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Steve Clarke’s Posts

Policy, Uncertainty and Global Warming

The Australian today contains a link on its front page to an article entitled ‘Academic cool on warming’(,25197,23509775-2702,00.html) together with a link to a recent speech by the retired Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra Don Aitken entitled ‘A Cool Look at Global Warming’

( Aitken urges agnosticism regarding the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming. Aitken is no expert on climate science, his expertise lies in the fields of political science and history. However, his best points are political rather than scientific points, so this is not a reason to dismiss what he has to say out of hand. Aitken’s main contention is that the consensus view on the extent of the danger of climate change that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advocates is a political creation rather than a genuine consensus of scientists; and he is convincing in arguing that the IPCC consensus is most unlike scientific consensuses that have emerged over time and that it appears to be manufactured, at least in part, by political pressures. So it is wrong to call the IPCC case for anthropogenic global warming a received view in the same way that the Theory of Evolution or the Universal Law of Gravity is a received view. He also makes the good point that the evidential basis that underpins the IPCC consensus is dangerously over-reliant on predictions generated by models of the global climate. But reality is much more complicated than our simple models allow. We don’t understand the many ways in which causal factors that are relevant to creating the earth’s climate interact, and it is dangerous to presume that we do understand such matters.

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A National Health Database

      The Australian Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon has announced plans for a national health database. According to a report in The Australian today, the current version of these plans includes enabling patients to look up mortality rates for surgeons as well as rates of hospital-acquired infections and readmission rates. This development is seen by many as a response to a series of recent medical scandals in Australia, most notably the ‘Dr Death’ scandal at Bundaberg Base Hospital in Queensland. Predictably the Australian Medical Association is opposing these changes. Their reaction has been slammed by the Australian nurses union who have accused medical staff of ‘closing ranks over rogue surgeons’, according to Samantha Maiden, writing in The Australian.

    The current Australian Government proposal is far reaching but it is far from groundbreaking. It follows in the footsteps of similar proposals that have been implemented in the United Kingdom, over the past ten years, as well as some American precedents. Comparative cardiac surgeon’s performance data has been published on the internet by the United Kingdom Healthcare Commission since 2006. Visitors to can discover survival rates for coronary artery bypass grafts, aortic valve replacement surgery, and for all forms of heart surgery, for individual surgeons working at surgical units across the United Kingdom.

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Bagging the bag

Last month Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the British Government intended to compel supermarkets to charge customers for plastic bags. The Australian Government has threatened to take the attack on plastic bags even further. Late last year the new Australian Labor Government pledged to phase out plastic bag usage altogether. However, they have been unclear on how this might be achieved. Media reports that the Australian Government will introduce a levy of up to $1- per plastic bag have been rejected by the Australian Federal Environment minister Peter Garrett. Nevertheless the Australian Government remains committed to phasing out plastic bags.

      It might seem that, as the visible face of pollution, the plastic bag would win few friends, but late last week The Times reported that scientists and environmentalists, including an expert advisor to Greenpeace, have stood up to defend the plastic bag. It seems that a large part of the case against the plastic bag is based on faulty science. A widely-cited 2002 report to the Australian Government by Nolan-ITU in association with the RMIT Centre for Design and Eunomia Research and Consulting Ltd attributed the death of over 100,000 marine animals per year to plastic bags.

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Come Mr Branson Mon, Tally me Biofuel

A Virgin Atlantic flight between Heathrow airport London and Schiphol airport in the Netherlands made history yesterday, becoming the first commercial flight to be partly powered by biofuel. While three of the 747s tanks contained conventional fuel the fourth contained 20% biofuel. The biofuel was a mix of babassu oil and coconut oil. The Guardian reports that the mixture contained oil from 150,000 coconuts. Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic, described the flight as a ‘historic occasion’ and ‘… a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry’. However environmentalists do not seem to share Branson’s enthusiasm for coconut and babassu oil based flight. According to the BBC News the flight has been branded a publicity stunt, a gimmick, and ‘high-altitude greenwash’. Critics include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the World Development Movement.

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A Knee-Jerk Reaction?

An article was published in Science on Friday (8 February 2008) reporting the results of a study on the generation of energy via an ‘energy harvester’ mounted on the human knee. The authors of the article begin by noting that humans are a rich source of energy. Indeed it seems that the average person stores the same amount of energy in fat as a 1000kg battery. There have been previous attempt to harvest this energy, including a device that generates energy from the compression of the sole of the shoe and a device that generates energy by harnessing the vertical oscillations of a spring-loaded back pack. However, it seems that none of these are as effective as the new knee-mounted device, which generates an average 5 watts of electricity per knee-mounted device. This is ten times more effective than the shoe-worn alternative and more effective than the spring-loaded backpack, which weighs 38kg. Each knee-mounted device weighs 1.6kg. However, the devices studied are prototypes and researchers working on the project are hopeful of making energy harvesters which are smaller and lighter.

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Synthetic life

      Last Friday’s issue of Science contained a paper announcing the creation of a synthetic chromosome by a team of scientists headed up by the biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter. Venter is a very controversial figure. He was described as the ‘bête noire of the scientific establishment’ by Colin Blakemore in an article that appeared in The Observer on Sunday. Blakemore calls for a public debate to establish a regulatory framework for research on synthetic life. He suggests that in the absence of such a debate we may see legitimate concerns about the risks of synthetic life hijacked by religious organisations, such as the Catholic Church, who worry about scientists ‘playing God’. And religious organisations are not the only organisations that have had an emotional response to synthetic life. The Canadian biotechnology lobby organisation, the ETC group, who call for a moratorium on the release and commercialisation of synthetic life forms have a comic strip, prominently displayed on their website, which ends with the birth of Synthia, a ‘new species of bacterium with entirely human-made DNA’, replete with an evil-looking face and little horns on its head.

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