Ronald Brak

Because not everyone can be normal.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I am a Petty Petty Creature

Aus Vac didn't have the vacuum cleaner I wanted in stock, so in a petty act of revenge I'm going to tell all the people in internetland that everything in their store sucks.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Anarchist’s Cookbook

First, peel one anarchist...

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Climate Change Deniers Say The Stupidest Things

I made the mistake of going to the internet the other day. I shouldn’t have done that. It is a dirty, dirty place. I discovered that it is inhabited by a great number of a very strange form of creature indeed. One name that I suppose could be applied to this odious form of electronic life is climate change denier. However, I think the term idiot is also quite apt.

Not all climate change deniers are idiots, indeed there are probably as many as three or four of them who are honestly confused about the issues and wish to learn more about the facts. People who are also in the not necessarily an idiot category are those who debate just what the exact effects of climate change will be or what the appropriate course of action to take should be.

However there are a great many idiots. And it is interesting to consider just what it is the climate change deniers are denying. Rather than deny that climate change takes place, what most of them tend to do is insist that climate change is natural and to deny that humans are affecting the climate and insist that nothing need be done.

Now this line of reasoning doesn’t seem entirely logical to me for even if one thought that climate change was an entirely natural process, it does not mean that one should do nothing about it. Being stung by a male platypus and then losing your mind and cutting off your own hand with an axe to try to stop the pain is perfectly natural, but still it's something that you still might want to avoid.

To believe that human beings are having no effect on the climate, you would have to believe either one or both of the following:

1. Carbon dioxide does not contribute to global warming.

2. Humans are not increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the air.

Statement one doesn’t make sense and cannot really be backed up. Carbon dioxide, or CO2 for short, is a greenhouse gas. Put simply, a greenhouse gas traps heat. It absorbs some of the heat that the earth would have radiated into space. The more greenhouse gas there is, the warmer the earth will be. There is no real way to get around this. You can debate what the exact effect of increased greenhouse gases will be, but you can’t say that they will have no effect, unless of course, you are an idiot.

The second statement doesn’t make any sense either. It’s not really possible to deny that humans are increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the air. I have in my possession photographs of people burning fossil fuels. In Japan kerosene is sold from the back of a truck in broad daylight. We have hard evidence that people use oil products to power cars and as shocking as it sounds, people have even gone so far as to generate electricity from burning coal.

Humanity currently adds about 7 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year by burning fossil fuels. The carbon combines with oxygen to create about 26 billion tons of CO2. This is about 90 times as much carbon dioxide as is released by volcanic activity. Carbon dioxide levels have increased by about 31% since the start of the industrial revolution. About two thirds of this increase has been in the last fifty years and has closely matched humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a few seconds to do the calculations yourself. It’s very easy to work out how much carbon using oil alone adds to the air. World consumption of oil is about 80 million barrels per day, the density of oil is about 0.9 that of water so there are about 7 barrels to the ton and oil is about 85% carbon. As you can no doubt see just by glancing at these figures, humans add about 9.7 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere each day, or about 3.5 billion tons per year. Do similar calculations for coal and gas and you come to roughly 7 billion tons total.

Since the earth’s atmosphere weighs approximately 5,100,000,000,000,000 tons and each ton of carbon burnt combines with oxygen to form 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide, is easy to see that humans are increasing CO2 concentrations by about 5.1 parts per million per year. Since CO2 in the atmosphere is currently about 381 parts per million, if none of it was removed we would be increasing it’s concentration by about 1.34% per year.

Now some of this excess carbon dioxide released by humans should be absorbed by plants and rocks and itty bitty sea creatures, but the amount the natural environment can absorb is obviously limited, otherwise CO2 levels wouldn’t have increased to their current high levels. If we continue to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at the current rate and most of it stays there, then the current concentration will have doubled in about 75 years. These levels of carbon dioxide may actually contribute to some weak people dying, as CO2 interferes with the ability of blood to transport oxygen. The effect won't be large but it will probably be enough to cause death in some special cases. I intend to have retired to a hermetically sealed bubble by this point, but still, watching poor people die on TV will be most upsetting.

Now some people might point out that it seems unlikely that can continue to burn 7 billion tons of fossil fuels a year for 75 years, on account of how we may run out before then, but perhaps if we tried hard enough we could. For example, I’m sure we’ll be able to find plenty of coal and oil in Antarctica once all that nasty ice melts off it.

The climate change deniers are so good at what they do because they are unencumbered by the truth. They have no trouble with inconvenient facts they don’t happen to like. Scientists don’t have this freedom. While scientists can definitely state that humans are affecting the climate and causing the earth to be warmer than it would be otherwise, if someone asks a climatologist a direct question such as, “Can you state that the earth’s average temperature will definitely rise over the next 30 years?” the scientist will be forced to answer, “No.” At this point the climate change deniers start hooting wildly and claiming that this scientifically “proves” there is no global warming, but unless you are an idiot the statement does no such thing. The climatologist has to answer no because we don’t understand enough about the earth’s climate. Historical records and scientific research show that the earth’s climate isn’t stable and constantly varies for reasons that are not currently well understood. Currently we don't know for certain if the earth would be getting naturally cooler or warmer without human interference. However, they do know that increased levels of greenhouse gases will make the climate warmer than it would be otherwise. 

Even if the earth is entering a period of naturally lower temperature, current elevated greenhouse gases are probably more enough to counteract it entirely and cause the earth to experience elevated temperatures instead, which are likely to result in significant problems. It is also possible that we will have a dramatic increase in temperature with severe detrimental effects such as dangerously rapid increases in sea levels. So it would seem that the logical course of action would be to err on the side of caution with regards to climate change.

Another fairly idiotic tack of climate change deniers is to say that the earth will be better off with a warmer climate. If I happened to be a dinosaur I’m sure I would agree. While it is certainly likely that some places will be more pleasant with warmer temperatures, most human beings are extremely likely to suffer from worse conditions. Most humans live in or near the tropics and it is quite hot enough there already, thank you very much. Farms and flood controls currently only exist where they are suitable or necessary. It is not very easy to move them in response to climate change. Also, the vast bulk of humanity live only a few meters above sea level. If sea levels rise by several meters, most coastal cities would be swamped. The costs of relocation and flood control would be enormous. At the moment sea levels are estimated to be increasing by about 3mm per year. This may not sound like much, but even small increases raise the risk of storm flooding in coastal areas. The rate of sea level increase has the potential to greatly accelerate in the future.

Many of the creatures on the internet insist that slowing or preventing climate change will be massively expensive, but they are wrong. Over a period of decades, fifty dollars a year per person in the developed world should be enough to cut CO2 emissions by half or more. Compared to the possible costs of climate change this is likely to be a very good investment. However, I can discuss the details in another essay. Currently I feel I’ve written enough about idiots and how wrong they can be.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Real Reason why the Government is Talking About Nuclear Power

Oh, by the way, I suppose I should mention that the only reason the government is talking about nuclear power at all is to draw attention away from industrial relations problems and so forth, but I thought that went without saying.

Australian Nuclear Power and Corruption and Incompetence

My good friend* Francis Spufford says that the Concorde supersonic airliner project cost the British government 900 million pounds and in return for that investment they received 7.2 million pounds in profits from ticket sales and 9.3 million pounds when they sold Concorde, for a total of 16.5 million pounds. That is, Concorde lost the British government 883.5 million pounds. And this was a project that was supposed to help the economy.

This is one reason why I am cautious about a nuclear power plant in Australia. Big projects can have big cost overruns. They also tempt companies to push costs onto taxpayers and I'm not entirely sure that our politicians will be able to resist pleas for free or discounted water use, waste disposal, security, legal costs, decommissioning and insurance. Also, many Australian politicians in power now seem so far up George Bush's colon that they are in good position to remove pretzels from his windpipe when he chokes on them, so it is just possible that contracts will go to American companies even if they are not the most cost effective. So it is not enough for nuclear power to be cheaper than other low emission alternatives, it has to be cheap enough to compensate Australians for the almost inevitable incompetence and corruption that attaches itself to these sorts of projects.

While problems can certainly exist for smaller scale energy sources, competition and previous experience help to cut down on corruption and incompetence. There are thousands of people in Australia who could prepare foundations and pylons for wind generators, but not many who can put together a nuclear reactor. I mean, could you do it? Do you know anyone who can? And Nuclear Irvine doesn't count as he is an atomic vampire who can only be killed by shoving a graphite rod through his heart.

So while nuclear plants could become an important low emission source of base load power in the future, any plans to build them should carefully take into consideration the possibility of extra costs due to corruption and incompetence.

*As we are both members of the Silly Name Club we are automatically good friends.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Mr Downer's Magically Cheap Nuclear Power Plant

A couple of days ago, Australia’s foreign Minister, Mr Downer said, "…it may be possible to build a nuclear power plant in SA supplying 1000 megawatts an hour of electricity and 75 gigalitres of water at a cost in the order of $2.5 to $3 billion,"

It looks like the magical pixie dust that the federal government sprinkles on ethanol production to make it seem economical and not the massive waste of tax payer’s money that it appears to be, also works on nuclear power.

Now if Mister Downer had named a single country that has so far managed to build a 1,000 megawatt reactor of modern safety standards for less than 3 billion Australian dollars he might not have sounded like such an idiot. Since a 1,000 megawatt coal plant costs well over a billion dollars these days it’s hard to see how a nuclear power plant plus desalinisation capacity would cost less than 3 billion dollars. And while some people insist that nuclear power plants can be built for less than 50% more than an equivalent coal powered plant, as far as I’m aware, none ever has. Thus Mr Downer’s statement is the metaphorical equivalent of the end product of a male cow’s digestive process.

Now personally I’m all for anything sensible that reduces the rate of climate change in the world today, including nuclear power, but either lying about the true costs or just being plain incompetent is not helping matters. Mr Downer’s comments make the government appear too silly to be trusted with something as inherently tricky as nuclear power.

Since most of the cost of producing desalinated water is for energy and not capital costs, and since wind power is cheaper than nuclear power, it may be more economical to expand South Australia’s wind generating capacity and build desalination plants that operate during times of surplus electrical generation. Also, expanding the amount of reclaimed sewage water used is an additional option.

But the most sensible thing to do first of all is to have a logical system of chargeing for water use for both rural and urban areas across Australia. For example there are still many people in Adelaide who do not pay for the water they use. (Or at least I've never paid. If I end up in jail after I post this I take back the last sentence.) And yes, this would have to involve compensation for some current water users.