PRI's The World on RADIO IQ with BBC

Weekdays at 4:00 pm on our RADIO IQ With BBC network.

PRI’s The World is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. Launched in 1996, PRI’s The World, a co-production of WGBH/Boston, Public Radio International, and the BBC World Service.

The World's coverage is provided by a global network of international journalists. The program also has access to the 250 BBC correspondents located around the world. Unique in public radio, this network works in concert with the program's multinational team of producers and editors, and brings an exceptional depth of understanding and freshness of perspective to the program content. The result is an award-winning hour of breaking news, in-depth features, hard-hitting commentaries, and thought-provoking interviews found nowhere else in U.S. news coverage.

PRI's The World -- international news for an American audience -- weekdays at 4:00 on our RADIO IQ With BBC News network of signals and streaming live on the web.

Local Host(s): 
Beverly Amsler
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Program Headlines

  • Friday, April 18, 2014 3:27pm

    If you're claustrophobic in any way, stop reading this story. Please avoid listening to the audio of the story. You won't like it. So avoid it. There's plenty of other good stuff on our website to enjoy.

    Like our story about Tom of Finland stamps.

    It's a good one. And it doesn't talk about descending down into the black abyss of the Cheve, one the deepest cave systems in the world.

    So that's your warning.


    With that said, Burkhard Bilger's latest story in the New Yorker is an epic, even better if its read outdoors. Just look at the jaw-dropper of an opening paragraph:

    On his thirteenth day underground, when he’d come to the edge of the known world and was preparing to pass beyond it, Marcin Gala placed a call to the surface. He’d travelled more than three miles through the earth by then, over stalagmites and boulder fields, cave-ins and vaulting galleries. He’d spidered down waterfalls, inched along crumbling ledges, and bellied through tunnels so tight that his back touched the roof with every breath. Now he stood at the shore of a small, dark pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone. He felt the weight of the mountain above him--a mile of solid rock--and wondered if he’d ever find his way back again. It was his last chance to hear his wife and daughter’s voices before the cave swallowed him up.

    Few will ever be able to write as good as Burkhard Bilger. I first fell in love with his writing when my dad gave me a copy of his book, "Noodling for Flatheads." I've been a fanboy of his work ever since. I'm just glad we did the interview remotely. If I'd been in the same room with him, I would've had him sign my book. My T-shirt. My laptop. I'd embarrass myself.

    This story on the monster cave outside Oaxaca, Mexico, is among his best. He shared with us more about it during the interview, starting with the entrance.

    "It's spectacular," he says. "You go in this huge, gaping hole in the cliff-side and there are rocks and monoliths inside and the ancient Cuicatec Indians used to hold ritual sacrifices there, and there are a number of bones that were found of people who were sacrificed. So it has a real creepy and impressive aura."

    Then you head down. Bilger says the caves work like a staircase. But the "staircases" in caving are different from the ones you're used to. In the Cheve cave system, it's a combination of rappelling, crawling on your belly for hundreds of yards, and even traveling underwater with the help of scuba gear, over and over and over. So yeah, it's a different sort of staircase. Bilger says many times, you have to squeeze your body through narrow rock passages.

    Makes you wonder, why the heck anyone would want to do this?

    Because it's there, is one reason. Another reason, Bilger says, is the sense of exploration. But the other explanation is that cavers love caving.

    "They kind of like being underground in an odd way," he says. "These are people who, it's not that they just aren't claustrophobic, it's that they actually love the feeling of being surrounded by rock. It's that womb-like feeling of having close contact with the earth."

    To be sure, It's not without risk.

    Bilger says it's on the danger level of extreme sports, like BASE jumping. There are a variety of ways to die. You can get hypoxia from a lack of oxygen, or narcosis. You can get trapped in a tunnel, then a rainstorm hits  and you drown. You can also die from the climbing aspects of it, and fall to your death "So it really is a thousand ways to die," he says.

    That's why deep cave exploring requires a team. Bilger says you approach the cave like climbers approach at summit of Mt. Everest. There's a base camp and several more campsites at different depths inside the cave. Other cavers shuttle supplies to keep the lead cavers fed. Some of the cavers spend weeks inside the cave, searching for the bottom.

    But it's different that Everest. There's no reward of standing atop a mountain. There's just more cave.

    And that's what Bilger has trouble grasping. Why do it? Sure, you can try and beat a record depth, but doing so is rare. His best guess is that cavers are different.

    "They don't have such a heroic self image," he says.

    Bilger says cavers view caving as an incremental process. And it seems that cavers enjoy that incremental process of discovery.

  • Monday, April 14, 2014 11:01am

    Let’s say there’s a suspicious looking package.  Rather than send in a person to check things out, send in a robot. Or rather, toss in a robot.

    Tim Trainer, vice president of robotic products international with the company iRobot in Bedford, Massachusetts, hurls a small five-pound robot, called the FirstLook, through the air. It lands with a thud then goes scooting along the floor to complete its mission.

    “Its base sensor is four cameras, every 90 degrees a camera on that,” said Trainer. “So you can throw it into a room, a SWAT team can get a full 360-degree perspective of what they’re entering pretty quickly.”

    The small robot is designed to be thrown 15 feet and land on hard concrete. If the small robot senses a problem, the bomb squad can then send in a larger robot, like the PackBot, capable of picking up, moving, even dismantling a bomb.  

    The PackBot looks a bit like the animated Wall-E from the Disney movie, scooting along using driving belts like a small tractor. A long arm extends from its base with a camera and a gripper, which can pick up a bomb and move it to a safer location. 

    The company recently sold 30 PackBots, which weigh 50 to 60 pounds, to Brazil to be used at the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. They company’s largest customer has been the US military, but they’ve also sold robots to civil defense forces throughout the US and worldwide. The company is one of a handful selling robots built for defense.

    Not to denigrate this highly-sophisticated and expensive gadgetry – PackBots sell for between $100,000 and $150,000 depending on how they’re outfitted – but for the sake of explaining, watching a tactician picking up a dummy bomb reminded me of the arcade game where kids drop a pincher hook and try to pluck a stuffed animal out of a glass box. Much higher stakes here though, of course.

    Robots like this were also used last year in the hours and days following the Boston Marathon bombing for things like investigating suspicious packages.

    Sergeant Bill Qualls, the bomb squad commander for the Massachusetts State Police, says the robots will again be at the ready. Qualls fits the part of a bomb squad leader, with a square cut jaw and flat top haircut. He’s the guy you want protecting you, but he can’t reveal too much about how they’ll be doing it. I asked how many robots will be along the marathon route.

    “I guess in general, we could say more than one and less than a hundred,” he said.

    He added though: they’ll have enough to get the job done.

    “We can forward deploy, we can remotely deploy a robotic platform to get eyes on a potential threat. And once we get eyes on that threat, we can start formulating our plan, our approach, how are we going to do deal with that problem?” said Qualls.

    These robots don’t just keep members of the bomb squad out of the danger zone. Jim McGee, a former FBI agent now with the security consulting firm the Soufan Group, said spectators in places like Brazil should feel safer knowing the authorities have robots at their disposal.  

    “To me, thinking in terms of a fan going to one of the soccer matches at the World Cup, it would give me some reassurance in terms of their [Brazilian security forces] preparedness,” said McGee.

    But robots can only do so much – for example, they wouldn’t have prevented the bombs from going off in Boston last year. Still, McGee said robots are getting more sophisticated and will soon help target suspected bombers.

    “Not just the backpack that’s been left some place, but actually an individual that may be wearing a suicide vest and is getting ready to detonate themselves in a crowded area,” said McGee.

    Robots can already sniff out toxic chemicals, as well as biological and radiological agents. If you want further proof that the robots work, just visit the iRobot lab and Tim Trainer. They have showcases of their products that have been blown up on the job.

    Trainer said, “It really is motivating to our workforce of, ‘Hey, here’s a robot that got blown up, instead of a soldier or a sailor or marine that got blown up.’” 

  • Monday, April 14, 2014 3:32pm

    Climate scientists have warned that we have been digging ourselves into a very deep and dark hole. But the third part of a report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers much more than dire warnings.

    In fact, the authors of the newest installment say there's still reason for hope, but only if the world acts quickly and decisively.

    The 33-page summary for policymakers was released in Berlin over the weekend. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, scientists say greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut 40 to 70 percent from 2010 levels in the next 30-40 years.

    Among the report’s 235 authors is Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute's US Center in Somerville, Massachusetts. 

    “There’s no single techno-fix, there’s no silver bullet, but there is ‘silver birdshot' — what we can do in industry, what we can do in buildings, what we can do in transport,” Kartha says. “And moreover, it is an opportunity for employment. Making efficient things and making them efficiently generally creates more jobs than digging resources out of the ground and burning them.”

    The report says the cost of keeping global warming in check is “relatively modest,” but only if the world acts swiftly. An ambitious plan to slow climate change would trim annual worldwide economic growth by only 0.06 percent. With no extra efforts, worldwide temperatures are on pace to rise between 6.6 and 8.6 degrees over pre-industrial times by 2100.

    Kartha says one area that can quickly be improved upon is energy efficiency within buildings — big fixes, not just caulking windows or adding insulation.

    “Carefully and thoughtfully thinking of the whole building as a system. How do windows interact with the heating system? And how things vary across the seasons when you need cooling sometimes and heating sometimes.”

    He said there have already been impressive gains with buildings across parts of Europe and Canada, and those lessons can be translated to the US — where building codes haven’t been as efficient — or to the developing world, where cities are still being built.

    Kartha says such near-term technical improvements can help in the short term, and they tend to have snowballing effects.

    “We tend to think of changes we need to make, whether they’re changes to our technical systems or changes to our behavior, as sacrifices we’d rather not make," he says. "But one of the really important points is that business as usual just isn’t an option — doing nothing just isn’t an option.”

    But he has hope. 

    "The ability of societies to change when it really becomes necessary has been proven to be pretty phenomenal and even inspiring."

  • Monday, April 14, 2014 3:03pm

    Miami is about six feet above sea level and smack up against the ocean. It’s one of the cities most economically vulnerable to sea level rise in the world.

    So when there’s talk of sea level rise in Miami, it’s usually focused on the dangers of the Atlantic beginning to engulf some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.

    But its not just the rich and famous along Florida’s Gold Coast who have a lot to lose.

    Head west in Miami Dade County and you’ll find yourself in booming bedroom communities of mostly Latin immigrants.

    Many of these neighborhoods are farther from the sea than Miami, but their elevation is actually lower. And it’s down there, where the land just about melts right into the sea, that you’ll find Celeste De Palma — a woman often in a kayak, and always on a mission. 

    Venezuelan environmental activist in Miami Dade County from Sagastume story
    Credit: Patricia Sagastume
    Climate activist Celeste De Palma leading a tour of low-lying areas of Miami-Dade County near Everglades National Park.

    “You can see how wet the area is,” De Palma says, hunkered low to the water, while leading a tour of the edge of Everglades National Park for the Tropical Audubon Society. “The west side of [Miami-Dade] county is the lowest lying area that we have, and being here sort of puts it into perspective.”

    De Palma is a Latin immigrant herself — from Argentina — and an Audubon Society guide and climate activist.

    She’s here to show people local wildlife, but also to make clear just how vulnerable the area is to sea level rise.

    Many of those bedroom communities are sprouting right on the edge of the park and in other nearby areas, where land is a lot cheaper than it is closer to Miami proper.

    De Palma says a lot of her own friends are starting to look at where they can buy a house. “And of course, they want to have the most bang for their buck, and so that tends to be in low-lying areas.”

    Those areas are also at high risk of flooding. That’s why De Palma has been working, for years, to slow the migration of newcomers.

    Miami Dade County expects nearly 700,000 new residents by 2030, many of whom will be Hispanics attracted by the affordable housing.

    That’s where De Palma wants to make a difference. “We have to get the entire population moving,” she says. “Right now … 65% of this county is from Hispanic descent.”

    It can be a very tough sell. Climate change can seem like a remote problem, and people tend to have much more immediate concerns.

    Which is why De Palma doesn’t stray from her mission, wherever she goes.

    In another life, De Palma was a dance instructor — a career she gave up to become an activist. She still fills in occasionally, and brings her message on climate change with her, often in her native Spanish.

    After a recent class, with Latin dance music still thumping in the background, De Palma sought help from some of her students in stopping development in some especially vulnerable, low-lying areas. And she found some unexpectedly receptive ears.

    Among her enlistees was Katiuska Ferreria, an immigrant from Venezuela who is weary of politics after fleeing strife in her home country.  

    “Of course, I’ll support her,” Ferreria says, “because I trust what she is trying to do. I didn’t know she was doing this kind of study. I only thought she was in the dancing environment.”

    De Palma didn’t plan to become an activist. She wanted to be a dancer. But that changed on a visit to Peru, when she saw the impact of oil drilling on the environment and local indigenous groups.

    When she came to the US, she eventually landed a job with the Audubon Society. She’s helped the organization win at least some small victories where the water meets the rising sea in south Florida.

    Miami-Dade County contains some of the most populated cities in Florida. The population, proximity to the sea and topography combine to make this county particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.
    Credit: NOAA Coastal Services Center
    Miami-Dade County contains some of the most populated cities in Florida. The population, proximity to the sea and topography combine to make this county particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

    She says it helps that she lives in the area herself, rather than coming in from outside.

    “Living in areas where you’re going to be more prone to have floods, you are in a unique position to exert pressure onto your elected officials and help us prepare for sea level rise,” De Palma says.

    Among other things, she recently helped keep developers from building a new mall near the Everglades.

    On her tour of Florida Bay, thousands of wading birds feed far off in the distance, standing in a foot of water.

    It’s not hard to see the birds as a metaphor for what could lie ahead for people here in south Florida, Hispanic and otherwise.

    But for De Palma it’s not about standing still, waiting for the inevitable. It’s about taking action.

  • Friday, April 11, 2014 3:09pm

    Study after study suggests that many Americans don't understand climate change — and many don't yet buy it. They either don't believe that climate change is real, or don't believe that humans are largely responsible for it. That's left journalists scratching their heads and looking for new ways to report the story.

    Enter Showtime, with a new documentary series on climate change called Years of Living Dangerously.

    It is clear from the opening sequence that this is, indeed, a different approach than you're likely to get on any news program. Though it was dreamed up by two former 60 minutes producers, it features action movie music and visuals right out of a video game.

    And the first two "correspondents" you hear aren't journalists at all, but movie stars — Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle.

    It isn't until almost five minutes into the first hour that you encounter the first real journalist — New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman.

    Friedman says the series' somewhat amped-up approach is an appropriate response to the "wicked problem" of climate change.

    "It's wicked because it's slow moving," Friedman says. "It plays out over long periods of time, there isn't just sort of one moment. And it's the kind of problem where you'll never really know how serious it is, until it's too late. And therefore, it requires an enormous act of stewardship on behalf of one generation by another. And that's really hard."

    Friedman says there are other challenges to conveying the scope and seriousness of the problem. One is that the people who know the most are climate scientists.

    "They're extremely knowledgeable," he says, "but they're extremely, and rightly, careful about what they say. And they tend to speak in very technical language."

    Then there are what he calls the "merchants of doubt."

    "Just as there was in the case of tobacco," Freidman says, where supposed experts told the public "'don't believe those [other] people — tobacco doesn't cause cancer.'" Friedman says "the same people are active in trying to confuse people about climate change. Because they don't have to persuade people that they're right, they just have to inject doubt. And they're very good at that."

    Years of Living Dangerously uses Hollywood-style production values and "celebrity correspondents" to create an allure that will attract people who might not otherwise watch a documentary series on climate change.

    Even with the glitz, Friedman says for the most part, the project is just basic, old-style journalism. It uses the voices of real people around the world who are telling their own stories.

    Friedman's own segments for the series focus on the role of climate change in contributing to unrest in the Middle East through extremely unusual droughts, heat waves and food supply disruptions.

    He says the segments are "based on real, on-the-ground reporting. We try to put it into a broader context. We try to respect the fact that none of [these events] can be directly attributed to climate change, but everything that is playing out today corresponds with the models scientists predict of ... global warming."

    As for the glitterati who play the roles of other "correspondents" in the series, Friedman suggests that they are hardly dilettantes.

    "Harrison Ford is a long-time member of the board of Conservation International," Friedman says. "Harrison knows this field very well."

    Years of Living Dangerously premiers on Showtime on Sunday, April 13.