Category Archives: Science

Can we trust scientists?

Why I will not be watching Russell Crow in “Noah”

Sorry to be off topic…

Yes, I am one of those annoying people who picks movies to pieces. Of course, when the movie is fantasy, I am capable of suspending disbelief to enjoy the movie. In the case of the new movie, Noah, however, that isn’t an option.

The reason being that there are many people who still take the fable as truth – some going as far as to waste their life away on a vain effort to find evidence.

How can I be so sure that the story of Noah arises in the Middle Eastern dreamtime? Because of engineering. Because of biology. Because of earth.

Of engineering.

Engineering is not my field, so I’ll leave it up to others. In short, a wooden boat of such a size defies the known properties of the material and cannot be replicated by engineers.

Of biology

Now into a territory I’m more familiar with, I will need to break this down to many points to show just how idiotic the idea is.

Scale

No boat could be big enough.

It would have appeared otherwise to the all-too-human author at the time, with their limited experience of life that existed at the time of writing in other corners of the world and of all the life that had ever previously existed.

Even assuming all the dinosaurs and mega-fauna forgot to buy their tickets and assuming genus, or even families were the “kinds” described, the line would still have been too long (eg. ranging from the many millions with species down to the many thousands of families – which in turn would require evolution along the lines of Pokemon, that is within a generation or two, to account for all the species today).

Worse than that; the floods would have either been saline or fresh, meaning that the SS Noah would have needed aquariums for all species of the opposing environment.

And this point is a catch-22; if we grant that the waters were saline – in turn leaving the massive per-historic marine reptiles and modern marine mammals off of the ark – well, then this boat needed to carry a year’s worth of water for all those on board.

Fresh flood waters demands tanks big enough for the likes of blue whales and their buddies.

Resources

The problem of thirst isn’t the end of the problem with resources.

We must also consider what we could forgive the writer for not knowing; trophic levels. That is to say, animals eat each other.

To support just the big carnivorous cats and dogs over this period, we couldn’t have just two of every species – but rather whole herds of prey species. These sacrificial herds were never mentioned.

This in turn magnifies the problem of feed for the herbivores, as the prey herds will need vast amounts of food and water to maintain the meat-eaters.

Assuming that the floods were fresh, thereby saving Noah the issue of carrying the water, he would still need to catch hundreds of tons of krill prior to the flood (because the freshening water would have killed them off) to feed however many baleen whales he needed to carry to “evolve” into the species we see today.

As soon as you factor in food, the already absurdly small boat looks even worse.

Breeding

Again, we could forgive an author a few millennia ago for being ignorant, in this case, of limits to viable population size.

Sure, a few breeding pairs of a given rodent might take off in a new environment, but that’s not guaranteed. We only need to look at how many times rabbits needed to be introduced to Australia before they exploded.

When you are talking about a species that may only breed once a year or even longer, the chances that a single breeding pair would suffice to save to species is effectively shot.

And I’ve ignored the problem of inbreeding here, which would have played havoc with subsequent generations.

Having a singly breeding pair of every known species (or genus or family), Noah would have been lucky to have any persist and flourish.

And now the real kicker

To sprinkle salt into the wound, the year on the ark in itself means everything.

Not only would he need to carry all the animals and all the food (and potentially water) to survive the year, but also for much longer. Worse than this, he would have needed to carry tons of seed.

No seedbank (ie. seeds in the top soil) would remain viable for such a period under the flood. Apart from the osmotic pressure – or high salinity – caused by the flood itself and apart from the silt collection from a year of turbulent water movement (remembering that this silt, the creation would tell us, led to all the fossils), the seeds would simply expire.

So, Noah would have needed herds of prey to release after the flood and enough food to support these as well as the herbivore breeding pairs while he reseeded the entire global terrestrial landscape with all the plant life we see today.

None of this is mentioned and must fail the laugh test.

Of earth

This problem is one noted prior to Darwin even learning his alphabet. No-one has found a single example of a fossilised duck mingled with Triceratops.

We could take this further and state that there has never been fossilised evidence of a giant ground sloth being killed by a t-rex, of a human kill of any dinosaur or of pterosaur competing with a large eagle (noting that they share the same niche).

That’s because these species existed in different geological periods.

The flood silt didn’t conveniently cover different groups in sequence. Of everything, the fossil record is both the most damning and easiest to understand to anyone who has any actual interest in reality.

If these ancient stories are true, show me the fossils.

Back to the movie

Sure, it looks dramatic, but with so many plots holes, the story fails before it even begins. Yet, for the true believer, it would, absurdly, be cementing to their faith. This work of fiction will be watched by the faithful as though it were some documentary!

Of course, Russell won’t be shooing off any dinosaurs or else the critics would rip it to shreds.

Which brings me to the crux; there is a way out for the faithful. It is the only way out and one few who want to sound intellectual is likely to mention; magic.

“Oh, the boat would break? God held it together.”

“Oh, the boat wasn’t big enough? God made the animals shrink for the trip.”

“Oh, there wouldn’t possibly be room enough for all the food and water? God ran a meals-on-wheels service.”

“Oh, there’s a problem with salt or fresh water? God made all aquatic life temporarily salt tolerant.”

“Oh, two individuals don’t make for a viable population? God again…”

“God… God… God…”

Geeezus! Give up with the mockery of science and admit to placing faith in ancient stories over genuine certainty derived through critical analysis and get on making Adam and Eve Dino parks. If you’re willing to suspend the laws of the known universe to make your story fit reality, you are no longer talking about science – which is all about those laws. There’s nothing wrong with that, just admit it.

I don’t care. Live and let live.

If only they could admit to their warped, magically inclined reality, we could dutifully write it off and stop pretending to take it seriously.

Then, perhaps, I would allow myself to suspend disbelief and watch the epic, yet terribly scripted, movie.

A Robust Green Sector Supports Everything

Early last week, I had an article published in the Independent Australia journal. The feedback was a little surprising, I didn’t realise that others would take it as a lament. The article was only based on my personal reflections as a professional ideally suited for a green sector that has failed to eventuate in Australia.

If anything, the difficulties created by this has been valuable to my career. It has provided me avenues to develop a far more diverse skills set in a short amount of time and prove myself time and time again to be highly adaptive within roles with different policies and objectives and to be innovative.

There are no laments personally. I’ve made the most of my skills and managed to navigate a difficult career path to many personal benefits. The article instead expressed concern, based on my observations; concerns for budding professionals who may not be as resourceful (or at least, still trying to find their feet) and concern for a country that seems stuck with cultural preferences that are ever increasingly unsustainable.

This second point was the many focus of the article I had previously appear in the Australian science journal, Solutions; A Viking Legacy and Australian Cuisine.

We have a preference for primary food production that lingers on our largely European and Asian heritage that does not suit the low quality soils and harsher climates of Australia. All while other options are readily available and have proven themselves better suited to Australian agricultural landscapes.

The same must be said about our preference with urban design, which continually impacts and degrades landscapes while increasingly putting peoples lives and properties at risk from flooding and fire events.

For such reasons, the promised green sector should be front and centre in all we do. It’s not a debate about the reality or certainties of climate change, but simply doing what we do better. The green sector is, what I’ve found to be a taboo word in some corners; efficiency. It’s also resilience.

These two lead to increased prosperity. But no-one wants to talk about culture. This is why the failure of the green sector to take off in Australia has little to do with the political debate over climate change or the left-right / environmentalism discussions more broadly.

We lack the vision, the innovation and the confidence to tackle the necessary changes pro-actively.

Interestingly, a few days after I had this article published on IA, my manager approached me to say that with the current budget constraints, my contracted position needed to be downsized for the short-term, with the hopefully expectation that they may be able to offer me something full time in the coming months.

Being the sole earner, with a wife and young baby at home, this conversation was the death knell for this role. I simply couldn’t offer my family enough on a part time wage. Again, it would seem that I have to clean up my CV and hunt around. But, just as with this post and my article; sure, there are negatives and uncertainties ahead, but lingering on such misses the point and potential entirely.

The necessary conversations will not be had unless someone is willing to start, and persistently start, them. Each time I’ve had to move on, it had brought with it new faces, new challenges and exciting opportunities to improve and demonstrate my value. I haven’t had a single employer happy to see me go. Each would happily keep me if the certainty of the role hadn’t been exhausted.

In a small way, it’s a good sign that I’m doing my job well.

I’m certain I’ll do the next one well, as well, all the while seeking out avenues to press the point that Australia is a great place, but luck shouldn’t be expected and indeed runs out; we need to work at the core foundations of our way of life if we want to continue to consider ourselves the lucky ones. The foundations are of course embedded and supported by our landscapes. Having a robust green sector therefore supports everything.

Australia makes a bad start at Warsaw climate change meeting

By Ian McGregor, University of Technology, Sydney

It’s been embarrassment after embarrassment for Australia at the Warsaw climate change meeting.

Former UN Climate Chief, Yvo de Boer, upbraided Australia for its failure to send a Minister. Australia was also criticised for its topsy-turvy climate policy in the opening issue of ECO, the non-government organisation newsletter produced at the talks.

Australia pulled a triple bad start by being awarded Fossil of the Day on the summit’s first day. The award is given by the international Climate Action Network to the country which has done the most to block progress at the climate change negotiations on that day.

Australia also topped the Fossil of the Day Awards on Wednesday beating out Turkey. This one was for seeking to repeal the carbon price (hence “hurling Australia back into the abyss of time”, as opposed to the more than 40 countries, states and provinces who have moved into the modern times with a carbon price) and also stripping $435 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and removing $10 billion of investment in clean energy.

Australia is blocking progress in a myriad of ways, but the outstanding one is its statement that it will not sign up to new finance commitments in Warsaw. Many would have thought Australia’s position at the climate summit could not have got much worse after the dismantling of its climate change department, abolishing the Climate Change Authority which provides independent advice on policy, ridding itself of the burden of a climate change minister and putting removal of its carbon price before Parliament during this summit.

But the lack of committed climate finance seems to do so. That it’s done in the face of the crushing losses suffered by the Philippines this week – a country which is a Pacific neighbour to Australia and needs international climate finance to build resilience against future tragedy – makes it even more telling.

It illustrates starkly this government’s lack of understanding about why climate finance is needed. Our Cabinet ministers apparently characterise climate finance as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. But I have news for you: it’s not socialism, its equity – our fair share – and it’s our responsibility as one of the richest countries and highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases.

Perhaps Australia could do better on emissions reductions? The US and China have made important announcements on strengthening their climate action this year. And the Climate Change Authority has described our the existing emissions reduction target of 5% by 2020 as “inadequate” and “not a credible option”. So it would have been good to see the Australian Government seeking to keep up with the ambition of other developed countries.

But instead our Government continues to prevaricate. Tony Abbott said yesterday:

Australia will meet our 5% emissions reduction target, but this government has made no commitments to go further than that. We certainly are in no way looking to make further binding commitments in the absence of very serious like binding commitments from other countries, and there is no evidence of that.

This statement is despite repeated assertions by both the prime minister and the environment minister Greg Hunt that the Coalition still support increasing Australia’s emissions reduction target to up to 25% under a specific conditions for global action accepted by both major parties.

And this is despite a finding by the Climate Change Authority that the conditions for a target higher than 5% had already been met.

The mood of the climate talks are clearly with the lead negotiator for the Philippines, Yeb Sano, whose hometown of Tacloban City was among the worst affected by last week’s typhoon. He said:

It’s time to stop this madness.

To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific… and see the impacts of rising sea levels; … to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water becomes scarce… And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.

The science has given us a picture that is getting ever more focussed. The IPCC report on climate change and extreme events underscored the risks associated with changes in the patterns as well as frequency of extreme weather events. Typhoons such as Yolanda (Haiyan) and its impacts are a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.

Australia’s reputation at these talks needs to change, and it will rely on Prime Minister Abbott’s political will and good diplomatic sense. If Abbott agrees with the science, and has confidence in his own proposed policies, it can’t be too hard to accept the independent advice about the level of action needed.

Ian McGregor is a Lecturer at University of Technology, Sydney and Official Adviser at the Climate Change Negotiations to the Government of Afghanistan. He is also a Steering Committee Member of Climate Action Network Australia.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A Viking Legacy and Australian Cuisine

A perspective piece I wrote for the Solutions Journal has now been published.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond provides us a chilling historical anecdote of the Greenland Vikings: faced with an increasingly harsh climate in the early fifteenth century, a large swath of the population died out from starvation. Greenland Inuit, however, continued to live during this period. Unlike the Vikings, they harbored no cultural taboo restricting them from eating fish, which remained abundant as the climate became too cold for the grazing herds maintained by Vikings.

In very much the same way, cultural preferences in Australia, concurrent with changes in climate, may limit local capacity to maximize long-term prosperity. So-called heritage preferences livestock—that is, cattle and sheep—are resource-intensive species. With increasing anthropogenic climate change, the cost of this investment may prove too much to sustain Australian populations, just as natural changes in climate proved too much for Greenland Vikings.

Read more here.

Sequestration, like so many other “solutions,” no silver bullet

Following my post, Carbon Sequestration; what no-one tells you, I received a couple comments from a reader, pointing out the potential of chemical sequestration, commonly referred to as enhanced weathering.

Of course, none of this was provided with case studies or research into it’s viability and the individual quickly left the conversation, having made their point.

But it’s worth reviewing, because I’m becoming increasingly aware of two camps, both very distinct, but sharing an absolutism approach to their favoured climate change mitigation strategy; the pro-nukes and the sequestration mob. Both are sure that their answer is the one and only true reply, but neither stack up.

I won’t bother here with the pro-nukes, because I’ve discussed them various times in the past.

Yes, biological sequestration is only one possibility. Even the modest targets set by the current Australian government within “direct action” represent massive effort, as my analysis showed. However, there is another, apparently low energy, form of sequestration which relies on rock chemically reacting with atmospheric CO2 to capture it.

This is know as “enhanced weathering” as it is a natural process in itself and what the fans of this want to do is speed it up. It’s euphemism for enhanced erosion. I’ll get to the numbers in just a moment, but we’re talking about billions of tonnes of material needed, to match the CO2. Who honestly believes that mining to this degree is viable, let alone desirable when we factor in the necessary impact to landscapes and aquatic environments both through the direct mining activities and resulting compounds as residue from this process, which will hit environments (unless we go to even greater effort and expense to again bury it) in far great amounts than the background levels?

As for numbers, looking at the Azimuth Project, two minerals that could be used for this process are Olivine and Serpentine.

The ratios for these;

Olivine  Olivine (forsterite) Serpentine Serpentine
CO2 Fe2SiO4 Mg2SiO4 Fe3Si2O5(OH)4 Mg3Si2O5(OH)4
Molar Mass (g/mol) 44.01 203.77 140.69 371.73 277.11
Weight ratio to CO2 1 4.63 3.2 8.45 6.3
Molecules requires for every CO2 - 0.25 to 1 0.25 to 1 0.25 0.25
1 unit weight of CO2 requires how many units?  - 1.6 to 4.63 0.8 to 3.2 2.11 1.57

Annual emissions of CO2 reached 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. Therefore, for Olivine or Serpentine to capture all of this, we would need between 27.6 and 159.74 billion tonnes of these rocks annually.

From the Azimuth Project page;

Supposedly all the CO2 that is produced by burning 1 liter of oil can be sequestered by less than 1 liter of olivine. The market value of olivine is US $50 to US $100 per ton depending on quality. Plugging in the larger number then 5 trillion dollars a year of this material would absorb all the CO2 currently produced. But of course this calculation is oversimplified, since the spike in demand would send the price much higher.

None of this begins to address the billions of tonnes of residue materials as well.

Some might say that I’m being unfair – most targets aim at around 5% below, say 2000 or 1990 levels. To be generous, let’s say the emissions value was 25 billion tonnes, meaning that we want to reach emissions targets below 23.75 billion tonnes. This means that we want to capture 10.75 billion tonnes of CO2 based on 2012 levels.

This amounts to between 8.6 and 49.77 billion tonnes of Olivine and Serpentine annually for enhanced weathering. This is still a massive industry devoted entirely to scrubbing the atmosphere of our CO2 emissions.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, may call emissions trading a “so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one,” but how can sequestration be anything but a non-delivery market, as much a sink of money as it is carbon?

It doesn’t matter whether you rely on trees, soil, weathering or any other mechanism, sequestration is not the cheap and easy solution that it has been sold as. In every case you are also left with a bank that is useless unless it keeps carbon locked and what then of this material?

There is no such thing as a silver bullet. Reducing our emissions will require a lot of effort, behavioural change and a diversity of solutions, each contributing their own small part. Thus far, very little of this is being addressed or adopted above the barest effort.

Laugh test sees the Ministry of Fluoride Silliness to the door

In my previous post, I commented on the new anti-science tactic on NewAnthro; take the guise of an interested, impartial fan of the blog, only to then go on to ask silly questions, digging for a dirt… Never to reply to my response.

One chap however did reply, and again and again. Overall, his questions were muddled, confusing fluoride in food and water and it took me some time to work out that his complaint was a fairly basic one without a great deal of understanding of the actual science.

My guess; he, Ian, is a fan of Merilyn Haines.

Why? He continually made the claim that safety tests on fluoride have never been done – the same point Merilyn harps on about… Only to then go on and hypocritically point out studies which she claims in fact question the safety of fluoridation.

For many reasons, she is wrong where it matters; Australian fluoridation practices are safe and effective.

Ian went on to suggest that a good way to test fluoridation safety is to test impact at 100x concentration values. Of course it would fail. The only papers the anti-fluoride movement would have you know about are those where high fluoride exposure negatively impacts health.

Thus, if I fell for it, Ian would win the argument. But is there any sense this “test”?

I couldn’t imagine much would be safe if an individual was exposed to 100x the standard recommended levels.

It is suggested that we should have around 1.5-2L of water a day. How safe would it be to consumer 150-200L a day?

Having two paracetamol tablets can effectively manage pain, but would consuming 200 be healthy?

In short, this is not a measure of fluoridation safety and the are really trying their best to insult my intelligence. The anti-fluoridation camp are no longer being entertained here (because each one of them has illustrated trolling behaviour, completely avoiding an informed discussion) and now are longer going to be entertained via email.

Theirs is truly conspiracy ideation akin to the moon landing and Roswell “truth” hopelessly fixated on a position so far from reality that they would prefer to overdose the world than accept reality.

The newest technique by anti-science to waste my time

Sorry for the recent quietness. Between my new role and private life, I’m finding it very difficult to work on my articles.

For instance, previously I would quickly write out posts at home or in transit on public transport to work, proof read them in my lunch break and then set a date and time for them to go live. I just haven’t been able to find a new rhythm yet. I have two articles that have been waiting to be checked, but instead little snippet like this is just easier to get out quickly.

I’ve noticed a new trend lately.

I’ve had a number of private emails using the post submission option that, strangely, take a very similar approach.

In essence, the writer seems very enthusiastic about my work on fluoride… Except that I don’t seem to answer [insert favoured anti-f comment here]. Then, placed as the writer’s personal dilemma, I receive the challenge.

Of course, like every single infuriated anti-science advocate, from fluoride to climate change, I never receive a reply to my detailed, science rich reply… No, best to take the same rubbish elsewhere and find a more gullible audience.

Since starting to write on fluoride I’ve noticed this wave approach (and a lot of email directed traffic). I never receive one, but a series of individuals doing the same thing. Eventually it ebbs away and then the next wave taking a different approach.

With this newest one, reading the comments makes it clear that they haven’t read my work, or else they would know the answer I’m going to give. Being in private, I can’t help but wonder what they hope to achieve.

I had one ask me if my work was only a personal hypothesis or based upon an independent scientific conclusion. This makes me think they hope to catch me being candid in my private reply and say something to undermine my efforts.

On NewAnthro, I am a science and policy communicator. Occasionally, I’ll do a piece that is obviously a personal analysis and I make that very clear as well as provide all the data and methods I used.

My personal conclusions are meaningless to my audience. I might include my motivations, but I stipulate that. The reason I take this approach is because I’m frustrated with personal opinions being passed off as credible information.

Donna Laframboise’s “climate scepticism is free speech” is a good example. Merilyn Haines talking about fluoride “touching” organs or about her sister’s skin condition in Townsville are further examples.

This space is the rebuttal and I will not stoop to such factually inept levels, basically because they’ll beat me with experience at every turn and we have already experienced way too many centuries of the blind leading the blind to otherwise avoidable pain and suffering.

Quality information is our greatest weapon.

Carbon dioxide; the pollutant

There’s three permanent intertidal rock pools teaming with life.

In the first, you pour bleach. The bleach kills everything in the pool. You deem it an environmental pollutant.

In the second, you pour crude oil. Slowly, but surely, the oil kills everything in the pool. You deem it an environmental pollutant.

In the third, you pour in fresh water. Even slower, you find that the freshening water kills the life in the pool. This fresh water you deem is not a pollutant…

Wait… What? Why?

Well, you can drink it. In fact, you need to drink it to survive.

However, you’re not a marine organism living in the pool. All three experience a change to the chemical composition of the pool which alter it so much that life, as it had existed, could no longer function in the same manner.

As far as each pool is concerned, each one, including the freshened pool, has been polluted.

In the same fashion, increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 leads to environments no longer functioning in the way we have experienced them throughout the Holocene. Just like the freshening pool, this is effectively polluting the atmosphere, regardless of previous times where life (species that no longer exist) thrived under different atmospheric compositions.

We are digging up long trapped carbon, which has not been part of the biosphere or atmosphere for many millions of years and converting it into CO2 emissions, measured in the gigatonnes in annual atmospheric addition.

It is a slow process, but we are already witnessing coral bleaching, die back in drying / warming forests, parasitic species getting the edge on host (due to heat stress), shifting timing of breeding, blooming and migration; all of which negatively impact on ecosystems as they currently function.

Enough of any chemical is detrimental.

We are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere in such a way that the resulting climate is less accommodating to current ecosystems and, if it’s difficult to appreciate just how dependent upon ecosystems we really are, also our current agricultural practices. Sure, it doesn’t mean death, but it means otherwise avoidable hardship.

Even CO2 can be a pollutant.

As NSW burns, we refuse to learn

I know I’m largely repeating what I wrote back in January. However repetition is required until the message sinks in.

The tragedy currently unfolding across NSW shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, the only surprise would be if it doesn’t eventually spread to cover areas of SA and Vic.

The reason being the recent so-called “break” in the drought. In reality, the weather turned on the Aussie sprinklers for a couple years before returning to normal. In turn we had above average flora growth across the Great Dividing Range and arterial waterways of Eastern the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee.

This is now returning to normal, leading to die-back, hence fuel loading.

Expect some serious fire threats into the coming hot and dry El Nino period.

We celebrate the breaking of a drought, but looking over great periods than election cycles and waterway plans, we should be concerned about the wets; how we manage the water and the landscape beyond that period.

We are a fickle species with a tendency for the short term and will continue to feel the pain wild fires (not to mention the carbon loss) until we can move beyond our tendencies and plan for the longer term.