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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Green power can save Earth from overheating

Clean technologies for our planet's salvation

by TOM RAND, Globe and Mail - Nov. 25, 2011

Here is a the preface excerpted from Tom Rand's crucial ecology book Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit (c)2010 Eco Ten Publishing.

It is sometimes claimed that we cannot do without fossil fuels. That is false.

When I first began writing this book, I didn’t think we could break the fossil fuel habit—not in one generation, and certainly not without a great deal of nuclear power and what is optimistically called “clean coal.” In exploring renewable technologies like large-scale solar, wind and geothermal, the engineer in me changed my mind. It is possible to change our energy use to 100% renewables. This book is a celebration of that idea.

But the pragmatic venture capitalist in me tempers that celebratory mood. To kick our fossil fuel habit, we’ll need to deploy resources on a scale not seen since World War II, generate a degree of international political co-operation beyond anything we’ve yet done, and at the same time develop a new set of economic rules that finally put a prohibitive price on carbon.

These are daunting challenges. Why do it?

There are lots of reasons to kick the fossil fuel habit: energy security; the moral cost of supporting undemocratic regimes that sit on the oil we use; the military cost, both in blood and cash, to keep the supply lines open; and getting a leg up on the competition in the next industrial revolution. Each of these is reason enough to kick the habit.

Talk to a climate scientist, though, and it fast becomes clear that one reason stands above all others: Severe climate change is coming, and it will not be pretty. It won’t just mean hotter summers, scarier storms and rising oceans—although that’s all true—but we’ll soon have trouble growing enough food to eat. The sense of restrained panic you hear in the voices of these learned men and women reveals more than the legion of scientific papers published on the subject.

The scientific community has known about this problem for decades. Even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—not exactly a shill for the environmental movement—recognized climate change as the greatest emerging threat to civilization in a speech to the UN General Assembly back in 1989, saying “climate change... could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way. ... It is life itself that we battle to preserve.”. We are now in the final innings. This is our last stand, the river card.

Climate change is not a political issue. It is neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative, corporate nor anti-corporate. It is a serious, practical problem affecting everyone—and it needs to be solved.

That we must eventually break the habit is clear, because fossil fuels are a finite resource. They will run out. That we must break the habit quickly is well established by the scientific community.

So, can we break the habit quickly? That is what I hope to help establish in this book.

I am not alone in this way of thinking. Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA Langley Research, says, “We have ways forward which... will work without... terribly time-consuming or expensive further technological developments. It’s simply a matter of giving up our current teddy bears, which we love to clutch, which is the conventional hydrocarbons, fossil carbon fuels, and [going] off into what we need to do to save ourselves.”

When humankind really wants to do something, our ingenuity, resources and determination are breathtaking. We put a man on the moon! We unlocked the power of the atom! We routinely build devices for our entertainment that are mind-bogglingly complex, and our industrial civilization and economic infrastructure is a system of interlocking components that rivals the brain as the most complex structure in the known universe.

We stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. This challenge represents our generation’s turn to carry the baton forward. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

How do we do it?

The sun that hits just 1% of the area of the Sahara desert contains enough energy to power the entire world. That same desert, irrigated with salt-water, could provide enough biofuel to replace all of the worlds energy needs. The wind in the American plains could power the entire nation. So, too, could the heat stored in the ground beneath our feet. An intelligent “Energy Internet” that manages and stores energy—just like the World Wide Web does data—lies just around the corner. There’s ample renewable energy; that’s not the problem.

But there’s no magic bullet. All renewables need to be developed on a massive scale. Enormous investments need to be made in transmission and storage, to deliver that energy where and when it’s needed. Conservation is an equal partner. Every watt of energy we don’t use is a watt of energy we don’t need to produce.

Back when I was a software entrepreneur, my hard-nosed business partner would often exclaim in an exasperated voice: “It’s all economics!” He’d trot this expression out whenever I proposed something that relied on forces other than money—good-heartedness, idealism, moral fiber. He had a point.

Money makes the world go ’round, and it’s money that needs to be deployed. So, how do we make the money flow away from fossil fuels? We can’t rely solely on goodwill or idealism.

One solution is to put a price on carbon emissions. Emitting carbon can no longer be free,—it cannot remain, in the words of one economist, an “externality.” Then, and only then, will capital begin to flow to renewables. But this solution is long and slow. No one is willing to shock the economy with steep, sharp increases in the price of carbon.

A second solution is to accelerate that capital flow, ensuring that lots of cheap capital is made available for renewable energy production. Most renewable energy is pretty much free once you’ve built the plant to capture it—nobody pays to make the sun shine or the wind blow. What does it cost to build the plant? It depends on how cheaply you can borrow money. A government-backed Green Bond—just like the Victory Bonds of World War II—is one way to engage all citizens in this project, not just venture capitalists like me and the bankers on Wall Street.

When the world’s banking system failed in 2008, governments around the world mobilized trillions of dollars almost overnight. The same scale of investment is required just to help us start to kick the fossil fuel habit. To ignite our imagination, I ask in each chapter the trillion-dollar question: What would you get if you invested $1 trillion? How many barrels of oil could you replace? What sort of scale of infrastructure could be built?

This level of investment is not fantasy. The International Energy Agency predicts that the world needs to invest more than $45 trillion in energy systems over the next 30 years, to both meet expected growth and reduce carbon emissions by half. The question is, how do we want to invest it? Do we continue to invest in melting tar for our energy, or do we harness the sun? Do we continue to rely on a 17th-century technology—coal—or do we greet the 21st century with a brand new start?

The third solution is to simply walk away from the existing energy base. We need to abandon our coal plants. Totally irrational from a free-market perspective, but necessary if we are to make this transition in time to save the planet. We could do that by drilling enhanced geothermal boreholes next to the coal plants, and replacing the boilers with heat-exchangers. It can be done.

When the microchip was invented, it changed the world. We are on the cusp of a similar economic and energy revolution. That revolution, though, will not come by itself. We need to stand up and make it happen. It will not come unless we want it badly enough, unless we work hard enough, unless we really commit ourselves to it.

To paraphrase the world’s most famous hockey hero, the great Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where the puck is.” By mid-century, our civilization must have broken the fossil fuel habit. Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit is a celebration of where we’re going and a clarion call to start heading in that direction now.

Follow Tom Rand on twitter @tomrand

Robocallgate may lead to fall election in Canada

While it is probable that the PCs can hold this one off until Summer, the fact that they stole many electoral ridings using illegal and unethical tactics means that the Governor General will likely have to order a new election before the year is out.

Considering that Guv Harper is trying to ram through the extremely unpopular, reactionary and draconian Bill C-10 and Bill C-30, both of which appear to have been written by pro-private prison lobbyists, a new election sooner rather than later means that Canada will be able to regain its character as a free and progressive country before it is too late.

This criminality may be shocking, disguising and abominable, however it may also be a blessing in disguise, as it will force a change of government much quicker than would have been the case otherwise.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Story behind Seeds, the play about Monsanto

by CHRIS NUTTALL-SMITH, The Globe and Mail

Nearly a decade ago, Annabel Soutar, a documentary playwright and theatre director based in Montreal, took her first deep dive into the life of a Saskatchewan grain farmer named Percy Schmeiser who had found himself in trouble with the law. Monsanto, the multinational seed and agricultural products company, had accused Mr. Schmeiser of growing its genetically modified Canola seeds without paying the necessary royalties – of violating the company’s patent rights. But rather than settling the case quietly, Mr. Schmeiser fought the company, claiming that the seeds had blown onto his field unwanted, and that in any case, Monsanto had no right to claim a patent on life.

After nearly three years of travelling the country, poring through court documents and sitting through arguments before Canada’s Supreme Court, Ms. Soutar wrote a play about the conflict, called Seeds, and she’s been reworking it ever since. The play is composed entirely of the words of real players in the case. A new production of Seeds opened in Toronto this past weekend, where it is showing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. (An earlier iteration was produced in 2005 in Montreal.) We caught up with Ms. Soutar to ask about her take on the conflict’s enduring legacy, and whether she feeds GMO-based foods to her kids.

You spent a lot of time as you were researching talking with scientists. How often did you find scientists who would raise questions about the safety of genetically modified organisms?

It’s very difficult. Most of the scientists you talk to who have funding and have some sort of legitimacy in the debate are pro-genetic modification. They’ve got money from companies like Monsanto, often to help them develop new products. How are decisions being made in science about truth versus the carrot of funding for research? In order to really test this stuff and really look into it, it requires a lot of money and a lot of time, and it’s very hard right now to get funding to look at possible adverse side effects. The other side has been totally underfunded. That said, I didn’t travel to Europe, where the debate is very different.

The story came to the public’s attention at a time when most Canadians didn’t know much about genetically modified foods. What impact did this case have on Canadians’ perception of GMOs?

Even when this case went to the Supreme Court and it was on TV and in all the newspapers, I don’t think the Canadian public was saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to be careful of GM foods.’ The case had a much larger impact in Europe and in India, but ironically, North America was completely ambivalent about it. For whatever reason we just weren’t politicized around it. We’ve certainly learned much more about genetically modified foods since then and I think it’s come more to the public consciousness. The question is, are we doing anything about it? How do we animate what is a very, very dense issue so that people can face it? It’s important for the public to engage on this.

Throughout your play, the characters often refer to this case as a story of David and Goliath. How likely are we to see more cases like this in the future?

I think Monsanto was very surprised by how much public attention Percy Schmeiser brought to this issue of GM foods. This is not something that they anticipated. They were not expecting it to get all the way to the Supreme Court. They lost a huge public relations battle because of this case and they continue to do so. But legally, this case was the moment where their patent became enforced. They won. They won 5-4, and I think around the world, people said, ‘My God. In Canada if this guy was not able to overturn this, to have Monsanto’s patent overturned given how much money he spent and how much trouble he went to, it’s going to be very hard for anyone to stand up again.’

As I was reading your script, the main character, Percy Schmeiser, just came off as kind of weaselly to me. It isn’t clear by the end if maybe he did just plant those seeds and then lie about it. What kind of impact did that have on the case’s ability to transcend Canadians’ ambivalence?

For me, that was gold in terms of storytelling. It’s a much more interesting and theatrical story if someone who you think is a perfect hero at the beginning of the play turns out to potentially have fabricated this entire story. I love endings like that, where you’re just not sure, because it forces the viewer to do their own research, to make their own assessment. You haven’t wrapped it all up perfectly for them, so it throws the questions back onto their plate.

But was it frustrating to activists who got behind him? Absolutely, because they knew he was the perfect vehicle for their story. Everybody responded to the farmer versus Monsanto. Yet you didn’t have lobby groups getting 100 per cent behind him until the case got all the way to the Supreme Court, and the case got away from the question of whether he lied.

You have two daughters. How far out of your way do you go to avoid feeding them foods that are made with GMO products?

Not that far. Nothing is labelled in Canada – in fact it’s not permitted for companies to write on a food label that something’s genetically modified. And at this point, have I found the scientific evidence to prove that it has a direct consequence on human health? No. I make choices every day. And I try to make the right choices. But I typically don’t have the information I need to make the right choices, so I have to ask, how far out of my way am I going to go? I’m a little lost along with everybody.

Heart attack symptoms different for females

Heart attack with no chest pain likelier in women, study says


Women, especially younger women, are more likely than men to show up at the hospital with no chest pain or discomfort after having a heart attack – and they are also more likely to die than men of the same age, according to a U.S. study.

That lack of symptoms can result in delayed medical care and differences in treatment, said researchers, whose findings appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

He noted that while the results are based on a study of more than a million heart-attack patients, they are still preliminary. But, he added, they do challenge the notion that chest pain and discomfort should be considered “the hallmark symptom” for all heart attacks.

“If our results are in fact true, I would argue that rather than the one-size-fits-all symptom message, we also have to tailor that message to say that women less than 55 are also at higher risk for atypical presentation,” Dr. Canto said in an interview.

Such “atypical presentation” can include symptoms such as unexplained shortness of breath, or pain in areas including the jaw, neck, arms, back and stomach.

Dr. Canto and his colleagues analyzed medical records in a national U.S. database of heart-attack patients from 1994 to 2006, including about 1.1 million people treated at close to 2,000 hospitals.

They found that 31 per cent of male patients, and 42 per cent of female patients, didn’t have any chest pain or discomfort.

The likelihood of this sort of “atypical presentation” differed most between younger women and younger men, the researchers said.

Women also tend to be older than men when they have a first heart attack. In this study, the average age difference was seven years.

Women under 45 were 30 per cent more likely than men in their age group to present without chest pain. That dropped to 25 per cent between the ages of 45 and 65, and the difference all but disappeared after the age of 75.

A similar pattern, with smaller differences between the sexes, was seen in the likelihood of death.

Almost 15 per cent of women died in the hospital after their heart attack, compared to about 10 per cent of men. Younger women with no chest pain were almost 20 per cent more likely to die than male counterparts.

But after age 65, the women’s risk fell below that of men.

At least part of that difference could be due to lack of action by patients and doctors when symptoms are unusual, said Patrick O’Malley, an internist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

“We tend not to think of heart disease in younger women if they’re not having chest pain … and therefore we’re not going to be as aggressive. It does delay treatment,” he said.

“Because it’s not chest pain, they’ll be coming later” to a hospital, added Dr. O’Malley, who did not take part in the study.

Dr. Canto said that women, especially those who may be predisposed to heart attacks because they have diabetes, a family history of heart disease, or are smokers, should know that a lack of chest pain doesn’t rule out the possibility of a heart attack – which researchers said was actually true for both sexes.

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