Category Archives: Conservation

Is An Inconvenient Truth biased?

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Recently a UK court decided that Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, could be shown in British schools, despite an attempt by a school governor to suppress it on the grounds that it is biased. The movie now has to be preceded by a disclaimer, but I’m guessing the film itself will have more impact on kids than any warning given by a teacher will. That school governor may be calling it a victory, but it’s a very hollow one.

So is the film biased? Well yes, of course it is, but what isn’t? Most of the history I learned in school was biased in some way, as was the religious education I was given. We learned about evolution through natural selection in science without any mention of creationism so I suppose that was biased too. Luckily most of the biases I was faced with were toward the truth (apart from the religious education).

Instead of trying to suppress information like this, schools should be actively promoting critical thinking at all levels, giving the kids the tools they need to take information and process it with care and skepticism instead of just accepting what they’re told.

Yes, An Inconvenient truth contains bias; Yes it contains exaggerations; but the message is clear, and it is an inconvenient truth.

Biking again

After my bike was stolen at the start of the biking season, I decided the best thing to do would be to buy a cheap and crappy looking bike that nobody would want to steal. It’s sad that I have to choose that option but I didn’t see any other way.

So, while on vacation I walked down to Recycle Bicycle and asked them to sell me a cheap bike. I came out with a Raleigh “Tarantula” which, although boasting a very cool name, looks like crap. Perfect. The brakes needed a little adjusting (the back one is still almost useless without some help from the front) and the seat was loose but other than that the ride is good.

I started riding to work again last week, and I’m loving it. I get to work faster than if I take public transport and the ride to work is about 80% downhill. Of course that means the ride home is mostly uphill which kills me but at least I can collapse in a sweaty heap on the sofa when I get home.

There are things I had forgotten about cycling though:

  • Having long laces on your shoes is a bad thing.
  • Having flappy trouser legs is too.
  • Bike seats are never comfortable.
  • Taxi drivers will do all they can to knock you off the road.
  • I still don’t understand bike gears.
  • Stopping at red lights is always optional (yes, I’m an evil lawbreaker and I just don’t care.)
  • Did I mention it’s faster (and cheaper) than public transport?

An Inconvenient Truth

I’ve haven’t been a fan of Al Gore ever since he claimed to have invented the internet, but I have new-found respect for the man after watching An Inconvenient Truth at the weekend. He’s obviously passionate about the cause and he’s been trying to tackle it for a long time. He’s done his research and has all the numbers to back up what he says – something the “skeptics” absolutely don’t have. He has a message which is incontrovertible:

The human race have had a measurable, dramatic and detrimental effect on global climate change.

At least, it’s indisputable according to the science. Almost one thousand scientific studies back up this message. Zero do not. However, public opinion is still divided; why is this? A quote from Upton Sinclair which Al Gore presented in the movie goes some way to explaining it:

You can’t make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it.

Al Gore may not have invented the internet, but he could be an important part of saving the planet, which I guess is probably a better claim to fame anyway. The importance of his contribution could have been so much greater though if it hadn’t been for a few votes in Florida.

Let’s save water!

Everyone knows that taking a shower uses less water than having a bath, and is therefore friendlier to our planet.

Everyone also knows that flushing the toilet is a big waste of water.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

I think peeing in the shower has a bad image, it’s about time we accepted it as a form of multi-tasking which not only saves us time, but also saves water and helps protect our planet.

I believe when David Suzuki and Al Gore hear about this (which they surely will, I know they read my blog often) they will be impressed with my visionary approach to environmental issues and immediately make the peeing in the shower agenda part of their campaign to slow climate change.

Go on, pee in the shower, it’s the right thing to do.

Nucular Energy

On Tuesday night I went to another Food For Thought lecture, this time all about nuclear energy. It was presented very well by Alastair McIvor, B.Eng. who works at Chalk River for the NRC.

I came away from the lecture with a much firmer conviction that nuclear energy is a good solution to our energy needs. Alastair addressed all the commonly perceived problems and misconceptions about nuclear fission and offered all the advantages.

Here are some things I learned:

  • Normal nuclear reactors need:
    • fuel (usually Uranium)
    • a moderator (stuff to slow down the zippy neutrons so that the uranium molecules can catch them)
    • a coolant (because the process generates mucho heat).
    • something to absorb the extra neutrons flying around (usually cobalt).
  • The “useful” uranium is uranium 235, which is less than 1% of all mined uranium. The rest is uranium 238 which is only useful in fast breeder reactors.
  • Fast breeder reactors don’t have a moderator, as the neutrons have to go faster to break Uranium 238 apart.
  • Un-processed uranium is relatively harmless.
  • Most nuclear reactors use water or heavy water as a moderator (which doesn’t catch fire, even if you try really really hard).
  • Chernobyl used carbon as a moderator (which does catch fire, quite easily).
  • After cobalt has absorbed lots of flying neutrons, it becomes highly radioactive. These used radioactive cobalt rods are sold to medical companies to be used in machines which remove tumours using gamma rays.
  • Nuclear waste is dangerous, just as the waste from other energy production is dangerous, but there is a lot less of it, and it can be contained. The waste will also become useful again when we get better at using Uranium 238 as the fuel.
  • Canadian reactors use heavy water as a moderator, because a bunch of it ended up here during the 2nd world war. It costs $300 per kilogram.
  • Only 52 deaths were directly attributed to Chernobyl.
  • 4000 other cases may have been caused by Chernobyl fallout.
  • More than 30,000 people died after the Bhopal chemical plant accident.
  • Russia pays Canada to take away the enriched plutonium they have left from de-commissioned weapons. Canada will be using it to produce cheap electricity.
  • There is enough uraniam 235 to last us about 50 years.
  • If the switch to fast breeder reactors is made we will have enough uranium to last for centuries.

Metals, Diamonds and Hydrogen

Last night I went to the second in a series of eight Food for Thought lectures about Energy. This one was presented by Dr. Janusz Kozinski, a researcher at McGill who created the Energy & Environmental Research Laboratory.

Here are some things I learned:

  1. One way to explore Mars and come back again is to harvest energy from the surface of Mars. Energy is most abundant there in the form of aluminium and magnesium
  2. When water is heated to 374 degrees centigrade at a pressure of 218 atmospheres it becomes “supercritical”. Supercritical water is a good solvent. So good that reactors using supercritical water must be made from something tough, like diamonds or platinum. Supercritical water reactors can be used to break down organic compounds to produce hydrogen.
  3. A portable reactor now exists which can break down natural gas into hydrogen and carbon. This may be used in the near future residentially by feeding the hydrogen into a fuel cell to produce electricity. The carbon waste would have to be sold to make this cost-effective.
  4. Biomass such as willow, switchgrass or paper/pulp byproducts could be used to produce enough hydrogen to serve our energy needs without causing pollution. No efficient way has been found to do this yet.
  5. The large oil companies own most of the patents for hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Nobody’s Fuel

Last night I went to Macdonald Campus for the first of eight “Food for Thought” lectures about energy and fuel. The lecture was delivered by Douglas Lightfoot, a retired Mechanical Engineer and a member of the Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre at McGill.

Here are some things I learned:

  1. Sometime between now and 2040 we will start using more oil than we are producing.
  2. Two fifths of all fossil fuel is used to generate electricity, one fifth is used for transportation.
  3. There is a direct relationship between income and energy usage.
  4. Energy conservation helps, but not much.
  5. Improving energy efficiency helps, but not much.
  6. Ethanol is no good (it costs 1 unit of fossil fuel to make one unit of high grade ethanol).
  7. Kyoto doesn’t really work (much).
  8. The world uses over 450 exajoules of energy per year and rising.
  9. Over 380 exajoules of that comes from fossil fuels
  10. 1 exajoule = 28 billion litres of gasoline.
  11. Renewable sources provide less than 40 exajoules/year.
  12. Owning an SUV is the equivalent of owning four dogs.
  13. There is no viable alternative to fossil fuels at this time, except maybe nuclear fission.

Those statements are mostly based on solid scientific data, but 3, 4, 5, 7 and 13 are partly opinion based.