I just spent a fascinating couple of hours watching an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) documentary titled I Can Change Your Mind About..Climate.
Aside: Before that turns you off by making you think that the documentary lasts for hours, please understand that it can take me a long time to watch a show while preparing a blog entry. Rewinding, clipping and cutting for “fair use” sharing takes a lot more time that just watching and learning. The actual documentary runs for 59 minutes and 40 seconds – according to the video player on the site. It is apparently available for viewing, add-free, for anyone in the world right now. End Aside.
The documentary is based on an interesting triangulation model – it pits a young woman named Anna Rose against a man who recently retired (probably earlier than most people retire) named Nick Minchin. Anna is making a career as a climate change activist – while still in school she founded a group called Australian Youth Climate Coalition that has grown rapidly to include more than 70,000 members. She is now serving as the chair of that organization. Nick culminated a career as a Conservative Party politician by serving for 18 years in leadership positions in the Australian Senate.
The ground rules for the documentary were as follows: Each of the opponents in the debate were allowed to choose 7 people anywhere in the world who could be brought into the discussion to help persuade the other – and the audience. The trip to visit those people would last for thirty days. During the long stretches of travel between outsiders, Nick and Anna would have plenty of time to talk about what they know, what they have learned in the discussions and what they think the course of world action should be.
As the documentary narrator says early in the show:
Nick and Anna are divided by their age, their attitudes, and their politics. But they’ve both agreed to take part in a journey that might change their deeply held points of view.
There are several opinion pieces about the documentary that are worth reading for background information. Anna published a piece in The Age, a National Times publication, titled Climate change isn’t a plot, it’s science. Michael Ashley, a professor of astrophysics at University of New South Wales, published another one on The Conversation titled ‘I can change your mind’: if it’s experts you’re after, look elsewhere
I thought that the following two statements by the protagonists during the 6th minute of the documentary set the stage for my own interpretation of the story and provides part of my motive for promoting this video and highly recommending it to all of my friends and colleagues.
Nick: (6:13) Australia’s greatest, single most important competitive advantage has been access to cheap, reliable energy produced by coal. (Emphasis in the video.)
You don’t jeopardize that unless there is absolutely overwhelming evidence that you must do that to, you know, save the Australian nation.
Anna: (6:43) I think it is really important to understand the people who still do not accept the fact and to understand what it will take to change their minds, if they are open to change. And we need to be talking to them and can’t just ignore them.
The first stop on the world tour was at a family-owned farm where Anna spent many vacations while growing up. Anna’s uncle, a man who has been farming in the same location for more than 26 years, described how his operation measures soil temperature at consistent locations and planting depth to indicate when it is time to plant summer crops.
After more than two decades of farming, he has determined that he has been able to plant crops about three to four weeks earlier each year than when he first started. He also pointed out that the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is not a matter of debate; it is being measured with great accuracy an is increasing year after year. Nick responded to that with an attempt at humor, saying “Plant food”. The farmer, looked shocked and said it was no joking matter, with too much CO2 there are no plants.
I wish he had pointed out that farmers like to choose their fertilizers and application methods very carefully. They are focused on encouraging growth in beneficial, productive plants and spend just as much time and effort trying to slow down the growth of weeds. Atmospheric CO2 is a equal opportunity fertilizer; weeds get just as much benefit from its increase as food and revenue yielding crops.
The visit to the farm ended with the following statement:
Nick: (8:51) Nobody disagrees that the climate changes and is currently going through a warming phase. The question remains what is driving that and is there anything can we actually do about it. That’s the debate.
As is frequently the case when watching people on two ends of the political spectrum talk about climate change, I kept wanting to insert my thoughts into the discussion. There is something we can do about maintaining the benefits of our industrial, technological society while slowing emissions caused by burning fossil fuel at an increasing rate. The only hint I could find in the whole documentary of the “nuclear option” came in a very brief clip with a rather strange bit of narration over the video. Here is a commented version of that clip, I would appreciate your interpretation.
There are a number of additional segments in the documentary that may become fodder for additional posts, but in the interest of trying to maintain a good relationship with ABC, I want you all to go and watch the whole documentary. Just in case you are one who is pressed for time and want to see the bottom line first, here is a clip from near the end that I thought was especially important and worth additional commentary.
I believe that Enrico Fermi and his colleagues discovered a way to put little controllable “suns” inside of the same kinds of efficient, reliable heat engines (aka power stations) that currently produce electricity by converting the heat from burning coal, oil, natural gas and biomass.
Earth based nuclear reactors do not use exactly the same physical reaction as the sun does, but I would bet that 90% of the people on the street confuse fission and fusion most of the time. The basic similarity is that both produce heat from a mass to energy conversion in atomic nuclei, the incredibly dense bit of mass that is inside of all rather dispersed atoms.
When Mary Olson of the anti-nuclear NIRS says she favors nuclear reactors that are 93 million miles away, I like to think about the efficiency and reliability advantage of having the ability to put the equivalent of tiny versions of the sun in carefully engineered places where they will safely provide concentrated heat on demand.
I would love to talk to both Anna and Nick about the fact that we do not need R & D to find an emission free way to put something very similar to solar energy inside what is essentially a conventional power station.
We do not need to “change everything.” We just need to gradually replace more and more fossil fuel burning with atomic fission power. Nearly all of our current infrastructure either retains its value or has its value enhanced by replacing furnaces with reactors to provide the reliable heat. The wires keep carrying power, the computers, lights, refrigerators, TVs, hospitals, and factories all keep working 24 x 7 and the air just keeps getting cleaner. Less land is used for energy production and is more available for plants that naturally remove accumulated CO2 from the atmosphere.
Heck, Nick should be as happy about that change as anyone; his home has the potential to be even more dominant in the nuclear fuel supply market than it is in the export coal market. Australia is, after all, a country that contains about 25-30% of the world’s proven resources of uranium. I would bet that it is also well endowed with thorium, the other nuclear fuel.