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Environmental Change and Security Program
A production of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC
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April 30, 2015 02:28 PM PDT

One of the biggest challenges to improving health care in developing countries is that it’s not necessarily a great job. Midwives and other auxiliary health workers often face very difficult working conditions with little training, poor pay, and no hope of advancement. This can translate to poor results and even abuse of patients.

Midwives need “a purpose that’s bigger than themselves,” says Barbara Stilwell, senior director of health workforce solutions at the NGO Intrahealth International, in this week’s podcast. “Self-actualization is a basic need for people,” she says, “but when we look at health care, one of the things we do is we task shift.”

Task shifting is a concept being explored in many low resource settings whereby certain treatments that previously only doctors were allowed to perform are delegated to auxiliary health workers. The idea is to make up for the lack of doctors by making each one go further. But in practice, this can be demeaning to health workers, Stilwell says. “We give you a task: you can give injections. But heaven forbid that you should ever know what the injections are for, or you should ever be able to tell me that I’ve told you something wrong, or you should ever bring an idea to me about that.”

Instead of task shifting, Stilwell suggests giving greater purpose to health care jobs. “There is now some idea in my world…that we need to be coming up with big ideas that are going to change the way we look at these issues in a way that is much more profound than this.”

Autonomy and having independent success in one’s work has been shown to increase investment in health care jobs, says Stilwell. In Karnataka, India, Intrahealth International implemented a program where skilled nurses were trained to become mentors. “What we found was not only have the nurse midwives become much better at giving care, but they’ve also shown initiative,” she says. For example, some noticed broken radiant warmers – which are similar to infant incubators –and took steps to fix them on their own. Stilwell points out that taking this initiative not only showed independence, it also brought more value to the job itself.

Mastery brings two major benefits: it encourages people to deepen their skills and creates a ladder for those who want to pursue a career in health. Stilwell cites the 2014 State of the World’s Midwifery Report that projects 87 percent of all needed and essential care for mothers and newborns could be completed by midwives if they received the right education.

Ascribing health care to a larger purpose also gives providers more incentive and motivation to improve – especially when they see data that shows quality of care makes a difference in their patients’ lives. “There have been some fine examples about the midwives who are connected to communities and get feedback from the communities,” says Stilwell. “That’s their motivation.”

April 24, 2015 06:21 AM PDT

“Even though small-island nation states generally are responsible for less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, small islands are already expending scare resources on strategies to adapt to growing climate threats and to also repair themselves after they have hit,” says Maxine Burkett, associate professor of law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in this week’s podcast.

The rise in climate-related disasters such as Cyclone Pam, which devastated the archipelago of Vanuatu in March, has elevated concern over the vulnerability of islands. “Island nations are seeing the development they’ve experienced in the last few years being wiped out in a day in some cases,” Burkett says.

Sea-level rise is the obvious major threat. In Micronesia, more than half of communities surveyed for one study confirmed having adopted adaptation measures to prevent coastal erosion, but 92 percent reported having experienced continued adverse effects. The collapse of fisheries due to acidification is also a concern, as is “climate departure,” where the lowest average temperature becomes higher than the highest average temperature recorded during normal years. Tropical regions and islands are expected to experience this change first, perhaps as soon as mid-century, Burkett says.

In Burkett’s home state of Hawaii, a recent heat wave caused classroom temperatures to peak at 101 degrees Fahrenheit. “I have two young children and I was sort of imagining what the lost opportunity is here when you have children that are attempting to learn under these circumstances,” she says.

When Adaptation Is No Longer Possible

In some cases damage may prove so great that mitigation and adaptation measures simply cannot cope. “We’re finding that we need to look at insurance, risk transfer mechanisms, and the possibility of compensation for those things that are completely lost,” Burkett says. The conversation around this in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process is referred to as “loss and damage.”

Shared concerns among small islands and low lying coastal countries have led a group to establish the Alliance of Small Island States. This organization represents 47 members and acts as a voting bloc within the United Nations, advocating for an effective loss and damages mechanism that would include disaster risk management, risk transfers through insurance, and compensation.

The threat to small islands may be more visible today, but Burkett emphasizes that these proposals are not new. The Alliance of Small Island States has called for a loss and damages policy for nearly 25 years after Vanuatu introduced the concept in the early 1990s. Despite discussions at the Conferences of Parties throughout the years, the UN has failed to adopt such a policy given significant costs and the difficult political problem of claiming responsibility for climate-related damages.

Small-island states are mobilizing to advance their agenda once again at this year’s meetings in Paris with the goal to include finance-specific language for a loss and damage policy in what’s expected to be a landmark treaty. “There is a desire to not have to go around with a begging bowl,” Burkett says, “a desire to have more sophisticated responses to [this] 21st century type of disaster.”

Maxine Burkett spoke at the Wilson Center on March 25 at the “Island as Champions of Resilience” event.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

April 09, 2015 12:56 PM PDT

“Advancing reproductive health and family planning can positively influence and advance a number of sustainable development priorities,” says Director of USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health Ellen Starbird in this week’s podcast.

The Sustainable Development Goals, up for adoption later this year, are meant to improve upon the Millennium Development Goals, which have guided international development for the last decade and a half. They will recognize the environment as a more integral part of global development and have goals applicable to all countries, not just the poorest.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights is not among the 17 top-level goals, but “there are really none of these SDGs that can be moved along as fast as they could be if we don’t also take this issue into account,” says Starbird.

There are at least 222 million women in developing countries that want to space or limit births but are not using modern contraception. “They want to control their fertility, and often lack the means, the access, the agency to do that,” says Starbird.

Making universal access – and the agency to exercise that access – a priority has significant health benefits for women and families, she says. It reduces maternal mortality and morbidity, reduces infant and child mortality, reduces abortion, and contributes to lower HIV transmission.

“People can understand that you don’t want women and kids to die,” Starbirds says, but there are other knock-on effects that are not as intuitive. “On the more social and economic side, the ability to choose when you’re going to have your children and how many you’re going to have allows women to stay in school, to participate in the workforce, [and] for families to spend more of their resources on the quality of their children.”

The phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend” has allowed some countries to boost economic productivity, but is not possible without lower fertility rates. And there are myriad environmental and social effects that come with lower population growth.

What’s in a Measurement?

Empowerment, not control, is the objective, Starbird says. “Underneath all that, there has to be a guiding principle around voluntarism and informed choice that puts the responsibility and the opportunity to take action in the hands of the woman and not in the hands of the state or some higher order entity.”

USAID’s proposed indicator for measuring family planning is a reflection of this focus on the individual. Starbird says the agency is proposing the SDGs measure the percentage of sexually active women of reproductive age who do not want to become pregnant, with a goal of reaching 75 percent in all countries by 2030. This is “ambitious but achievable,” she says, while keeping the focus on unmet demand and encouraging countries to satisfy that demand across wealth, age, residence, and other demographic factors.

The rate of increase in modern contraceptive users is slower than what’s needed to reach the goals of the FP2020 Initiative, a major effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many development agencies launched in 2012. Current projections fall 53 million users short of the initiative’s 2020 targets, Starbird says. The SDGs then are a chance to reiterate international commitment.

“Universal access to family planning is not the singular route to any of this,” Starbird says, “but without addressing family planning and population issues, the impact and effectiveness of what the other SDGs are trying to accomplish is going to be much less.”

Ellen Starbird spoke at the Wilson Center on March 18 as part the “Managing Our Planet” seminar series.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

April 02, 2015 02:29 PM PDT

“The thing that is most gripping about the SDGs is their desire to be much more transformative in terms of what they mean for the planet,” says Manish Bapna, executive vice president and managing director of the World Resources Institute, in this week’s podcast.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set to succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), an initiative commissioned by the United Nations in 2000 to tackle extreme poverty in the developing world.

Much has changed in the years since the MDG’s initial conception. “As we look at eradicating extreme poverty moving forward, we’re working in more difficult political and environmental contexts than may have been the case in the last 15 years,” says Bapna. Environmental change, migration, and instability have also made the distinction between developed and developing countries less relevant.

“The Millennium Development Goals were largely about how the rich world can pay for things to improve the condition in the developing world,” he says. “There has been a real seismic shift in moving towards an agenda that would speak to all countries…We want an agenda that is universal, that not only speaks to poverty or depravation in the developing world, but poverty and depravation in all countries.”

The sheer complexity of that challenge has led to a more multidisciplinary approach. An intergovernmental body, called the Open Working Group, has been working to draft new goals since 2012 and at last count had reached 17 goals and 169 targets.

The SDGs are more comprehensive in scope than the MDGs, particularly in regards to the environment. MDG 7 – “ensure environmental sustainability” – was “largely an afterthought,” says Bapna. “Now there is no shortage of goals that speak to different dimensions of sustainability, whether it is around natural resources, whether it is around climate change, whether it’s around food-energy- water.”

This was not an accident but a reflection of how important the environment is to development and wellbeing in many parts of the world. “There was a much greater effort in the design of the Sustainable Development Goals to identify targets or pieces of these goals that spoke to each other,” says Bapna. “Climate and development are inextricably linked…We can’t really solve and eradicate extreme poverty if we have four degrees of warming.”

A Critical Nine Months

The MDGs expire at the end of this year and the SDGs are expected to be introduced this September in New York. There’s also an important financing for development conference in Addis Ababa in July and one of the most highly anticipated climate summits in Paris this fall. “We’re now at a critical point,” says Bapna. “You have in this very short six-month span this once in a generation moment when all these three incredibly important summits are going to be taking place together.”

Political sensitivities will be high, and on the SDGs, there’s a risk that governments will “open up a ‘Pandora’s box’ and everything else will have to be completely renegotiated,” he says. “Do we take what we have with some small incremental change or do we do something more significant but take the risk of opening up the entire political process?”

“This is voluntary normative framework,” Bapna says, “it only works if people truly, truly embrace it and integrate it into what they do.” The agenda must be meaningful for the poorest countries; emerging middle income countries, like China, India, and Brazil; and the United States and the rest of the developed world.

“You all know the business school literature – 60 to 90 percent of corporations fail not because they have the wrong strategy, they just didn’t execute well,” he says. Countries like Sweden, Colombia, Costa Rica, Switzerland, and Rwanda have demonstrated how to integrate the MDGs into their national planning. “We need to see more of that and we need to support that, because at the end of the day it’s the actual practice that will mobilize and inspire others.”

Manish Bapna spoke at the Wilson Center on March 18 as part the “Managing Our Planet” seminar series.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

March 19, 2015 02:14 PM PDT

When it comes to international development, a resilience framework is key, says Tom Staal, acting assistant administrator of the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID, in this week’s podcast.

“You need an approach that looks at everything from climate change, natural resource management, conflict issues, the sort of social dynamics of the country, as well as your long-term development approach to that group of people and the resources they have,” Staal says. “That put together, to me, is building resilience.”

Although it is sometimes considered a nebulous term, Staal, who has worked in humanitarian assistance for USAID since the 1980s, says the core idea of resilience is evaluating problems in a multidisciplinary manner. Understanding how environmental changes can have consequences for health and conflict, for example, or how gender dynamics dampen efforts to relieve poverty.

This issue is particularly important in fragile states.

“They’re very vulnerable to a variety of problems,” said Staal. “They’re vulnerable to climate shocks, to climate change. They’re vulnerable to conflict over resources, but even things like conflict over water sources. And then that gets exacerbated when there is a drought.”

Staal worked in one pastoral community in southern Ethiopia that faced natural resource strain because of bad wells, with some wells producing no water at all. When drought hit, pastoralists were forced to move their cattle elsewhere. This then caused conflict between the displaced pastoralists and the communities already living in the spaces they arrived in. “How do we build [capacities] to give people the ability to withstand the shock, to rebound from it, and to move ahead?” Staal asked.

In a previous era, USAID probably would have responded by using humanitarian assistance money to truck in water, a hugely expensive endeavor, he says. Instead, in concert with the agency’s new resilience framework, designed to better address recurring crises, they repaired the pastoralists’ wells. This not only helped the communities manage their natural resources, but will hopefully curb the shock of drought and the potential for conflict in the future.

It may seem simple, but breaking down the topical siloes that have traditionally defined development and aid is a slow process. Merging humanitarian assistance and development projects has led USAID to also set up a “Resilience Leadership Team” and secretariat within the agency where staff from different bureaus and projects can discuss best practices and lessons. This allows for more cross-cutting solutions, which is really the heart of the approach, Staal says.

“Resilience is not a special initiative. It’s really a much more holistic way of looking at what we’re trying to accomplish.”

March 11, 2015 07:27 AM PDT

“I firmly believe that U.S. global leadership depends on our ocean leadership,” says Sherri Goodman in this week’s podcast.

Goodman, perhaps best known among the climate community for her work with the CNA Military Advisory Board, recently moved on from CNA to become CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. The non-profit represents more than 100 major research and education organizations in the United States in Washington, DC, advocating for “sound ocean policy.”

Although she is leaving the influential climate security work she helped found and lead at CNA, she still sees national security as an argument for strong environmental policy. “Our security, our stability, our global leadership depend very mightily on the fact that we are a landmass positioned between the two mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans,” Goodman says. “From forward presence to freedom of navigation, it all depends on being able to preserve the sanctity and security of our ocean heritage and maintain this even as the oceans around us are indeed changing.”

Goodman says given the magnitude of the oceans’ effects on society, there should be greater investment in scientific research and monitoring.

“No region of the planet is changing more rapidly than the Arctic today,” she says. “As ice cover decreases…ocean warming will accelerate and we’ll likely see these effects in sea-level rise, release of methane gas that contributes to a warming climate, loss of habitat, and livelihoods.”

“Our ability to…develop an Arctic future that is safe for the coming both exploration and exploitation of its vast resources, from fishing to energy to mining, depends critically on our understanding better how the Arctic is changing. That’s why the science we need to advance now on the circulation of the Arctic, on ocean ice interactions, and on real-time observations are all really critical.”

Sea-level rise threatens not only the destruction of major cities and the displacement of millions, but the spoiling of food-producing regions and higher storm surges. The extent and speed of sea-level rise, however, is unclear and may vary from place to place. “Monitoring sea-level requires an expanded system of advanced water level measurements and sustained satellite measurements as well,” Goodman says.

The oceans also serve as the primary source of protein for billions. Coral bleaching – the dying of coral formations due to higher water temperatures – is increasing, Goodman says, and “warming oceans are moving fish species toward the polls, away from Africa and Asia where the largest population growth and higher demand for food is indeed happening.”

“We need to invest in the scientific observations if we’re going to be able to more accurately predict the future conditions of the ocean,” Goodman says, “and enable us to build a more resilient society as our weather and climate system are changing more rapidly.”

Sherri Goodman spoke at the Wilson Center on February 25 as part the “Managing Our Planet” seminar series.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

February 26, 2015 02:19 PM PST

“After Ukraine, ISIS, terrorism…there are a lot of distractions in 2015,” says Nick Mabey, founder and chief executive of the environmental NGO E3G, in this week’s podcast. “Short term issues are important, but they’re not everything,”

Climate change is a massive, long-term national security issue, he says, and what happens at this year’s UN climate summit in Paris will be tremendously consequential. Climate experts have seen how quickly their predictions and worse-case scenarios can take place. In 2008, as E3G was looking at climate security, they were discussing if and how climate change would affect things like trade balance, energy security, and resentment between countries, says Mabey. In 2015, those scenarios are now the reality; “this is the world we live in.”

“The Mediterranean is full of refugees driven by conflict exacerbated by drought, and Arctic politics continue to grow,” he says. “We’re seeing a massive growth of government repression of anti-coal activism, including in India but also in places like Poland and Turkey and our democratic friends…We’re seeing a global fossil divestment campaign look like the anti-apartheid movement.”

The United States is the most climate-vulnerable OECD country. Over the last three decades, the United States has experienced 37 percent of all global damage, by value, from major weather events, says Mabey. A recent poll shows 41 percent of U.S. experts believe climate change is a top foreign policy issue. But politics still makes climate change a hot potato. While President Obama and Secretary Kerry have emphasized the issue, Mabey says it is hard to take action once they leave the room. In addition, there is concern that Congressional Republicans could threaten the U.S. role in Paris in their efforts to counter the president.

The lack of engagement and urgency from policymakers, not only in the United States but around the world, is worrying, says Mabey. “Unless you have a gut feeling of how much risk you’re going to take, you will not prioritize to reduce that risk.”

While we have the ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change, top officials across the Atlantic are not having the conversations necessary to get people to understand it is a risk worth avoiding, Mabey says. Building political consensus is difficult not only because of distracting security factors like ISIS and terrorism, but because certain governments are not listening to their citizens’ calls for change.

But popular movements are gathering steam. In 2009, 40,000 people marched at the climate rally in Copenhagen. Last year, 400,000 marched in New York City and were joined by an additional 200,000 around the world. Mabey says even more protestors are expected to turn out in Paris at the start of December’s climate talks.

The public pressure will hopefully drive more official discourse in this high-stakes year for climate negotiations, he says. “The world is fragile, the climate system is fragile, it’s like an egg…and so the question is…how much climate risk do you take? How much do you want to poke that egg?”

Nick Mabey spoke at the Wilson Center on February 12. Download his presentation to follow along.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

February 11, 2015 07:44 AM PST

“Adaptation is very theoretical. When you talk about ‘resilience,’ you draw these Venn diagrams and you draw these really complex issues, but at least at the IPCC level, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what people were actually doing,” says Eric Chu in this week’s podcast.

Chu, a contributor to Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, says the ways high-level concepts about adaptation translate to action are very important and not well understood.

“How do city governments in developing countries understand the impacts of climate change?” he asks, “how do they translate those mandates into what they’re [currently] doing?” In his dissertation, which he adapted for the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Urban Poverty Paper Competition, Chu explores these questions in three Indian cities. Each faces unique climate stressors – Surat is dealing with extreme flooding, Indore has been strained by chronic water scarcity, and Bhubaneswar has experienced more frequent cyclones. But they all share long-term relationships with external NGOs and donor agencies concerned with climate adaptation.

Chu found in each, officials and civil society groups are already working to help people adapt to climate change. The main impact of external groups was to “add to the vocabulary” of existing efforts. In some instances, the introduction of new concepts was extremely helpful. For example, a women’s water management group in Indore was better able to organize and plan their work after they understood climate change was driving much of the long-term water stress they experienced.

But on the whole, said Chu, local groups did not absorb the idea of adaptation that external groups attached to their support, choosing instead to frame their work around issues they were already addressing. City governments also struggled to gain support for efforts labeled as “adaptation,” both among citizens and public officials.

“Cities are finding it very difficult to understand how [a conception of] adaptation this broad and cross-sectoral translates into line items on a budget,” he said. “They do have budget cycles, they do have electoral cycles, where climate change doesn’t fit in.”

Outsiders’ best hope to elevate climate adaptation, then, may be to take a more grassroots approach, focusing less on how local governments can mainstream adaptation into their agendas, and more on how to build high-level mandates and incentives around existing local priorities, said Chu.

“It really needs to be internal; to have internal champions and institutional leaders, but also the policy instruments behind it to continue when [external organizations] actually leave.”

Eric Chu spoke at the Wilson Center on January 26. He is one of three winning authors of the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Urban Poverty Paper Competition who presented their work at a seminar sponsored by the Wilson Center in collaboration with USAID, the International Housing Coalition, World Bank, and Cities Alliance. Download the winning papers to learn more.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

February 05, 2015 11:16 AM PST

“If you care about climate change and international response to climate change, the first two weeks of December in Paris, France, will be your Super Bowl,” says Lisa Friedman, editor of ClimateWire, in this week’s podcast.

Friedman predicts the next UN climate summit will be the first to bring together all countries with voluntary but binding pledges to address climate change. Previous negotiations separated countries into two categories – wealthier nations bearing the bulk of emission reduction goals and everyone else.

Much of the onus sits with the world’s largest carbon emitters, like China, the United States, and India. But there are also questions about what sort of responsibility countries with growing economies and emissions should bear, such as Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia. Friedman says this question is at the heart of the Paris debate: how much responsibility should countries take?

“Is it a formula?” Friedman says. “Is there a formula out there that all countries can agree to [that is] some mixture of emissions per capita, historic emissions, future emissions, GDP?”

Friedman says the Obama administration is hoping for equal legal responsibility for cutting emissions among all countries, though it recognizes that level of wealth and development will impact a country’s capacity to respond.

A Broader Cross-Section?

While the climate talks may dominate international environmental coverage in 2015, Friedman says there’s an additional story worth watching. As the historic marches last year in New York and around the world demonstrated, the climate movement is moving away from just environmental activists to a broader spectrum of players who add more nuance and depth to the mitigation debate. “You saw…a movement of not just young people, not just activists, but religious people and older people and families and people coming at this from a business perspective,” she says.

Pope Francis weighed in on the need to address environmental change in recent remarks, and activists are also courting immigrant communities. “Huge pockets of immigrant communities all over the U.S. have not been motivated to be active and politically active on issues of climate change,” Friedman says, but from Filipinos in Texas whose families were affected by Hurricane Haiyan to Vietnamese communities in California, that is starting to change.

These new voices could not only make environmental movements more diverse, they could make climate change a bigger issue for Democrats and Republicans in 2015.

Lisa Friedman spoke at the Wilson Center on January 23. Watch the full event on the year ahead in environment and energy news here.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

January 29, 2015 07:53 AM PST

“Human rights and climate change are completely interlinked,” says Robin Bronen in this week’s podcast. “And…climate change is happening in Alaska faster than anywhere else on the planet.”

Bronen, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and executive director of theAlaska Institute for Justice, says average temperatures have risen 3.5oC since 1975 across the state – well over the 2oC limit proposed by many experts. As sea ice melts, permafrost thaws, erosion accelerates, and extreme weather worsens, peoples’ livelihoods have been disrupted, particularly in small communities who are most vulnerable.

In 2003, about 86 percent of indigenous villages were affected by increased flooding and erosion. The lastfederal survey of those communities (229 in total) found that over a six-year period, the number of communities actively seeking to relocate had quadrupled, she says.

Population displacement is “one of most profound consequences that will be caused by climate change,” says Bronen. “It will happen all over the world… Millions of people are not going to be able to not only live where they currently live, but their livelihoods are obviously going to be affected.”

Protecting community rights and livelihoods during this process will require a much broader conception of human rights, she says. “We normally think of human rights as being individually based. We don’t normally think of collective human rights, and the collective rights of communities to be together.”


Bronen has encouraged state and federal leaders to begin building frameworks that will enable populations to resettle together. No government agency is currently charged with relocation, meaning communities cannot access funding or guidance for their transition, she says.

The Stafford Act, which guides most federal disaster activities, actually requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild communities in the same place, even if that means they remain in a disaster zone. In 2006, the federal government constructed a multi-million dollar sea wall to protect the community ofKivalina from erosion, for example. The day it was completed, a storm destroyed 180 feet of the wall and within a year nearly two-thirds of the community was evacuated in the wake of a storm.

These laws and policies may have originally been designed to protect people, but climate change is rendering some of them obsolete, she says. The community of Newtok, for example, faced a legal Catch-22 when it attempted to relocate to an unoccupied area in 2003: To receive state or federal funding for a school, a community is required to have at least 10 students ready for enrollment, but families were unwilling to relocate without a school already in place.

Although progress at the federal level has been slow, Bronen says she’s encouraged by the dynamism and creativity she’s seen among the communities she serves.

“There are climate warriors in Alaska…these are the people who are being affected now by climate change and with very limited resources taking extraordinary steps to adapt and protect their livelihoods.”

Robin Bronen is a member of the Global Resilience Academy and spoke at the Wilson Center on December 4.Download her slides to follow along.

Friday podcasts are also available for download on iTunes.

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