Lakes? Personally, no, I have not. They haven’t made it quite this far north yet. There’s been reports. Again, I’ll use reports in quotation marks.

There’s been quote, unquote, reports, right? I haven’t personally seen them. This is hearsay, of course. And around Chicago and stuff like that, they’re coming the ports down that way, coming in from the rivers and the ports and everything.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ve seen people from Illinois talking about this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, I’ve also heard people advocating that one way to deal with invasive species is that we should try to encourage people to eat them. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: We had a call from Nevada. I want to go to this call from Nevada with a concern about nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain.

VENUS: This is Venus from Reno, Nevada. My concern relative to science in Nevada is the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository, which is built on the fault line. Nevada is the third most active state for seismic activity. The potential for radioactive waste reaching the water table is not a risk to be taken lightly. This area of the country is already water-sensitive. Contamination, even in the far future, would have lasting effects on our planet.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s just been an issue for decades they’ve been talking about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: For 30 years.

IRA FLATOW: 30 years, I remember way back, yeah.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, back under President Obama, it was kind of tabled, and it’s been dormant for a while. But it’s becoming and issue again, because people are sort of saying we should be expanding nuclear energy to phase out reliance on fossil fuels. But if you’ve got nuclear energy, you need a place to put that waste. And so this debate– I mean, I don’t know, it could maybe rage on through another couple decades.

IRA FLATOW: It could. Let’s zoom in closer to one of the few states with reporters from our State of Science series. And let’s go north, Sophie, to– shall we go to Alaska?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s go to the far north.

IRA FLATOW: North to Alaska. Our reporting looked at the risks to caribou calving grounds in federal lands that might be open to fossil fuel extraction. That was reporting in Popular Science, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, the land where the caribou live and rely on– even if only part of it is developed, people worry that even a small area would be enough to disrupt their migration patterns.

IRA FLATOW: But there’s another issue on the ballot that has been hotly contested. And Elizabeth Harball from Alaska’s Energy Desk at Alaska Public Media is here with more. Hi, Elizabeth!

ELIZABETH HARBALL: Hi, thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about this.

ELIZABETH HARBALL: So this ballot initiative, which has kicked off a heck of a fight here in Alaska– in a broad sense, what it would do is it would beef up the permitting system for developments that overlap with salmon habitat. So we’re talking a lot tougher vetting process for mines, for dams, for oil developments in salmon habitat. And I should say salmon habitat in Alaska is quite extensive. And Alaskans would also get more notice and opportunity for public comment for projects in salmon habitat, so more of a chance to object to projects like this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And why do people say salmon need more protections?

ELIZABETH HARBALL: So it’s really hard to understate the importance of salmon in Alaska, not only economically but symbolically. Alaskan salmon account for like 40% of the wild salmon caught in the world. It’s home to the world’s largest wild salmon fishery, and most valuable wild salmon fishery. That’s the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.

But also, salmon is hugely culturally important for Alaska native people. They catch them and rely on them for their diets across the state. And so salmon is something in Alaska that really transcends political boundaries. And we won’t hear anybody in Alaska saying we shouldn’t protect salmon. That is consistent for everybody here.

IRA FLATOW: But there is some opposition. What are they saying?

ELIZABETH HARBALL: There’s more than some opposition. (LAUGHING) There’s huge opposition to this. So the oil industry, the mining industry, unions, Alaskan native corporations– they’ve raised over $12 million for a campaign against this initiative. That’s more than any of the governor’s candidates combined. And their argument– they believe this goes too far, that this is not the right balance between development and salmon protections. They think it opens the door to litigation.

And one thing they really don’t like about this is this measure would limit something called off-site mitigation. That is, right now, if a development kind of overlaps with salmon habitat, they can go and fix another, clean up some salmon habitat somewhere else in a different water body. This would limit that. And that’s one of the key things about this initiative that they really don’t like. And so the resistance has been quite intense.

And something else I should say is the oil industry is hugely economically important to Alaska. Oil taxes and royalties fund a significant part of the state government here. When oil prices crashed a few years back it was really a gut punch to Alaska’s economy. And so that’s why when they say that the oil industry is fighting this initiative, it is giving a lot of Alaskans pause.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Here with Sophie Bushwick.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Hi, I had another question, sort of speaking of the oil industry. So if there is oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge– we mentioned that this would put caribou calving grounds under threat. So I’m wondering, is this something that’s on Alaskan voters’ minds at all?

ELIZABETH HARBALL: So it’s interesting, Alaska politics, the way they work. There isn’t a candidate on the Alaska ballot right now that is against oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Both candidates for Congress, both candidates for governor are supportive of it. That’s kind of how Alaska politics goes. Because I just explained, it’s such a huge part of the economy here.

That said, interestingly enough voters in the lower 48 might have more of an impact on this. Because if Democrats takes the House, a congressman from Arizona, Raul Grijalva– he would become the chair of the House Resources Committee. And he has said he would really push back development on in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So while it’s not something Alaskan voters will really have a big impact on in this election, voters in the rest of America really could.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it depends on those committees. Thank you very much, Elizabeth, for taking time to be with us today.

ELIZABETH HARBALL: Yeah, thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Elizabeth Harball, reporter for Alaska’s Energy Desk at Alaska Public Media in Anchorage. We have a couple of minutes before we have to go to the break. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Media, Pennsylvania. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Yes, hello!

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

JIM: My line went dead there. [INAUDIBLE] what went on. My question is a simple question. Any time they have a city that exists anywhere in the country, they have to have wastewater treatment programs set up to handle the population. Why do we not have that anywhere for poultry farms, these development farms?

Anything that excretes waste should be forced to go through a waste treatment program. They should not even allow them to be built unless they have those accesses there, and they are taken care of. People are getting sick. The red tide exists because of wastewater treatment.

IRA FLATOW: So you think–

JIM: People are ignorant.

IRA FLATOW: You think this should be an issue then on ballots everywhere?

JIM: Oh definitely, definitely. If they have to have wastewater treatment for people’s excrement, why don’t they have it for critters?

IRA FLATOW: Now we saw that come into play a little bit– at least get some attention– during the last hurricane that went through North Carolina.

JIM: Exactly.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, one of the hazards of those storms is that they can breach containment walls and systems. And you can get even bigger contamination if you have farms where their waste ends up spread all over the place in the wake of a storm.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we saw that with ash from coal mining also, not just the [INAUDIBLE]

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Coal ash is another big contaminant in a couple different states. So this is after coal is burned, you need to get rid of the leftover ash. And that can leach into groundwater. And you don’t want the arsenic and other poisons in there getting into the water supply.

IRA FLATOW: No, you don’t want that.




IRA FLATOW: I hate it when that happens. Not to belittle it. It’s very, very dangerous, absolutely right. We’re going to take a break. We want you to stay right where you all are. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri.

Sophie Bushwick and I will be back after the break. And we’re going to talk about some interesting stuff. How about this as an issue? Meat labeling in Missouri, renewable energy in New Hampshire, and a top science story in your state, wherever it is. You can make the call, but only if you make the call. So we’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about the science issues on the ballot, or at least on your mind, in a state by state tour of the US this midterm season. And sitting in with me is Popular Science editor Sophie Bushwick. Pop Sci recently ran a story identifying the top science policy issues in every state. If you like to join in, our number is 844-724-8255.

You can also tweet us @scifri. We have a whole bunch of tweets that came in. Let me go to a few of them before we go back to the phones. One from Connecticut, yeah. A tweet from Lena, who says the arrival of two new tick species in as many years. The most recent arrival can reproduce asexually. Both bring fun new diseases too. Yay, us. This is the home of–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Tick diseases–

IRA FLATOW: –oh, Lyme disease. Oh, Lyme Disease–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: But on top of Lyme disease, there’s a certain kind of tick bite can cause a meat allergy. So if you get bitten by this tick, you’ll develop an allergy to red meat, which nobody really wants.

IRA FLATOW: (LAUGHING) No. All right, so let’s go back to your survey, Sophie. Where do we go next?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We’re going to pay a little visit to Missouri, where the state recently– speaking of meat, they banned the use of the word meat on the packaging for anything that’s not an animal product. And Kris Husted, a reporter at KBIA in Columbia, is here with more. Hi, Kris.

KRISTOFOR HUSTED: Hey, how’s it going?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Pretty good. So what got Missouri so desperate to regulate fake meat products in the first place?

KRISTOFOR HUSTED: Right. Well, Missouri is an agricultural state. It’s an $88 billion industry. And a lot of that industry is from pork and beef and poultry producers. The food industry is fairly powerful, and they like to lobby for their own regulations, so it helps them out.

So on one side, you have the meat producers and farmers who want to protect their industry against this new burgeoning market for non-meat products. Those are the plant-based proteins if you will, that are based from soy and other types of plants that want to use the words that are associated typically with meat, like sausage, or hot dog, or ground beef. So this is kind of trying to get ahead of the curve with food labels to set that standard for the state before the federal legislators can come in and try to do it themselves.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And are there a lot of fake meat companies in Missouri that might have problems with this?

KRISTOFOR HUSTED: There are some, and that’s kind of what’s created this problem that’s been exacerbated by this labeling law. One of the biggest companies that you’ll hear of is Tofurkey, which is the company that makes the vegetarian turkeys that are popular with people who are interested in that type of food during the holidays. So these companies are not happy that they’re going to have to accommodate this new label. Because their industry is just developing.

IRA FLATOW: What if they spell meat differently, or turkey different– you know, I’m serious about this. Because we have cream-filled things that are not real cream, and they spell it C-R-E-M-E.


IRA FLATOW: Right? I mean, have they thought about that kind of getting around the law?

KRISTOFOR HUSTED: Well, there are certain types of words that are being allowed. So if it says plant-based meat, then that won’t be as challenged as much than certain words that are just trying to– I guess what they assume– is going to trick the consumer into thinking they’re actually buying a different product. So I haven’t seen anything yet about tricking people with the spelling of the words. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see that.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s a lawsuit already, right?

KRISTOFOR HUSTED: There is a lawsuit, yeah. So Tofurkey and also the American Civil Liberties Union, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Good Food Institute have sued the state of Missouri– this was just a month or two ago– saying that this law violates the First Amendment, and that it prohibits these alternative meat companies from using words that consumers actually understand. So at the core of this, you see the consumer used as the pawn to try to move the pendulum toward whichever side they want, whichever side wants the words regulated their way.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And do you think we’ll see similar labeling rules coming up in other states down the road?

KRISTOFOR HUSTED: I wouldn’t be surprised. In 2016, Vermont had a GMO– so genetically modified label law– that all the states inevitably had to fall in line with. Because if you want to sell your product in that state, you have to abide by those laws. So for Missouri, if this law stands, then other states who want to market and sell their products in the state of Missouri will have to abide by this labeling law until a federal law can come around and set the standard for the entire country.

We’ve seen some challenges also in California with using the word milk, so soy milk or almond milk. The dairy industry doesn’t like that, because they think that’s fooling consumers as well. And there’s been some challenges there. So until a federal law is set, states are probably going to have to fall in line with what Missouri has done.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, thank you so much for filling us in, Kris.


IRA FLATOW: Kris Husted is senior reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri. Our number, if you’d like to call in– lots of phone calls– 844-724-8255. Let us go to Duluth, Minnesota. Hi, Chad.

CHAD: Hi, I’d like to bring up the topic of mining, and the mining of copper, nickel, and rare earth elements such as cobalt.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

CHAD: The technique of mining that pulls these minerals out of the ground creates a highly toxic tailing that needs to be stored for perpetuity. And so there’s a threat to the water resources in the region. So there’s the science behind that, but I’d also like to get behind the science of what these elements feed as far as our needs for future technologies, electric cars, telephones, and those types of things.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you’ve got the boundary waters, all kinds of stuff coming into play there.

CHAD: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: Are these things on the ballots that you know about, or should they be?

CHAD: I think that it’s a hot topic, particularly in northeastern Minnesota, District 8. And that is up for election. And I think being that northern Minnesota is a background of resource-based jobs– particularly in the mining sector, there seems to be a head to head battle between those who seek to protect the environment and those who want the jobs. It’s a predicted economic impact to the region, which is now a poor region, of a Super Bowl every year for the next 20 years.

But the environmentalist folks argue that it’s just not worth the risk. Because this toxic tailing needs to be held in perpetuity. And so I think a lot of those voters are going to be turned out based on that issue.

IRA FLATOW: All right, good topic.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, the conflict between preserving environmental regions and the economic incentive to mine them is definitely a theme we’ve seen elsewhere as well. So for example, Delaware is really reliant on tourism. So they really don’t want offshore drilling to happen, because first of all, it’s unsightly. You don’t want to go to the beach and see an oil derrick.

And then the other thing is that there’s the word that there would be spills. And that could really damage the tourism industry. So it’s not just about maintaining the environment for residents. It’s also about helping encourage other people to visit and to spend their money in the state.

IRA FLATOW: It’s not a state, but Puerto Rico is on your list, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Puerto Rico is still dealing with the hurricane damage, and they will be for the indefinite future. The governor has actually encouraged Puerto Ricans who are living in other states to vote for candidates who will support federal money going to Puerto Rico. Because there’s only so much that they can do on their own.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. It’s amazing how many issues are all over the country, you know?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, it really crosses state lines in very interesting way. So each state has its own specific combination of factors going on. But you see these themes coming up again and again.

IRA FLATOW: I have one more state that I want to zoom into and go before we have to say goodbye. We have one more state, and that is New Hampshire, which has a lot of issues. But energy is one of the biggest. And here to explain is Annie Ropeik, environmental reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio. Hi, welcome back.


IRA FLATOW: So tell us about what’s a hot topic in your state.

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, energy is really the big one. This has been a huge issue, really an economic issue in our governor’s race and our congressional campaigns this year. We have some of the highest energy rates in the country.

Our bills are actually kind of more middling, and that’s a important distinction. But the wholesale prices that we pay for energy on the wholesale market are really high. And obviously, we use a lot of energy here. It’s pretty cold, and we’re a net importer of things like natural gas.

So this is a big issue, and it’s something that voters are really interested in, both for economic reasons and for climate change reasons. So there’s been a lot of talk about where our energy should come from, how we should support renewable energy development, and dis-incentivize the use of fossil fuels, how involved the government should be in that. And it’s a pretty clear partisan issue, and one we’ve heard a lot about this year.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: In New Hampshire, the governor recently vetoed a bill that would boost solar power. Why would he do that?

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, that’s right. It was a bill that was supposed to expand the ability for mainly towns to do net metering, where they can generate their own solar or hydropower and sell it back to the grid. That was a really controversial veto. It’s something our governor took a lot of heat from, especially from Democrats.

He said that it would raise rates too much for consumers, although his math on that is sort of up for debate. It’s honestly never really been settled just exactly how much that could raise rates, or how that cost might be passed on to consumers or not. That had pretty broad support from obviously, renewable energy developers, but also towns and individuals who want to be able to take advantage of installing and benefiting from more solar power, and are sort of limited in how much they can do that right now.

IRA FLATOW: Is Governor Sununu running for re-election this year?

ANNIE ROPEIK: Oh yes, he is. It’s his first reelection for a second two-year term. Governors in New Hampshire almost always win that first reelection. But he does have a Democratic challenger who’s hit him really hard on renewable energy issues. She supports a lot more renewable energy development than he does, or at least subsidy for that development.

He says let the free market play out as it will, and if renewable energy is the best solution, then it will come to pass. Although free market is kind of a relative term when it comes to energy, because fossil fuels are heavily subsidized too. So that kind of is easier said than done.

IRA FLATOW: Their state lawmakers recently passed a measure requiring utilities to buy more from biomass plants, not exactly a measure that will address climate change, will it?

ANNIE ROPEIK: No, that’s a good point. That’s a really divisive and interesting issue. Environmentalists really don’t like biomass power, because they say burning trees for fuel does more harm than good. But a lot of forestry people in our state, which is really heavily forested and we have a working timber industry– they say it incentivizes us to manage the forest well. So it actually means that we won’t clearcut the forest and develop them for housing if we’re able to sell some of that lower grade wood for biomass.

So in the long run, it’s better for climate change, because it means you maintain the big forest stands. It’s a really divisive topic. The science, again, is somewhat unsettled. It depends on how the biomass is being done. And theoretically, it can be good. But in practice, it’s often not so good, emissions-wise.

But our timber industry is politically pretty powerful in this state. And so they managed to get that bill through over the governor’s objections. Again, he said it would raise rates for consumers. And it will in the short term, but long term, there is a lot of political debate about the future of biomass and timber in this state, and in northern New England in general.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I know biomass proponents do say that even though it still has emissions, it has far fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. So it’s maybe a quarter of the equivalent carbon dioxide that you’d get from burning oil, and maybe a fifth that you’d get from burning coal.

ANNIE ROPEIK: Yeah, it’s far lower in sort of the traditional greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s more of the particulate matter. And interestingly, trees will sequester more of the bad stuff that’s in the air like heavy metals and things like that. So some opponents say that burning biomass is actually contributing to really serious air contamination, not just carbon dioxide emissions, but sort of harmful smog in some of these more concentrated areas where they’re doing a lot of this burning.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Annie, thank you for taking time to be with us today. Annie Ropeik is environmental reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio. And have a busy week next week, I’m sure.


IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Wow, this hour went by fast.


IRA FLATOW: Let me sum up. You mentioned politicians who don’t want to talk about climate change as real policy issues for their state. And people are just avoiding it. But maybe it’s finally getting some legs.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You would hope so. I think that with the extreme weather we’ve experienced, with hurricanes and fires and droughts, I think that it’s absolutely becoming necessary. For example, Florida state legislators don’t really like talking about climate action. And so local authorities are finding themselves having to do the heavy lifting there. And so they’re just sort of ignoring the state regulations, and being like, if we don’t make our own regulations, we’ll be in trouble.

IRA FLATOW: And you can see how a lot of these state issues, environmental and whatever, are going to become national issues the longer we talk about them.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think some of them are already national issues. So we mentioned infrastructure. I mean, we talked about wanting a federal infrastructure bill. And infrastructure is a big deal. So in Massachusetts, for example, the pipelines that carry natural gas are aging. And those are going to need infrastructure investment in order to keep working and to not cause a lot of damage.

And the other thing is air quality transcends state lines, literally. Connecticut actually has really bad problems with air pollution. And that’s not their fault. That’s because they happen to be at the end of a jet stream that’s just delivering pollution right to their doorstep. And that’s an issue they can’t fix on their own.

IRA FLATOW: My doctor mentioned that to me the other week. We were talking about air pollution. I’m living in Connecticut. Sophie, it’s been great having you here.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s been great.

IRA FLATOW: And if people want to see the whole study, they can see it online, your whole report.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right, at popsci.com.

IRA FLATOW: And Sophie Bushwick is Popular Science senior editor. And thank you again for taking time to be with us and spending our time with us.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s been my pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: One last thing before we go. We were sad to hear this week of the death of coral researcher Dr. Ruth Gates, director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology, and a fierce advocate for protecting reefs as the oceans warm. And in 2017, she spoke with us about the future of coral reefs. But even on the heels of the worst coral bleaching event in recorded history, she was optimistic about the capacity of humanity to slow the course of climate change and save the corals.

RUTH GATES: We are projecting that the majority of the world’s reefs will be dead by 2050 if we do not really start to address the drivers of climate change. And when I say that out loud, Ira, I have to say it’s just heart-wrenching. Because these systems are so beautiful. And frankly, the solution is so simple. It’s not that complex for us to lift this big collective effort that it will take to reduce fossil fuel burning.

It’s just not that difficult. That’s the wonderful thing about this problem of climate change. It is a solvable issue that everybody can be a party to. And in some ways, it creates the greatest challenge of our time. And I think that humans are incredibly good at solving problems. And so we just need to activate and do it.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Ruth Gates, a great advocate for the oceans, passed away last week. And condolences to her loved ones, her colleagues, and everybody who knew her. Charles Bergquist, our director, our senior producer, Christopher Intagliata, our producers are Alexa Lim, Christie Taylor, Katie Hiler. We had technical and engineering help today from Sara Fishman, Kevin [? Wolf, ?] and Rich [? Kim. ?]

And of course, we are active all week all along social communities and all over the place. You can send email directly to us if you’d like, scifri@sciencefriday.com. Also, we are at Facebook, the Twitter. Every day is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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