Steven McKiernan writes: Re. “One in a thousand years hyperbole?” (yesterday, item 11). Christian Kerr’s article shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the information he is presenting. A one-in-a-thousand year drought doesn’t mean it happens once every thousand years; it is a statistical probability based on extending the range of existing data. In other words, it is saying that in any one year there is a one-in-a-thousand (or 0.1%) chance that a drought of this severity would strike Australia. It could happen again next year, or never again. This standard measure of probability is used for calculations for all engineered structures in the world – from buildings to oil rigs to wind farms. You don’t need a thousand years of data to calculate the one-in-a-thousand probability. It is absolutely nothing like the use of “world class” in a ministerial statement. The scary result of this calculation is that based on historical records it is very unlikely that a year this dry would occur (i.e. 0.1% likely). It is a very good indication that things are not going well with our climate; that this may not be an isolated drought but a permanent dry change. I advise Christian to read the Australian Department of Environment and Heritage, Australian Greenhouse Office, CSIRO report “Climate change scenarios for initial assessment of risk in accordance with risk management guidance” – available here.

Eugene Dagher writes: As a very new subscriber to Crikey I have come to realise one thing very quickly. Christian Kerr doesn’t know much about anything. His comment in his article today titled “One in a thousand years hyperbole” that “one in 1000 years” is “a spin-doctor’s descriptor designed to highlight whatever follows” and is “neither quantifiable nor scientific” further highlights this. Quite simply the reference to the drought being a one in one thousand year event is simple probability mathematics – it’s called a “recurrence interval” and is defined as the “time interval in which an event can be expected to occur once on the average” – events such as droughts, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and even meteorite impacts. That’s not too hard to grasp, is it? Scientists and insurance companies use mathematical formulas to calculate these recurrence intervals all the time. Christian Kerr reminds me of a spoilt brat who starts arguments (knowing full well he is wrong) just for the sake of being difficult.

Bill Chandler writes: I am a little bemused by the overexposure (read boring) of the Kerr/Greens debate, and can only assume that a deep psychological force is in play (my theory: Christian’s parents insisted that he wear green as a child, and he still resents it). However, spot on Christian for your clarity in understanding statistical probability theory, recognising that the “1000 year drought” quip is absolute hyperbole and should be put in the same wastepaper bin as Fran Bailey’s proposal for a sun umbrella over the Great Barrier Reef.

Allan Hansard, Deputy CEO of the National Association of Forest Industries, writes: NAFI would like to provide some information is response to the figures quoted in The Age and also in Crikey’s “State of the planet” section yesterday (item 18). Recently released statistics from the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation (FWPRDC) show that, in 2004, Australia’s commercial forests and tree plantations were responsible for the sequestration (sucking in) of 43.7 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere (roughly, plantations 21 million, commercial forests 22 million). To put this in terms of cars on the road, the industry sequestered the same amount of CO2 emitted by the entire Australian fleet of cars. That is ten million cars (average four tonnes of CO2 per vehicle per year / 43.7 million tonnes sequestered by production forests). NAFI isn’t sure how the Wilderness Society came to its figures. It must assume that as soon as a tree is harvested, all carbon stored within it is “evaporated” and added to the atmosphere. However, the industry harvests forests to create useful products such as paper, furniture, houses, and musical instruments, which are all carbon stores we use (and live in) everyday. These figures are also relevant to other industries. Take agriculture for example, Australia’s second highest emitter, responsible for 90 million tonnes of CO2-e (CO2 equivalent) per year, second only to stationary energy. Cattle alone emit over 60 million tonnes of this CO2-e. Each cow emits three tonnes of CO2-e a year, so forestry is offsetting emission of 11 million head of cattle or half Australia’s herd of cattle.

Geoff Russell writes: Re. “State of the planet” – logging and cars. It’s easy to be surprised by relative pollution figures, especially greenhouse emissions. Here’s my personal favourite. Our domestic ruminants (sheep and cattle) produce about 3.0 million tonnes of methane per annum (Australian Greenhouse office 2003). The impact of that is normally said to be the same as about 63 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent because methane has 21 times the impact. But this impact is averaged over the next 100 years. If you are interested in the next 20 years (and I know I am!), then the appropriate multiplier is much higher – 62 (IPCC report Ramaswamy 2001). Hence during the next 20 years, our sheep and cattle will have more of an impact on the climate with their 186 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, than ALL our coal fired power stations which only put out 180 megatonnes (as reported by AGO 2003) of CO2. And with the launch of the CSIRO Diet Book 2, these emissions could go much higher.

Irfan Yusuf writes: Re. “The Australian isn’t lynching a Sheik, just reporting the news” (yesterday, item 20). Yesterday, the opinion editor of The Oz Tom Switzer told us the world is divided along neat ideological lines between two allegedly monolithic entities of “conservative Islam” and “Western modernity”. Hence dangerously sexist attitudes of an irrelevant imam become part of this apocalyptic ideological struggle. Switzer was present at the CIS Big Ideas Forum when the venerable Owen Harries gently castigated Mark Steyn for claiming a monolithic West existed. Harries correctly noted the intense rivalry and resentment underscoring relations between the EU and the United States. Harries isn’t the first Western thinker to point out the diversity within Muslim cultures and Islamist political movements. Indeed, many (if not most) scholars of modern Islamist movements argue that the ideological basis of groups like al-Qaida is inherently modernist and heavily influenced by Western political thinking. Further, many neo-classical Muslim theologians state that much Islamist political thinking represents religious heresy. Switzer’s arguably narrow ideological approach means his ability to recognise emerging Muslim voices is open to question, especially where such voices don’t make a neat fit into his misunderstanding of the enormous variations in both Western and Muslim cultures. That isn’t to say that Australian contributors (Muslim or otherwise) to The Oz on such issues have been useless. Apart from Irshad Manji (rejected by even the most “progressive” Muslim writers), The Oz’s commissioned contributors listed by Switzer have made important contributions. Arguably this has been in spite of and not because of Switzer’s simplistic assumptions about the West and the rest. Still, Switzer at least is trying to understanding the issue. That’s more than can be said for FoxNews. And it isn’t up to Switzer or anyone else at The Oz or any other newspaper to deal with Hilaly. Primary responsibility rests with Muslim leaders themselves. And given Hilaly’s views on sexual violence are held by so many in mainstream Australia, it’s high time we as a broader Australian community focussed on the need to eliminate violence against women. That means focussing on unfortunate attitudes held by all prominent people. It also means focussing on all perpetrators. Turning this into a sectarian wedge issue by focussing on one set of perpetrators effectively involves ignoring a much larger set of victims.

Guy Rundle writes: Sandy Culkoff from the ABC corrects me (yesterday, comments) for suggesting that under new editorial guidelines, anti-bias measures will have to be implemented series by series, rather than across platforms, which s/he claims to be the case. If that’s true I’m happy to hear it, by which of course I mean, bugger. My understanding of the new guidelines – which seem yet to be publicly available in full – is that “anti-bias” measures will be implemented across a number of programmes, rather than a single programme – “programme” in this sense being ambiguous. And my information is that key programmes will be yoked together – LNL and Counterpoint etc, for the purposes of “bias accounting”. If I’m wrong I’ll gladly admit it, but I suspect the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. In the meantime, if they’ve been drafted, why can’t we have the guidelines easily available on the front page of the ABC website?

Jamnes Danenberg writes: Re. Alona Hunter’s comments on hemp (yesterday, comments). The suggestion that governments haven’t previously put money into developing alternative sustainable sources of paper from hemp is demonstrably false, although correspondent Alona Hunter could be forgiven for not realising it. As far back as 1916 the US Dept of Agriculture published research praising the potential of hemp plants to produce paper from the inner pith (or hurds) of hemp – comprised of between 65-85% cellulose. In fact they showed over 25,000 different products from dynamite to liquid fuels could be easily (and more sustainably) manufactured using hemp or other annual fibre crops or agricultural by-products, as alternative cellulosic feedstocks (see here). Both the US and Nazi governments recognised the strategic & military value of hemp fibre during WWII and encouraged its cultivation. Unbelievably, an industrial hemp crop that takes 120 days to produce an equivalent amount of fibre as a forest in 120 years, (and uses a fraction of the water) is currently still deemed illegal in Australia – although it is legal in many other countries including China, Canada and the UK. The fact that it has no value as a drug whatsoever highlights our economic and environmental myopia. A plant that could save the world – and we ban it!

Lisa Crago, HEMP candidate for 2006 South Australian Legislative Council, writes: Alona Hunter raised an interesting question yesterday (comments): Why hasn’t any government anywhere put money into developing techniques for turning [industrial] hemp into quality printing paper? Maybe she should look up the Australian Greens policy website and search for their policy on replacing old growth forest use with industrial hemp. Oh, that’s right, they don’t have one. So if the Greens are not interested in this, I doubt that anyone else in government is either.

Robert Johnson writes: Charles Richardson’s report in Tuesday’s Crikey (item 16), “Marxist Comeback in Nicaragua”, notes that Daniel Ortega may lose a runoff because of the split conservative vote between Montealegre and Rizo. He also notes that Ortega’s Sandinistas lost the 1990 election. If my memory is correct, the 1990 election was characterised by something akin to a Sandinista versus US-bankrolled coalition of everyone else, with the Sandinista’s falling narrowly short of victory in their own right. This gives an appearance in Nicaraguan politics over the years of Sandinista versus anti-Sandinista forces, with the extent of cooperation amongst the latter fragmenting, US interference notwithstanding. And we shouldn’t forget that the Sandinista’s conducted democratic national elections in the mid-80s too, widely endorsed as reasonably fair in the circumstances (US meddling in fomenting armed rebellion) but repudiated by the US Administration in view of the “wrong” outcome. Like Guatemala and Chile before and others since, the USA has supported the imposition of its form of democracy elsewhere only to the extent that the people are smart enough to vote the right way.

John Kotsopoulos writes: Re. Interest rates. “Housing interest rates now after the most recent increase this morning will still be lower than they were at any time in the 13 years of the Hawke and Keating government, when infamously housing interest rates hit 17%,” according to Mr Howard. What a load of tripe. In case the old boy doesn’t know the difference between a real interest rate and a nominal interest rate, let me elaborate: A 17% interest rate in an environment when world and Australian inflation is running at 14% is less onerous than a 7.5% interest rate when inflation is at 4%.

Andrew McMillan writes: Re Prime Ministerial philandering (yesterday, item 7), John Gorton’s face was mashed in a prang in a Hurricane, not a Spitfire. If Bob Hulands couldn’t get that right, why should we believe anything else he says?

Diana Simmonds writes: Re. Melbourne Cup. While Australian racing remains obsessed by sprints and tender-legged babes (except for one Tuesday in November) it’s always going to be a lottery and a mug’s game when it comes to stayers. The Slipper is the problem: it’s meant 30 years of one-eyed breeding for youth and speed over distances that could actually be covered by a decent Persian runner (we’re talking Tabriz rather than someone with their sights set on the New York marathon). Meanwhile, the glorious Makybe Diva only served to divert attention: she came from the limestone grasses and salt breeze of Port Lincoln; no wonder she could go the distance. And she just doesn’t count in any survey of well-bred horseflesh: she’s the one-in-a-thousand-year drought-breaker, as her trainer observed on the occasion of her third straight Cup.

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Peter Fray

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