Saturday, 25 August 2007

Energy, Climate, the Environment and the Ballot Box

The idea for this post was kicked off when I read a recent article in Neucleonics Week (subscription required). The article reported on an analysis conducted by Murray Goot, a social scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney, of nuclear related public opinion polls [more than 40 since 2005]. His findings were first released at a seminar on Australia's nuclear energy policy held at Flinders University in Adelaide in June.

After analysing more than 80 questions it should come as no great surprise that the outcome of the polls was dependent on how the questions were framed. Where the questions preceded by information on global warming or the complexities of high level nuclear waste? France's cheap, reliable power or North Korea's recent weapons test? Etc.

While the analysis confirmed a significant concern within Australia about Climate Change [consistently increasing from the 1990s], the overall conclusion is as follows:
Contrary to assertions of some nuclear advocates that Australians are dropping their opposition to nuclear power out of concern for climate change, Goot said, additional opinion research may indicate instead that public opinion on this issue "may not be changing." And despite evidence of widespread concern about climate change, he said, there is no conclusive evidence "that this new and potentially compelling way of framing the [nuclear energy] issue is making it easier for public opinion in favour of nuclear power to be mobilized."
Then later in the week I read about the rift within the Coalition. At least one of the Nationals candidates stated her disagreement with the PM's openness to consider a Nuclear Australia. But such political 'rifts' are not confined to the Coalition. Consider the comments of Labor MP Tom Kenyon. Kenyon more than impiles that provided nuclear power can be demonstrated to be an economical choice, it should at least be considered. Not quite in line with many recent comments from Mr. Rudd.

Now toward the end of the week I'm reading of the PM's support for local plebiscites on nuclear power. While this may be interesting, I'm not sure how relevant it is. And as we see above, it may weigh heavily on framing - with those pulling up short on votes crying foul in the end [if such plebiscites ever happen].

One may think that some will show their true opinions with respect to energy, nuclear power, climate change and the environment during the upcoming election [assuming these issues are enough to sway some voters]. However, if one is 'voting in consideration of the environment', or 'in support of tangible action to mitigate the predicted impact of climate change' to whom should their precious vote be given?

Considerable effort has been devoted to nuclear during this campaign by both Howard and now Rudd. Not long ago, Labor was decrying the Coalition for considering an expensive ad campaign about nuclear, but read this article from the Sydney Morning Herald:
Labor's anti-nuke campaign is simple, based on six words: "Where do the nuclear reactors go?" Its polling has shown the potency of the scare, which it is not letting up on. It is currently running a TV ad in Queensland exploiting local fears: "[Howard] refuses to talk about a list of possible sites for reactors that includes Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Mackay, Townsville, the Sunshine Coast, even Bribie Island."

Labor will continue to go on the front foot by putting the frighteners into everyone. But Sue Page is less concerned than she was, after making what she describes as her "pre-emptive strike".
But, if elected, what is Labor proposing to do about climate change? About Australia's consumption and supply of HUGE amounts of coal - significantly contributing to a global environmental quagmire [and - need I repeat - a genuine concern of a consistent and growing number of Australians]?

The answer is, "Not all that much". The Coalition is accused of proposing nuclear power, and backing that up now with plebiscites - both of which, as the Herald points out - coming to fruition long after Howard is retired. Labor, however, is tossing up some targets and spicing that up with catchy, populist lingo such as 'renewables', 'distributed power systems' and technical irrelevance such as how many years Australia could be powered if we could just capture the sunshine that falls on the country for one day. Let's face it; if Labor had confidence in a credible nuke-free solution 'Rudd et. al' would be promoting it in detail. I suspect if Labor is elected, they will proceed to generate, as their time in office progresses, a list of actions and accomplishments. Each will sound impressive [incentives for solar hot water, the death of the incandescent bulb, etc.] but the overall impact on emissions will be far from anything required to achieve those targets; which could, themselves, get pushed further and further to the horizon as we wait with baited breath for the salvation of 'research'.

If I were in the fossil fuel business, I don't think I could dream of better strategies - from both Labor and the Coalition; who, together, are shifting the debate away from very tough issues related to coal and fossil emissions in general.

Ironically, a lot of the research dollars seem destined for coal - as scientists work to 'green it up'. We should admit that there is considerable capital investment in coal related infrastructure within Australia [and many other countries]. Industries as well as governments can't really be expected to redirect all that capital on the spot. But the experts say tangible progress on emissions reductions is needed - and SOON. To put too much faith in the eventual payoff of some type of clean coal technology [as an ever increasing number of plants burn away] carries with it considerable risk.

With respect to the vote [at least on the subject at hand]. I look for an answer about 'how and when' the emissions would be reduced - energy security not being an issue here as it is in other countries. With nuclear, I can see how it will happen. The technology is proven. Examples exist all around the world. In Europe, for instance, every country meeting their Kyoto targets has adopted nuclear power. ALL countries without nuclear power have FAILED to meet these targets [see also this post from Ruth at We Support Lee].

Without the objective consideration of nuclear, I see only politics and a lot of eventual finger pointing.

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