Wednesday Night #1313 – Australia

May 2, 2007

Although some might say “BE AFRAID, be VERY AFRAID” (Triskaidekaphobia) of this double-thirteen Wednesday, we prefer to think of 13 as a significant numeral and often one of good fortune. Thus we consider ourselves to be doubly blessed this week with the return of John & Holly Jonas from their sojourn in Australia.
As Australia is not often at the top of our list of topics, we look forward to having the Jonases share some of their recent experience, along with their knowledge of the amazing country/continent down-under (would 1313 be 3131 in Oz?) which has many similarities to Canada.
One (actually, the only) prominent member of Wednesday Night who dwells in the lands of computer-less troglodytes, protests that not much about Australia appears in print locally, however, the rest of us have access to considerable information, although we may not always profit from having Australia’s national broadcaster at the tip of our fingers. [Perhaps we could also mention that at 5:05 am on CBC Radio One, there is a daily broadcast from ABC of Australian news] When we do travel to ABC, we may be as bewildered by the national news as they by ours, but there also appears to be a similarity of prevailing political stories. We note that Prime Minister John Howard is accused of turning next week’s budget into a pre-election pork-fest as a counter-punch to the surging popularity (well, not that similar!) of the opposition Labor Party. See and is having his problems on environmental policies
We know that Australia has led the pack to reject Kyoto and that John Howard ranks with our well-known North American climate change skeptics – while his government, like John Baird, has discovered the joys of the fluorescent bulb
Australia’s economy is booming and predictions are for continued growth, even though shifts in the tectonic plates of the U.S. economy cause trembling in the marketplace
CBC radio’s Quirks & Quarks and ABC’s The Science Show have just completed a splendid exchange effort on scientific research in their respective countries, delightfully advertised as “The moose goes walkabout with the wombat, and the beaver goes camping with the kangaroo”
We have learned that there are serious debates on immigration issues, but do not know if Australia shares Canada’s problems regarding the ability of foreign qualified professionals to practice and the ongoing squabbles over whose fault is the dearth of physicians What we do know, thanks to Janet Bagnall of the Gazette, is that Australia has been far more innovative in attracting medical practitioners to rural areas without resorting to the drastic – and largely unsuccessful – policies espoused by Québec.
With that item, we come back to the northern hemisphere with proposed topics including:
The final round of the French presidential election and what the outcome means for France’s international relations.
Turkey’s crisis over, as the Independent puts it, “… a wife’s headscarf. The prospect of the country’s next president being married to someone who chooses to wear the veil has plunged the country into the most serious political and economic crisis for years, even prompting fears of a military coup.”
Iraq – what is to be said? While George Bush, as expected, has vetoed the Iraq bill, there is no lack of dismal reports about failures at every level, not only military failures, but most disturbing for the future economic outlook, degenerating infrastructure
Paul Wolfowitz’s ongoing and to some observers, demeaning, fight to hang on at the World Bank [There’s a different viewpoint from that bastion of democracy and governance, Nigeria]
Venezuela’s nationalization of the last 4 oil refineries controlled by European or American interests.
We are sure that everyone will be delighted that the Bush administration has found a great way to compensate for the pesky problems in Venezuela and Iraq by proposing to “[lease] out millions of acres along the coasts of Alaska and Virginia to oil and gas drillers, a move that would end a longstanding ban on drilling in those environmentally sensitive areas
And what about Canada’s flap over the ecofraud? We loved the confrontation between David Suzuki and John Baird; for once Dr. Suzuki struck the perfect tone of disappointed mentor confronting his student’s total failure to understand the subject.
Climate change will again be on the menu, given the report from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research that Arctic ice is melting much faster than previously predicted.
Our final contribution to stimulate your thoughts has to be the delicious scandal coming out of Washington about Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s Black Book, reported to include a Bush administration economics official and the head of a conservative research group.

The Chairman promises that despite one of the major topics, this will be no Kangaroo Court.

The Report

May 2, 2007

The French elections
As the presidential election campaign winds down in France, the prospect for social peace and stability in that country does not appear too bright. Although François Bayrou, the candidate representing the centre- right did fairly well in the first round, he has failed to direct his almost 7 million voters towards either “Ségo” or “Sarko”, aka Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, in the second round, perhaps in the hope of gaining a cabinet post. While apparently gaining considerable support during the campaign, Ségolène Royal’s platform did not appear to make sense to a large number of potential voters, diminishing her probability of victory. The New York Times reports that “At times, the candidates seemed like they were more in a local race than vying for the presidency of a nuclear power with the sixth-largest economy. Neither Iraq nor France‘s relationship with the United States, for example, ever came up. Domestic issues, like the wisdom of the 35-hour workweek, public spending for the police and hospitals, and fighting crime took up much more time than France’s place in the world.”

Australia and climate change
Throughout history, the world has witnessed local areas of drought and pestilence, yet has managed to survive as a planet, giving comfort to some humans in their belief that somehow, Providence would provide a solution to flooding, famine and global warming, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Australia, one of the greatest consumers of energy in the world, has long been known to be a fairly dry country, but recently, climate change there has been drastic and the summer of 2006-2007 has been devastating.
All irrigation and watering of livestock have been stopped and all fresh water diverted to the cities and towns, effectively eliminating most food production. There is no washing of buses or taxis and all buildings will have to be converted to capture and use grey water, – used treated water emanating from taps and tubs. The water table has been lowered considerably. [see: Metropolis strives to meet its thirst ]
In the face of this problem, the result of both environmental change and overpopulation, it is very unlikely that any serious measures will be taken to diminish human-induced climate change. Australia is a very large exporter of coal and the coal lobby is very influential, so, apart from water restrictions and the seductive promotion of fluorescent bulbs, Prime Minister John Howard’s major recommendation is prayer.

[Editor’s note: All is not lost, however, as we learn from a report titled Australians hopped up on beer power: Brewery waste can generate electricity
“Scientists and Australian beer maker Foster’s are teaming up to generate clean energy from brewery waste water – by using sugar-consuming bacteria. The experimental technology was unveiled [on Wednesday] by scientists at the University of Queensland, which was given a $115,000 state government grant to install a microbial fuel cell at a Foster’s brewery near Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state.”]

Alternative (“clean”) energy sources
Australia, in a sense, is a microcosm, especially if one considers developing countries as a planet apart. Whether for SUVs or gadgetry, our willingness to pay a premium knows no bounds. In contrast, when it comes to ensuring our continuing existence as a planet, cost appears to constitute a major consideration.
In most parts of the world, coal and oil are the least expensive, albeit the least environmentally friendly of energy sources. In Canada, and certain other blessed countries, hydro-electrical energy is plentiful and – for the time being – cheap, but difficult to convert to kinetic energy using current technology. The technology for doing so is however, certainly not beyond the bounds of human ingenuity.
The production of ethanol from grains or grasses continues to gain in popularity, but would inevitably result in the rising cost of food as the demand for energy increases continually while the amount of arable land remains constant or diminishes as population centres expand.
The cost of producing a kilowatt hour of electricity by a hydro-electric plant is 2¼¢, while 11¢ from wind power. Some estimates place the cost of electricity produced by nuclear fission at 7½¢ to 8¢ per kilowatt hour, while others estimate its cost at 14¢-15¢.
Today, nuclear fission, the only method currently used by nuclear plants to generate electricity, is used to produce most of France’s electricity, while nuclear fusion [which is preferable because it creates less radioactive material than fission, and its supply of fuel can last longer than the sun] isn’t yet commercialized. Even its most positive advocates reckon it’ll be more than 25 years before a fusion reactor could contribute usefully to the power grid. Nonetheless, they point to site preparations for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, which aims to demonstrate that fusion can be used to generate electrical power, and to gain the necessary data to design and operate the first electricity-producing plant.
As of January of this year, 30 countries worldwide were operating 435 nuclear reactors for electricity generation, and some 16 countries relied on nuclear energy to supply at least one-quarter of their total electricity.
Its advocates state that nuclear energy is by far the largest clean-air energy source used to generate electricity. While the logic of counteracting global warming would opt for nuclear energy, the psychological fallout from Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl, as well as the immediate self-interest and influence of the producers of coal and gas, have militated against its universal adoption.

[Editor’s note: “After dropping out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of natural gas, coal is on the verge of a revival around the world in light of large increases in natural gas prices. According to the [U.S.] Department of Energy, there are 154 new coal-fired power plants proposed to be built in 38 states by 2030. That number pales in comparison to the 562 new coal-fired plants China plans to build by 2013” More]

Its cost, the darkness of the night as well as current technology have acted as a deterrent to the widespread use of solar energy, the ultimate source of all energy, but this, too, will certainly be developed if humanity survives the various threats to its continued existence. The need for warmth in order to produce solar energy is a myth. What is required is the clarity of the air, an asset in Montreal where, even in winter, the sun’s energy can be readily converted to energy during daylight sunlit hours. See: Solar Power Plant in Spain
Geothermal energy is an easily available, though initially relatively expensive, source of heating and lighting for homes and commercial buildings. Although there is no subsidy for its installation, Hydro-Québec does permit excess electricity so produced to contribute to its grid, giving credit for it against the cost of energy consumed from the grid.

President’s veto of Iraq war supplemental spending bill
More sympathy than anger is extended to the United States, seen caught in the flytrap of its own making. Democrats were seen as unethical in attempting to force a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq. Few are prepared to argue with the reasons that President Bush put forward for his veto of the bill. Such a move would constitute a triumph for Islamic fundamentalism and for the Taliban. To have announced a withdrawal at this time was to invite the Taliban and other opponents to the democratization of Iraq to sit tight until the actual withdrawal and then move to resume their struggle for power and penchant for terror.The international conference on Iraq’s future attended by representatives of some 48 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, at Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt is viewed positively by some but negatively by other commentators . Some Wednesday Nighters have serious misgivings about the influence of Saudi Arabia given the dominance of the Wahabi sect in that country contributing to Saudi Arabia’s ties to extremist groups including Al Qaeda. However, Saudi Arabia is important to the United States and ultimately, it is reasonable to believe that things will work out and the U.S. will withdraw.
In retrospect, some Wednesday Nighters believe that the United States should have engaged the support of its traditional European allies, especially France, with historical experience in the Middle East. Others suggest that rather than holding large international conferences with a multiplicity of countries with vested interests in the Middle East, the U.S. should now work with the G-8 countries or the G-8+5, recognize past errors and seek a solution as a world problem rather than one that is most often characterized as a solely U.S. issue.

In Afghanistan, at the urging of Canada, NATO was engaged from the beginning, with fairly satisfactory results. The current problem in that country is the relatively short troop rotation, resulting in a higher than necessary percentage of troops not yet fully seasoned or awaiting the end of their tour of duty and return to their homeland.

Scientists take aim at Canadian plan to curb greenhouse gases
Canadian scientists warn that the world’s sea levels could rise by as much as seven meters by 2100 if the Greenland icecap melts entirely. The scientists stated the warning at a meeting of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences which includes scientists from universities across the country. Greenland is the earth’s most icy land mass. Garry Clark, a professor at the University of British Columbia, reports that the ice has so far been melting most quickly where it’s in contact with the surrounding ocean, the ice in the centre remaining intact. But, he says that if the melting spreads there, Greenland could disappear. The group’s chairman, Gordon McBean, says that Canada will be the country most affected by global warming. A number of the participants expressed dismay with the Canadian government’s plan announced last week to fight air pollution and curb greenhouse gasses. The plan falls far short of the country’s targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Richard Peltier, a physicist at the University of Toronto, calls it “an absolute disgrace.” The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences contributes research to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which publishes periodic reports on global warming.

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