Air Date: Week of April 30, 2021
On April 28th, 2021, President Joe Biden gave his first public address before a joint session of the United States Congress – called the “State of the Union” address in years other than a president’s first year in office. (Photo: Screenshot from the White House video of President Biden’s Address)
BIDEN, LOE AND DYKSTRA: Environmental Health News weekend editor Peter Dykstra joins Host Steve Curwood for a quick recap of President Biden’s climate and environment mentions in his first address to the joint houses of Congress. Then, the two discuss Living on Earth’s thirty-year anniversary and some of their favorite memories from the show’s tenure.
DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.
CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: And with me now on the line from Atlanta, Georgia is Peter Dykstra. He’s an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. Hi, there, Peter, let’s talk about President Biden’s speech to the nation.
DYKSTRA: Yeah, this week he gave his not-the-State of the Union address. One of the traditions is that a rookie president just refers to it as an address to a joint session of Congress. There was a restricted audience because of COVID. And of course, there were two women on the dais behind him. They’re all breaks from the scenario of the normal speech. But there was also a lot of mention, much more than normal, about climate and the environment.
CURWOOD: Indeed, in fact, one thing that really caught my ear and eye was when he talked about lead pipes and lead poisoning, let’s hear that bit of tape.
BIDEN: American jobs plan creates jobs replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes in service lines, so every American can drink clean water.
CURWOOD: So Peter, lead is a huge problem for the brains of growing children, even small amounts of exposure to lead reduce IQ and can cause difficulties in both physical and mental functioning. And those places that have lead pipes for supply lines tend to be in less affluent neighborhoods and places more occupied by people of color.
DYKSTRA: Yeah, it’s a pretty clear environmental justice story, one that’s rooted in literally thousands of American communities. Biden, as he did with climate change, and other issues, couched it all in the framework of an infrastructure opportunity to create, as he said with climate: jobs, jobs, jobs.
CURWOOD: Yeah, and there are a lot of jobs there, because I mean, we know about the disaster in Flint, Michigan, when the water supply was changed, and started leeching the lead out of the pipes. But folks with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tell me that there are more than 4000 cities and towns and jurisdictions that have significant amounts of lead pipes in the supply lines to homes.
DYKSTRA: And Biden made what comes pretty close to a promise to get rid of all of those service lines going into homes. That’s a tall order, he may have very little time to do that, for the political winds are blowing against him to get his agenda served. That’s also true with climate, and so many other specific issues that went unmentioned, like the growing plastics pollution problem. No president has ever so much as mentioned that in any kind of a speech to Congress.
CURWOOD: That’s right. And he knows from his experience, that he has a very short window to get big things like this done. There’ll be the midterm elections very soon. And yet, what he’s talking about are things which will largely pay well after, even if he were to be president for eight years. For example, cleaning up the waters or keeping the climate from going off the rails. These are all things that we’ll know about well after he leaves office.
DYKSTRA: That’s right. And hopefully we can recognize them then. But it’s easier said than done, because past presidents have talked a lot about fixing environmental issues, and it hasn’t necessarily come to pass.
CURWOOD: Okay, give me the rundown, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Well, we can go back to the 2000s when President George W. Bush confessed that we are addicted to oil. Those were the exact words spoken into the camera to all Americans, by a man from a family that made its fortune in the oil industry. Go back to the 1990s, Bill Clinton promised to deal with Superfund, that still hasn’t happened. Go back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, of all people, bemoaned partisanship on environmental issues and said there’s no place for it.
CURWOOD: I think a lot of people are hoping that Mr. Biden is able to keep these promises that he’s making, which if they happen, Peter, how fair is it to say that this will be transformative for the United States?
DYKSTRA: It would be absolutely transformative. The question is, will it happen? Steve, you’ve been here for 30 years measuring such things and whether they happen and how badly they’re needed. And that’s something else we should talk about.
CURWOOD: Oh, okay, you’re talking about the show. 30 years, huh?
DYKSTRA: Living on Earth made its debut on public radio stations in April of 1991. A young Steve Curwood hosted the show, raised money for the show, wrote a lot of the pieces, produced the pieces, and has been the voice of LOE for 30 years ever since.
CURWOOD: And I had plenty of help. People like Deb Stavro and George Homsy, Peter Thomson, Loretta Hobbs at CPB, so many others that really encouraged this project. And, of course, along the way, I got to work with you.
DYKSTRA: Oh, gosh.
CURWOOD: Yeah. Back in the day, we were working together on the Society for Environmental Journalists, a journalism organization that was put together in no small measure in response to industry saying, oh, they’re just a bunch of environmental advocates. And you’ve been instrumental of that, Peter, all those years you spent at CNN. And of course, now you’ve been doing this with Environmental Health News and us.
DYKSTRA: Oh, you know, I’ve been a part of the show for the last five years. I’m really proud of that. But you have things like the BirdNote segment, great use of audio. We have beautiful essays from your Explorer-in-Residence. And that makes my segment in the show my third favorite part of the show, but I have one question for you. Do you have a favorite moment or moments in your 30 years with the show?
CURWOOD: Wow. I mean, I’m not sure that it’s fair to pick the various children because so many interesting works have been done by people that I’ve worked with here. But I will say this, that on a personal level, my favorite environmental advocate interview was with Pete Seeger, the folk singer who got so involved with the efforts to clean up the Hudson River. And in terms of moments to report on and witness, I think 1997 in Kyoto and then in 2015, in Paris, when the international climate agreements came together. I really felt that our journalism helped to make a difference, especially since for many, many, many years, we were one of the very few voices that broadcast on this nationally about what was going on at the UN. And I’m glad to have been part of the effort to tell the story.
DYKSTRA: And as they said back in the movie, Casablanca: Steve, we’ll always have Paris and Kyoto.
CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Peter. Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News. That’s EHN.org and dailyclimate.org. We’ll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: Well, thanks, Steve. We’ll talk to you soon.
CURWOOD: And there’s more on these stories at the Living on Earth website. That’s LOE.org.